The Narcissistic South

Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

edited by Charles Reagan Wilson, edited by William Ferris
University of North Carolina Press, 1,634 pp., $49.95

It is common knowledge that Jimmy and Billy Carter were their legal names. It may be less commonly realized how representative of their native region this folksy naming practice is. The southern delegation in Congress during the mid-1980s, for example, included an Andy, a Billy, a Cathy, a Jamie, a Jerry, a Larry, a Lindy, and a Ronnie, all legally recorded names. When formal names do exist for popular luminaries they are often ignored or forgotten. William Franklin Graham, Jr., is a complete unknown, but Billy Graham is a household word, as are Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Populistic nomenclature can become more bizarre. Men of some status bear such legal names as Bubba, Buddy, Lonnie, Sonny, and Stoney. Males are inflicted with female names and vice versa: “Frankie and Johnnie got married,” as the song has it. Both males and females often bear double given names, usually in diminutive forms, such as Billy Bob, Danny Lee, Jonnie Mae, Emma Gene, Tammy Jo, and Willie Lee, often combining a male with a female name, and as readily bestowed upon offspring of one sex as the other. The regional taste in nicknames is illustrated in the world of sports by Bear Bryant, Dizzy Dean, Mudcat Grant, Catfish Hunter, and Oil Can Boyd. Place names preserve onomastic talents of earlier times. English-speaking people have always had their way with French place names, but few have outdone Arkansans, who derived the name of their city of Smackover from the original French name, Chemin Couvert, or the Texans who created Picketwire from Purgatoire. Few novelists would be so bold as the South Carolinians who placed Slabtown on the map.

As often happens with lists of alleged regional peculiarities, their opposites can be readily cited. Maps of southern states are more liberally sprinkled with classical place names than with Slabtowns and Smackovers—Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Carthage, Memphis, and Rome, for example. Personal names often reflect the same taste. Every southerner knows an Augustus, a Lucius, a Virginius, or perhaps even a Dionysius or a Cleanth. Where but from a southern state could emerge in different centuries an ambassador and a prize fighter both named Cassius Marcellus Clay? Names are also given to commemorate heroes, as witness the frequency with which one finds in phone books of southern towns the initials G.W. and T.J. for the first and third presidents of the republic. Given names very often serve to perpetuate the family name of a mother or some worthy forebear. Drawing illustrations from modern southern writers alone, one thinks of such given names as DuBose, Carson, Erskine, Flannery, Truman, Penn, Stark, and Walker.

More frequently than names, southern speech and accent draw comment from non-southerners and serve as popular stereotypes of regional distinctiveness. Linguists agree that there are speech differences, but agree on little else about them. They write more on the speech of the South than on that of any other region. Popular misconceptions abound. While most Americans, southerners as well as northerners, perceive southern…

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