Rodney, the reigning patriarch of our family, loves sorghum syrup which, in the mountains, is called “soggum syrup.”
During one Sunday-after-church dinner, Louise had made a batch of hot, buttermilk biscuits. So when she offered choices of two desserts, Rodney spoke up and said, “I’ll just have soggum syrup and biscuits.”
Dutifully, like the good wife and hostess she is, she went to the pantry, retrieved a jar that had been bought from some mountaineer at a roadside stand somewhere and handed it to him. He pried open the stuck top from the Mason quart jar and poured it into a saucer. Then he scooped out a big lump of butter, dropped it into the syrup and mashed it up real good. He took a biscuit, broke off a piece and sopped up the butter-laden syrup.
Pure pleasure covered his face. “Hmmm. That’s the best dessert in the world.”
Now, sopping and mashing are two words that belong exclusively to the rural South. You will never hear a Rockefeller (not even the former governor of Arkansas) talk about sopping and mashing. You will never hear Poet, the scion of Mississippi Delta royalty, use such common words. When first I ventured out into world different from that of my upbringing, I began to learn how much our language differed from those who were raised in more refined confines.
Once when I was working in NASCAR and Bill Elliott was hotter than a firecracker on the Fourth of July, I happened to be hanging around while he was interviewed by a Sports Illustrated writer for a coveted cover story.
The reporter, naive to the particulars of stock car racing, asked Bill, then known as the fastest man alive, “How do you go so fast?”
Bill grinned in his aw-shucks way and shrugged. “I just mash the pedal all the way to the floor board and hang on.”
Perfect answer, it seemed to me.
The big city reporter, he from New York City, was confounded (a Southern word for mystified or puzzled). He shook his head. “What does ‘mash’ mean?”
Now, it was our turn to be confounded. Our eyes bugged, mouths dropped and we stared for a moment at the reporter then looked at each other and slowly shook our heads.
Bill tilted his head to one side and asked, “You don’t know what ‘mash’ means?”
The reporter was aware that he was in over his head. Give him credit for that. He shook his head. “I don’t have a clue. I’ve never heard that word in my life.”
I stepped up and stepped in. “It means ‘press.’ You mash a button, mash your finger or mash the gas pedal.”
“Oh.” He began to scribble on his notepad. “How do you spell that?”
That is my first memory of what has now become a life-long side occupation for me: Explaining and spelling words that are unique to the Southern lexicon.
Sopping is another one of those words. Once I braved a downpour of rain in New York City to flag down a cab (almost impossible when it rains in NYC) and scurry across town to the offices of my publisher. When my editor came down to meet me in the lobby, she found a drenched creature, dripping all over the marble floors of the hallowed halls of literature.
“You poor thing!” she exclaimed. As an aside, a Southern woman would have proclaimed, “Bless your heart! Are you all right?”
I brushed wet wisps of hair from my face and laughed lightly. “I’m sorry. I’m sopping wet.”
She stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. “Sopping? I’ve never hear that word.”
Well, I’m glad that those folks in New York City don’t know our language. Otherwise, I’d be slap-dab out of a job. At least I’ve figured out how to make a living by explaining these things.
Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter here.