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Random, ratchet and the evolution of southern colloquialisms

The other day, I was caught in a thunderstorm in my modest vegetable garden with my youngest daughter who is 14. It was not raining as we approached the garden and it was also dry on the other side of it – a blessing of the sort kids cannot understand. Thirsty for knowledge as she has been from birth, the child asked me why it was raining at our location and not ‘˜right over there’. Having seen it rain on one side of a highway and not on the other many times in my life, I explained to her it had nothing to do with global warming (the earth is now cooling despite what Al Gore says after he exits his private, carbon-spewing jet) but was a random thundershower. The word random is a newly-minted descriptive term to Livia and her posse. To the child, it is used thusly: ‘˜my mom stopped and talked to this random woman at the outlet mall for 30 minutes’ or ‘˜this random boy showed up in all my pictures from the soccer tournament’. Something like that happening is ‘˜ratchet’ urban slang for wretched. Don’t ask. Reflecting upon this, my mind rocketed back to Montgomery County, Georgia in the early 1970s. I was riding along with my Baptist preacher, a colorful character who taught at a nearby Baptist college and actually baptized me when I was 16, wiping away all my sins just as those sins were starting to get interesting. Brother Bob and I were on our way to go fishing at a farm pond where, over the years, we caught enough fish to feed everybody mentioned in the Old Testament without need for the loaves. On one such trip, Brother Bob got out of his Oldsmobile land yacht to open a gate. I covertly opened his glove box out of curiosity and found a .38 caliber pistol and a pint of single malt scotch. Brother Bob was the epitome of a ‘˜dirt road sport’ – the sort who wadded many panties among those in the Southern Baptist Convention and still wads them to this day. A friend and I were traversing that same road – the road connecting Ailey and Alston – along about the time summer begins to fade to fall. At the wheel of yet another land yacht was my friend’s dad who happened to be chairman of the county commission. We had just passed a sign with an enormous, dead rattlesnake dangling from it (that’s what they did), when we came upon a man in tattered overalls and brogans who was staggering violently down the road with his back to traffic. ’That SOB is just about drunk enough to go vote,’ the chairman said. I later learned that, as election days approached, he equipped a metal outbuilding in his yard with a 50,000 BTU air conditioner and stacked the space full of beer. Election days were dry back then but, during their ride to the polls, his voters got a six pack, instructions regarding for whom to cast their ballots and the promise of another six pack on the way home. He would tell the voters to ‘˜drink up and we’ll go vote ‘˜tirectly’. I recall my beloved grandmother, Jewel Lanier, saying she would be there, have dinner ready, apply merthiolate to a wound or tuck me into bed ‘˜tirectly’ – which was Southern for ‘˜directly’ and meant ASAP. I can also remember her asking me to ‘˜turn the fire out from under those peas’ – a reference to cutting off the electric burner on her stove which was perfecting a pot of purple hull peas for feasting. I know now that saying came from her mother and grandmother who cooked over open flame. Now, with social media, instant communications and a dearth of those able or willing to properly teach the English language, bastardized colloquialisms abound. On Facebook and Twitter, posters show their ignorance by writing of ‘˜looseing’ family members or ‘˜they’re’ personal, financial or romantic misfortunes. It’s ratchet, I say, ratchet! Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of The Herald Gazette and the Pike County Journal Reporter.

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