The Meaning Of Interesting Southern Idioms – Part 1

One of my older cousins always says this to signal some way of doing things in the past when she was younger.

The Meaning Of Interesting Southern Idioms – Part 1
Photo by saeed karimi / Unsplash

Revised: June 18, 2024

In my life journey living in Atlanta, I have heard some astonishing expressions that I often wondered about their true meanings and how they will impact business and personal relationships. Sometimes, I try to use some of them as a form of camaraderie with people I meet. More recently, I have given up since I often get them wrong—sometimes to embarrassing results.

I have heard colleagues and associates say phrases that seemed innocuous but always had a deeper alternative, often ominous, meaning. They are probably unfamiliar with the origin of their colloquialisms, but they understand the meaning. It was a lesson in human behavior worth examining. It’s a curious way to understand the idiosyncrasies and value in relationships. Here are some interesting Southern idioms, according to what I could find.

Now, I am not keeping track of where I have heard these. While most of them I have heard are from the Southern States of America, others could come from elsewhere. Sometimes, I hear them from people who have lived here long. Other times, it’s from people who are transplants. I think it’s important for the transplants to understand the depth of the idioms and what they might mean. Most are deceptive, like an animal whose smile is really bearing teeth of danger rather than an indication of friendship. Such understandings are vital to be able to conduct business properly. See my other blogs on business-related subjects.

”To Throw Someone Under The Bus”

When someone betrays the trust of a friend, family, associate, or colleague for self-gain, they “thrown them under the bus.” The stimulus is often a perceived self-gain, protection from embarrassment, an implicit prejudice, or selfish convenience. The perpetrator values their own gain or protection more than the welfare of any future relationship of the sacrificed person. Sometimes, they expect the sacrificed person to accept their actions for what the perpetrator perceives as a greater cause. A former boss once revealed that he blamed me for a large, unpopular national trade policy decision despite being his choice and under his authority. He proclaimed that he needed to protect his political career. Unfortunately for me, he felt I could get over the consequences more easily. He, therefore, “threw me under the bus.”

The phrase evokes violent and even murderous images and intent. A similar version is “throwing her/him to the wolves.” The idea is that someone is going down in destruction. It’s not going to be them, but likely you. So, you select a candidate to feed into the system. Wolves or the crushing weight of the bus with passengers filling the system. Meanwhile, the “pusher”—the person doing the throwing—can escape during the distraction. Since they are saving themselves at someone else's expense, their emotions may range from being unempathetic to glee at their wit despite the unjustified destruction.

“I Just Have To Outrun Everyone Else”

On an open jeep safari in Durban, I mentally calculated that I could outrun most, if not all, of the other tourists and conference delegates during a tour of an open dry river bed, where a pride of lions rested in the shade of some 300 yards away. This memory reminded me of the survival instincts of this idiom. Some account the origin from sports, and others say it’s from British politicians. In the corporate world, eventually, the truth is revealed. It may be too late to save the already wounded sacrificial lamb by then. The person loses credibility as being someone trustworthy. Holding the high road is likely the best option to save face since retaliation never helps. Watch out for a business associate who does this, even slightly, to another colleague because your time will come no matter your level.

“Bless Your Heart”

This is a disguised insult. The person who says it gives the impression that they are too high class to be evil. Your inferior intelligence is assumed based on whatever implicit bias they harbor. Therefore, they recite this sugar-coated insult, which means the person is considered an idiot or simpleton. I started hearing this when one associate would highlight how another was, in their opinion, incompetent in their work. “Aw, bless his heart,” they would say when a colleague screwed up on some project. It’s often said with a fake smile or pity, like a mask of pleasantness or care. Typically, an observant person upon whom the idiom is directed loses faith in their business associate. Depending on the occasion, this idiom has slightly less insulting tones.

My view is that it comes from a Bible Belt-type of opining on someone’s actions, from “God bless you,” which is absolutely positive, to dripping with sarcasm like, “isn’t that sweet,” meaning it’s foolish, to “I pity you, you poor fool,” as an extreme and open insult. It’s often not said to the person’s face if it’s meant to be extremely insulting. I have heard less insulting versions, usually in the form of pity for my unfamiliarity with some culture or behavior. More extreme, sugar-coated insults include, “look what she likes,” “God loves her,” and “in her own way.” “She is beautiful in her own way. God love her.” Finally, if the opinion is she dresses like a prostitute, “look what she likes.”

Caribbean Version

I found myself saying to a friend the other day, “do God bless you…” This is an admonition to be careful and do the right thing someone (normally the person saying it) advises you to do so that God will bless you. At least, that’s my take on the expression. My grandmother would tell me as a child, “do God bless you, don’t fall out of that tree.”

On The Low-Down vs. On the Down-Low

The low-down is to let someone know what’s happening discretely. “Let me give you the low-down on why they left church for good.” The low-down is an action done secretly and known only by a few people. The other, down-low, usually has a sexual connotation, especially in gossip about a sexual relationship. In fact, the term means a brown or black gay or bisexual man who hides his sexuality, perhaps through a heterosexual marriage or having a publicly displayed relationship with a woman. I found books on the subject on Amazon for those further interested in this topic. In researching this blog, I tripped into a rabbit hole of discussion on this “down-low” topic, more than I bargained for.

Trying to fit in culturally, I tried to use the DL term at work with my colleagues. I was way off course. So, they corrected me. They somehow did not go into the details I came across, so I had no idea for years before this blog. The vulnerability of a brown and black sub-culture seems extremely complex, probably a psychological-sociological study of American culture. These were not phrases common to the Caribbean when I grew up there. We were likelier to “call a spade a spade” and not hide behind false niceties.

“You’re So Precious”

Like ‘bless your heart,’ ‘you’re so precious’ is meant to be a disguised insult. It’s loaded with sarcasm and meant to be offensive to the subject. It assumes the listener is too unintelligent to appreciate the offense behind the smile. Again, the perpetrator means to inject offense while maintaining their appearance of high esteem and dignity. This is another passive-aggressive way to call someone an idiot. I have heard this used interchangeably with “bless your heart.”

“How Nice For You”

The person saying this is unhappy with the positive event or reward for you. It is a response when someone boasts about positive things happening to them, often without thought that the other person may not be receiving such an award, or may be envious, or just not as excited at the person’s good fortune. You tell your colleague you have a new job in Paris where you are paid a nice six-figure salary and a great team to work with, plus three months off annually, with pay. You get a feeble, “how nice for you” or "it must be nice."

It’s usually not worth engaging with the person who commented. However, you should “read the room” and know the temperature or atmosphere. This can especially be so if the person saying it has a selfish reputation or is insensitive about how happy you are for your accomplishment. Paying attention to how people react to your good fortune is vital in helping you to keep that good fortune. They may also be experiencing bad fortune simultaneously, so the envy digs deep!

"Back In The Day"

A former boss once revealed that it can go either way, meaning that back in the old days, things were better or worse. It’s just a phrase of nostalgia.


This is short for “you all.” Saying it aims to include a group. “Y’all” is a second-person plural pronoun that occurs mostly in the Southern region of the USA. It eliminates the vagueness caused by the Standard English “you” since “you” does not distinguish between singular and plural. However, ‘Y’all’ should be used carefully. Many have used the term and made it worse by adding ‘people’ to signify a group of people, usually excluding the speaker, with some behavior or physical trait attached to them.

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