Color of our words

In this piece, Rick Bragg uses the dialogue of the South to draw a beautiful illustration of place and character. I hope you miss half the fun on your first read through because you’re too busy thinking about how you’re going to do this in your next story …

The Color of Words
by Rick Bragg

[…] Often, I gaze at the scudding clouds and icy mist and think of fishing. “The fish won’t bite on a bluebird day,” my big brother, Sam, told me many years ago, looking up into a bright, blue sky. I heard it in my head every clear, blue day – and when it’s cloudy with a chance of fish.

Or, I think about Mrs. Mary Bird, of Waterloo, Alabama, who sees through the gray and cold, “Still enough blue in the sky,” she says, “to make a cat a pair of pants.”

And I know that the real color and warmth in us, as a people, is not in the landscape or the sky but in our language, the way we lean the words against each other. We are the best-spoken people on Earth, not in the realm of grammar, perhaps, but in the pictures we paint and hang on the air.

If you ask my mother if someone told the truth, she will not answer, “Why, yes, they did.” She will answer, “Why, hon, she was tellin’ God’s sanction.” And that is just prettier. She also does not say people act a fool, which is cruel. “They play folly,” she says. I have been playing folly, she points out, for 54 years.

We have our own phrases for things, like our phrase for a good person. If a man is capable, sound, he is not just “steady.” He is, as Sam says, “gun-barrel straight.” A man who is not gun-barrel straight is “a chuckle,” which I think is short for chucklehead.

[…] I think about my Uncle Ed, leaning on a shovel handle in the 100-degree heat of an Alabama summer, turning up an ice-crusted RC Cola before mumbling quietly, “If the good Lord made anything better than this, he kept if for Hisself.”

Some things we say are just mysterious, like a friend’s grandmother, who is prone to blurt out, “Well I’ll be Johnny.” We do not know who Johnny is.

I am tired of trying to explain us. I once wrote that a man had enough money to burn a wet dog. I got a call from animal rights activists who wondered why I advocated such. I told them it was only something we said, and I loved dogs, and …

I should have just told them to see Johnny about it.


Catch more of Rick Bragg at his Southern Journal in Southern Living Magazine.

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Categories: writing tips

5 Comments on “Color of our words”

  1. April 17, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    Reblogged this on Clover's pages and commented:
    I just finished reading this article thanks to my “Choice Listening” magazine on Talking Book format. Very interesting uses of words!

    • April 17, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

      Donna, thanks very much for re-blogging this post. I’m glad someone else enjoys Rick Bragg as much as I do!

  2. J. King Andrews
    June 1, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    Rick Brack uses “dialogue” not dialog.

    • June 2, 2014 at 10:32 am #

      Doh, fixed! Thanks for taking the time to point that out.


  1. Who are your people? | FlashMemoirs - June 1, 2014

    […] Also see Colour of our words […]

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