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Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Process and Progress: Verbal Shortcuts

My heart got blessed when we were in North Georgia a few weeks ago, except I don't think it really did. Hubby and I were checking out at one of the many apple orchards near Ellijay and chatting with a friendly older gentleman behind the counter.

"Where are y'all from?" he asked.


"Oh, bless your heart!"

When we got to the car, Hubby looked at me and said, "I think we just got insulted."

That classic passive-aggressive Southern phrase got me to thinking about what kind of language shortcuts we use. As a psychologist, I can't help but wonder what they help us to say without saying directly. Consider the "Bless your heart" above. It was really, "Oh, you poor things! Our quality of life up here in the North Georgia Mountains is vastly superior to what you city folks experience."

Yep, nothing nice in that mound of condescension. The phrase actually means the opposite. Consider these other phrases in common use and what they really (really?!) mean:

"Not going to go there," but by saying this, you prompt your listener to.

"Awesome" can go either way.

"Wicked!" may be a musical, but my Yankee cousins were using it to mean awesome long before Gregory Maguire ever wrote the book the musical is based on.

"Oh, no you didn't!" and I can't believe you did!

The tricky thing with using these phrases in dialogue is that tone of voice conveys as much of the message as the words. My characters sometimes ask, "Really?" but for clarification, not as in, "I can't believe how stupid that was!"

There's also the timeliness of the phrase. Not everything spans generations like "Bless your heart." I recently read a draft of a Civil War era novel in which a character said, "Don't. Just don't." I marked it as "too modern." It could go the other way. I wouldn't have any of my characters set in a novel in 2011 say, "All that and a bag of chips!" That one always puzzled me.

What are your current favorite shortcut phrases? If you don't have any, well, bless your heart!

What I did with those apples:


  1. Not commenting on using it in my own work but more how damn hard it is to understand phrases like these when you're not a native English speaker. English is my second language and I still need to learn most of these small phrases. Though I do remember to have used "Don't. Just don't." a couple of times in my WIP ;)

  2. Oh, wow, I can't begin to imagine how tricky these would be for a non-native speaker! English is hard enough without throwing in phrases that don't mean what they say.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!