I have been asked a lot of questions about words, writing, and grammar, but by far the most-asked question I have ever received is: How did people in the South start saying y’all? And why is the word used to refer to only one person? And what is the plural of y’all?
I grew up in the South, and with most things southern, the story of y’all has been passed down from generation to generation, mostly on porches, mostly in rockers, mostly by consummate storytellers, mostly telling a reasonable version of the truth. I remember rocking on the front porch, listening to my pappy tell the story of y’all, while we sipped a hickory daiquiri with the neighbor, Doc.
The sweetest meat comes from hogs fattened on chestnuts. That’s the kind of wisdom Pappy possessed. If I saw a ring circling the moon, said Pappy, I should count the stars inside the ring, and that would tell me how many days would pass before it rained. Pappy knew a lot of stuff. He knew about cooking, too, about how to scald a possum in boiling water with a cup of ashes to get the hair off, then gut it and bake it till it’s golden brown in a skillet surrounded by sweet potatoes. He said, “We et ever’thing ‘cep th’ eyes.” If I had a headache, Pappy’d have me tie a flour sack around my head. The first time it made it worse, but then I took the flour out and it worked grand.
Pappy started the “Story of Y’all” with a wise observation: If you say you all fast enough, over and over and over and over, it just becomes y’all. Like a language blur. You all you all you all you all you all yu all yu all yu all y all y all y all yall yall yall y’all. See.
Right away you can tell the word y’all has only one apostrophe, when clearly it’s missing two letters. Pappy says the correct way to write y’all is y’’all, “But folks been a’writin’ it that way jus’ ‘bout ever since, so why break wit’ 300-year-old treedition!”
Some of the earliest known samples of writing y’all were found in an archaeological dig under an outhouse along with a corncob pipe, a corncob doll, and a lot of corncobs. It appears to be a grocery list, which puzzled folk archaeologists, because there were no grocery stores back then:
“yall git me sum ‘maters ’n wyle yalls at it git me sum ‘possums fat ‘uns”
Another appears to be part of the earliest-known mountain-folk Christmas letter, which never got mailed, because there was no post office either:
anyhows, yall ain’ gonna beleve this ‘un we had a s’i’ty lady up from ‘lanta visitin’ her kinfolk here las’ week, ‘n I ask ‘er, wan’ sum grits she sez t’ me, I ain’ never ate grits before but i’ll try one I culdn’t tel’ if she wuz funnin’ me or jus’ a mean cuss, but I giv’er a grit ‘n she sez its delishus but those s’i’ty folk cain’t never tel’ with them they lie jus’ to keep th’ peace, w’ich never stopped nobody ‘roun’ here.
But Pappy says all that came much later, that we can trace the first use of y’all back to “somewhereabouts 1739, when Beulah Mae got tired.” Beulah Mae’s husband, Grady, made his living out of the offering plate. Grady had okra for brains, but he had the gift of tongue, and he hatched an idea to put a rattlesnake in a box and tell the congregation that the good lord was protecting him from that snake. He would take that reptile out of the box and play with it. The congregation would gasp and drop coins in the offering plate. Then one day, the snake bit Grady, the congregation gasped, and Grady turned blue.
At 28 with 14 kids and a dead preacher-husband, Beulah Mae had to start looking for ways to economize. Her people were always economizing anyway, the first to start marrying cousins to each other, because it saved on preacher fees and they didn’t have to walk so far. And if it worked for cousins, they reasoned, why not do it for words? So they started marrying them, too; like why waste all that time saying do not and we are, when you could say don’t and we’re and people still mostly understood you. It helped your gums last longer. Nobody called them contractions back then; that came later when god created grammarians.
But no one had gotten around to marrying you and all. Then one day, Beulah Mae grabbed one of her boys and gave his ear a little twist, no time to waste, nary a syllable, and out popped, “Y’all forgot to empty the chamber pot this mornin’!” And there it was: a new word-marriage. The rest of the kids heard and told their friends. Word on the word spread up one holler and down another, and pretty soon a local in one holler was saying to a cousin in the next holler, “How y’all doin’?” And Harley Culpepper was saying to his nephew/grandson/brother-in-law Hillard Culpepper, “Y’all butcher that hog yet?”
It seems that everything was flowing along quite nicely with everyone calling each other y’all, when, one day, Beulah Mae’s cousin and half-sister, Prudie, had to call the hounds, but she had more than one, and y’all was singular, as Beulah Mae had used it. Prudie didn’t know what to say. First she tried hollering, “Y’all’uns!” but not one of those hounds so much as lifted an eyelid. Next, she yelled, “Ever’ one ‘a y’all!”, and a few lifted an eyelid, but only to look around to see which one she might be talking to. So Prudie found herself deep in a pickle or a quandary, whichever.
Speculation abounds. Some say Prudie went to her great-great grandmother, Adelaide, who at 37 called her one hound to dinner with a whistle and a shout, “Y’all come runnin’ now, ya hear, we got ‘possums!” But Adelaide, usually full of it, had no advice for people with more than one hound. Thus, flummoxing went on in the backwoods for quite some time, people calling each other “y’all,” but standing tongue-tied when speaking to more than one person.
Well, time went on, as it does. With the kids a little older, Beulah Mae took to sending the seven boys giggin’ frogs and instructed the seven girls on how to fry the legs. She told the girls, “If th’ grease’s to hot w’en y’putcher legs in th’ pan, them legs’ll jump out!” So the girls carefully watched the heat. Then one day she sent the girls a giggin’ and had the boys fry up the legs. ‘Course, the instant she told those boys the legs would jump out of the pan if the grease was too hot, they stoked the fire. That’s when she hollered, “All y’all’s getting’ a whoopin’!” And there it was: the plural of y’all: All y’all.
Word spread up Picken’s Nose over to Generation Gap then around to Holy Holler up yonder. To this day, wherever you go in the South, you will hear southern girls say, “I would love it if y’all would come by the house this evening,” and you can tell right away if the young man she addresses is from the north, because he will be looking around behind himself. But when she says, “I would love it if all y’all would come by the house this evening,” even the boys from the south will be looking around behind themselves. That’s why it’s so important to understand the local idioms in any language.
So there you have it, the story of how y’all and all y’all came to be. And I know it’s true, because Pappy told me. So Happy April Fool’s Day, and Pappy wants me to remind you it’s going to be a bad winter, if you find crickets in the chimney.