How to Talk Cool Like Zora Neale Hurston

zora-hatA while back, I posted a lament about a few endangered locutions of the Lowcountry of South Carolina, my native neck of the woods (and marshes, clay pits, swamps and beaches).

Some of the words I feared were kaput included swunny (as in I swear or I declare), reckon (as in I conjecture), right (as in it’s right hot), and whatchasaybo (as in hello, brother). The first three of these words my long dead grandmama used on a daily basis, but it’s been a coon’s age since I’ve heard somebody say, “I reckon it’s right hot.[1]

The homogenization of the language is, of course, inevitable, but do lawdy I hate to see these old words and phrases go. They add Tabasco to the day-to-day saltine of cliché after cliché – awesome, dude, this guy, that time, etc.

What brings all this to mind is that I just finished rereading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for school, and I can’t think of another novel besides Huck Finn that makes such exquisite use of American vernacular, so I thought I’d share with you some of her locutions, no doubt rooted in the early 20th Century black vernacular of central Florida. Of course, I encourage you to start using these phrases in your daily dealings, especially with the Man.

Monstropolous – no definition needed here. Cf., Camille, Hugo, Katrina. In TEWWG, the sentence “The Monstropolous beast had left his bed” describes the hurricane that rips through “the Muck,” i.e., the Everglades, putting a tragic end to the idyllics.

Mouth-Almighty – a noun describing a know-it-all that won’t shut the fuck up[2].  You know, Donald Trump, Chris Matthews.

Protolapsis uh de cutinary linin“  – Oscar Scott uses this phrase to describe Jane’s second husband, Joe Stark, the mayor of Eatonville. Oscar says that “you kin feel the switch in his hand when he’s talking’ to yuh [ . .] Dat chastisin feelin’ he totes sorter gives you the protolapsis uh de cutinary linin,” i.e., an unsettling feeling in your stomach.

The go-long – a phrase suggesting a long lasting relationship in the Al Green sense of “Let’s Stay Together”: “You got me in the go-long,” Tea Cake says to Janie.

Combunction – I suspect this is a combination of combustion and gumption, a positive word denoting bad-assedness. In TEWWG, Tea Cake declares himself “ a son of Combunction.”

Cuttin’ the Monkey – from its context, I suspect cuttin’ the monkey means playing “the Sambo” for white folks, engaging in self-deprecating minstrelsy to curry favor with overlords. It’s a term of derision.

In TEWWG coon dick means bootleg whiskey, but according to the Urban Dictionary, it now is “a term used for yelling insults or obscenities at pedestrians from moving vehicles “ as in let’s “go coondicking after the movies” or “Brandon is one hell of a clever coondicker.” The Urban Dictionary does credit the term to Hurston’s novel and identifies its new denotation as having been coined in Kendall, NY, by a group of teenagers.

Tsk tsk.

Well, gotta go. Hope you enjoyed this monstropolous post from the original mouth-almighty, one crazy combunnctious curator of cool-sounding colloquial jive.


[1] A coon’s age dates from the early 1800’s when folks considered raccoons to be long-lived animals.

[2] The consonant t-sounds and the three successive assonate u-sounds mandate the use of this phrase rather than the effete runs his or her mouth.

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