I had a friend who used to say that the more times you used “fine” to describe your day, the less fine it was. I find that to be true only about half the time. Generally, if my husband asks how I am or how my day was and I answer FINE with no other information, he takes a deep breath, turns on his heel, and burrows into this little space he’s made in the back of the linen closet where he proceeds to curse The Gods for ever putting him in the path of the crazy woman throwing crockery around the kitchen rather than just getting in there and MAKING HIM A DAMN PIE. But, you know, everyone’s experience is different and special.
This morning another friend commented that when, “Oh, that's hilarious,” is said in conversations between people who are not close friends, it usually means, "Oh, that is really not hilarious at all."
Being from The South, I am well aware of this phenomenon. For example, someone–Fanny Flagg? If not, it should have been–once said that bless your heart is actually Southern for go to hell. I don’t really go that far, but bless your/his/her/their heart is not, indeed, usually meant as the sincere desire for your heart to be touched with the special dew and unicorn tears of a true blessing. I often find it to mean something more along the lines of, Get on with your story, Myrtle, it’s terrible Wayne fell off the barn into that vat of hog innards, but I’ve got a roast in the oven.
In the Southern U.S., emphasis is everything. Sort of like Mandarin Chinese. The whole meaning changes with a shift of stress or arch of an eyebrow. BLESS. YOUR. HEART. is often super-secret-double-probation code for Jesus, God, if I have to hear about that damn weenie dog of hers piddling on the new rug ONE MORE TIME, I’m gonna stick hot pokers in my eyes and rip my ears off with Lloyd’s pipe wrench. You know, or something close to that.
Occasionally, like at bridge club, talk among my grandmothers’ friends would turn to things like how the new preacher at the Methodist church had a wife who wore diamond cocktail rings before 5 o’clock and that she had also been heard to order a double vodka rocks with extra lime at the Country Club—for lunch. My grandmothers, both of them, tended to respond to such talk by saying, I don’t know her very well (Ah don’t no huh verah well, in the case of my paternal grandmother). This was understood to mean that it might be true the new preacher’s wife was an alcoholic, social climbing tramp, but they would reserve judgment until they witnessed an event such as her falling face-first into the punch bowl at Wednesday tea after having been spied sucking back bottles of vanilla extract in the church kitchen.
I just stopped by for a second is a tricky one. It can either mean, I want it to seem like I just happened to pop over with this recipe for stuffed peppers, but I really want to corner you for two hours about that family that just moved in down the street who keep a camper shell in their front yard, and could we get Code Enforcement out here to fine them? Or it could mean, I’m not going to stand here any longer than I have to, but it would be rude of me not to give you some of this squash that you know I’ve been growing because you spend all afternoon at your window watching every move we make, you crusty old biddy.
I think I speak pretty clearly when I need to. Were my husband here, he would be jumping up and down and trying not to start screaming about my rather elastic use of the word “clearly”. I’ll tell you this, I’d rather read between the lines of Southern politesse than to try to decode my father who likes to drop such gems as ugly as a turkey turd on a pump handle. What the hell is that?