Amanda Cockrell

Selected Works

Young Adult Novel
Saints and soldiers and the Untied Church of Dog
The Hollywood blacklist and a delayed funeral
Historical novel of a Roman legion in Britain
The Horse Catchers trilogy
Mythological novel of the coming of the horse to the American Southwest
Volume 2 in The Horse Catchers trilogy
Volume 3 in The Horse Catchers trilogy
The Deer Dancers trilogy
Mythological novel of the beginning of art
Volume 2 in The Deer Dancers trilogy
Volume 3 in The Deer Dancers trilogy
Children's books
By my mother, Marian Cockrell, the story of an enchanted castle on the edge of Fairyland

What We Keep

The Vernacular

August 13, 2013

Tags: Hollins, writing, language

It’s quiet at Hollins this week, with my grad students gone and the undergraduates not yet arrived, which means that thinking can be done, and possibly writing. One, alas, does not necessarily lead to the other. When you make your living with words, one way and another, writing, teaching, editing, it becomes a lovely time-waster to ferret out what things actually mean, and why. And lord knows the South is fertile ground for that.

I’m from Southern California, but my mother was from Birmingham, and clearly there was something latent in the blood that came out when I moved to Virginia. Occasionally it’s a matter of outlook, but mostly it’s a figure of speech — lots of them, acquired from Mama, who I had always assumed to be speaking a private language of her own, until I went South.

In Virginia, however, when my husband, exasperated that I call the refrigerator an icebox, says, “An icebox has a block of ice in the top; no one has had an icebox in seventy-five years!” more faces than mine will give him a wide-eyed stare. They all call it an icebox too, because their mothers did.

Mama also used to say that it was cold as flugens, on the rare California days when it was cold. I assumed it was a made-up word of her own, until I read Eudora Welty, and there it was, in Delta Wedding. What’s more, it’s not just a Southernism, it’s a Deep South Southernism. No one in Roanoke knows what it means. Mama probably got it from her mother, who was from the Delta.

Now I know why I was the only one of my California childhood friends who called her father “Daddy” and why no one else had relatives with names like Aunt Sis or Uncle Sonny. I know what “sorry” means when used as an adjective, and what a branch is, as in bourbon and branch water. In my youth I assumed it was water with branches in it. I never asked why. I know that acting ugly has nothing to do with your looks and everything to do with your behavior (see “sorry,” above). I know what a bottle tree is, and what’s more, I know what it’s for. I know why you should always paint your porch ceiling sky blue. I know what it means to snoot someone, and why my mother thought I needed a deviled egg plate. A raft of phrases and traditions from my childhood suddenly make sense. The first time I heard someone say “bless her heart” with my mother’s intonation, I knew exactly what was meant — as in “She likes a little drink, bless her heart,” which means, “The woman is falling down drunk by two p.m. and last week she set the biscuits on fire.”

Even my grandmother’s story about the yard man who shot the town bootlegger makes sense. This yard man had a way with roses, and four hours after he was arrested, he was out on bail. The judge’s mother, my grandmother assured me, and every other woman in town with a rose garden had called their husbands and made sure the fix was in. No one minded about the bootlegger (well, the men did) but the spring rose show was in two weeks and that was another matter. That is not how they do things in California.

When we teach fiction writing, we teach world building, but really all you have to do is look around, and eavesdrop.


  1. August 13, 2013 3:51 PM EDT
    Have you come across the origin of the expression "EEEEE! Oh it's just so good to SEE you!" both parts of the phrase said with considerable rising intonation?
    - Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt
  2. August 13, 2013 5:56 PM EDT
    I miss my Aunt Mouse!
    - Leacy
  3. August 13, 2013 8:46 PM EDT
    Wait a minute. My family said "icebox" until we owned one that held more than two trays and a cylinder on top, and I was born in New York City to a Bostonian and a sixth-generation New Yorker. I always thought it was an age definition
    - Liz
  4. August 13, 2013 9:54 PM EDT
    What Therry describes is the Lee Smith squeal. In Wytheville, it was hot as flagons. Nice piece. Thanks
    - mary flinn
  5. August 14, 2013 8:54 AM EDT
    Definitely a generational thing, but here they are still saying it. Maybe I should get the Southern cousins in on this. Have they shifted to refrigerator at last and left me behind?
    - Amanda Cockrell
  6. August 14, 2013 10:01 PM EDT
    Dear Cousin, I fear I have switched to 'refrigerator' but am certainly comfortable with 'icebox' having heard it much of my life from my Mama, Little Sis. I've been wondering ... Did your Mama (Aunt Sis) ever use a phrase that was something like ' if that doesn't shake (or take) the rag off the bush'? Or something similar. Mama said May May used that phrase but we didn't know it's origins.
    - Lee Martin
  7. August 15, 2013 11:06 AM EDT
    Lee, I don't think Mama ever said that but it sure sounds familiar. I think I heard May May say it. I have no idea of its origins.
    - Amanda Cockrell
  8. August 19, 2013 12:16 PM EDT
    And Liz, you were the one who taught me to make fried green tomatoes, when we were at Hollins and I spent Thanksgiving with your family. I have deep suspicions about your yankee bona fides.
    - Amanda Cockrell
  9. September 9, 2013 6:25 PM EDT
    Lanf O' Goshen! Your Mama was dead to right... Cause tain't a woman alive who can claim to have set up a decent home for family and kin if'n she ain't got her a deviled egg plate! (I gotts me two of em!)
    - The girl round the corner

Chocolate novios for Day of the Dead

Noon Whistle at the Lizard Works

Back yard bottle tree

The last hurrah

Delia Sherman and Ruth Sanderson, summer Children's Lit faculty

Children's Lit faculty Brian Attebery and Ellen Kushner at the end-of-term party