The Mason-Dixon Line is a demarcation line along on the East Coast that separates four states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Maryland.
I’ve been hearing this phrase used since I was kid, and adopted it into my own vernacular early on.
The speaker will make a statement, usually in reference to the superiority or inferiority of a person, place, or thing, and then end by saying “… south of the Mason-Dixon.”
“She’s the prettiest girl south of the Mason-Dixon.
“My grandma makes the best pork chops south of the Mason-Dixon.”
“He’s gotta be the biggest dude south of the Mason-Dixon.”
As a born and raised Virginian, I heard this phrase flung around time after time. The understanding of this phrase is confined to communities living around the Mason-Dixon line itself, as most people not from that region of the United States are unaware of what the Mason-Dixon line is. The phrase is hyperbolic, used to exaggerate and emphasize the statement one is trying to make. Viewing the phrase from an emic perspective, I can say that it is often employed in a comedic manner, often to make disparaging remarks about someone, such as “That has to be the ugliest shirt south of the Mason-Dixon.” The phrase’s meaning and hyperbolic nature is known to all in these regions, so one’s opinion or joke can easily be inserted into the phrase to augment their meaning. Much of the South also has a spiritual connection to the land. Their identities are tethered to the physical nature and landmarks of their home. This may be due to residual sentimentality over the Civil War and the lives lost on the battlefields in the South. Nevertheless, there are a multitude of phrases and bits of lingo in the South that pertain to landmarks and the features of the land that Southerners inhabit. While the Mason-Dixon itself isn’t necessarily in the South, the use of this phrase intrinsically identifies one as belonging to the South.
My informant, KL, is my mother. Her father was born in Finland and immigrated to the United States as a young adult. When she was younger, her father would heat up pine tar in boiling water and have her breathe in the fumes if she as sick.
Piece of Folklore:
When KL was sick as a child, she remembers her father heating up pine tar in boiling water and having her lean over and breathe in the steam to clear out a head cold. Tar would also sometimes be diluted and rubbed on her and her siblings’ chests for the same effect. She also remembers a saying: ”Jossei viina terva ja sauna auta ni se on kuolemaksi,” which roughly translates to “If vodka, tar, and a sauna cannot cure you, it is likely fatal.*”
*: A slightly different version of this saying is referenced in a Finish journal of social medicine:
Pietilä, Ilkka. “Kontekstuaalinen vaihtelu miesten puheessa terveydestä: yksilöhaastatteluiden ja ryhmäkeskustelujen vertaileva analyysi.” Sosiaalilääketieteellinen aikakauslehti 46.3 (2009).
Tar was believed to have powerful medicinal qualities – everything from treating skin ailments to serving as an antiseptic and antibiotic. It was more or less considered a cure-all, and was often at hand because it was also used for sealing boats. Similar treatments for colds are still in common use across many cultures – breathing in steam is thought to help de-congest the nose, and similar chest rubs are used to relieve coughs.
“It is what it is”
KY is an 18-year-old American Student at USC. She grew up in North Carolina. I asked her if she knew any proverbs or commonly said phrases and she told me this one. Her interpretation of it is, “People would say it whenever something happened that might be stressful or might not be what the plan was supposed to be, and you just shake it off and go with it.”
This proverb is one I’ve heard often and is used in similar contexts to what my informant described. When something happened that was a bummer but there wasn’t anything that could be done about it, we would say “it is what it is” to signify that what happened had happened and nothing could be changed about it so it was best not to worry. Proverbs like this are a good example of vernacular authority, where people can look back on how insignificant some small issues in life were now that they are older. This proverb specifically shows us that while the past is important in this culture, it is much more important to look on to the future and control things that can be controlled since they haven’t happened yet instead of dwelling on things that can’t be changed.
Performed with handclapping:
“Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack
All dressed in black black black
With the silver buttons buttons buttons
All down her back back back
She couldn’t read read read
She couldn’t write write write
But she could smoke smoke smoke
Her father’s pipe pipe pipe.”
KY is an 18-year-old American Student at USC. She grew up in North Carolina. I asked her if she knew any proverbs or commonly said phrases and she told me this one. She told me this song/rhyme that was played with handclapping when I asked her about any childhood games she remembers, but she told me she could only remember the “bad version,” which she thinks was “bad” because of the discussion of smoking/pipes.
Miss Mary Mack is rather widespread, and while I’ve heard the beginning before, it wasn’t common where I grew up, so I didn’t know the whole thing. I would be considered a passive bearer of this tradition, whereas my informant would be an active bearer. It’s common that children’s songs like this will have the “good [original] version” and the “bad version” derived from the original with a few things changed to make it naughty. The naughty oikotype might be specific to the area my informant grew up in, and there may be different oikotypes in other places that are similar but have slight variations. And since this can be played as a game with handclapping, it is a way for kids to entertain themselves without a need for toys or things of that sort and it is easy to learn with a simple melody and repeating words.
“When someone asks you the time and you don’t know what time it is because you’re not wearing a watch or don’t have your phone, my family always goes ‘Oh, it’s a hair past a freckle’ or ‘A freckle past a hair’. You use the two interchangeably just depending on whatever mood you’re in.”
OA is a 21-year-old American student at USC. She grew up in Washington. I asked her about any proverbs she knew of or sayings that were common to her. This proverb is used as a joke. “It’s something my dad did because his dad did it.”
Family folklore is special because it identifies people who are in the group (your family), and those who are out of the group easily. Things that might not seem funny to outsiders could be incredibly funny to your family, or vice versa. These things can develop from specific moments, or their origins can be more fluid. My friend mentioned that this was something she says to her friends now as well, which shows that even folklore that originates as family-specific has the capacity to grow beyond families and enter into a more widespread usage. This specific proverb seems to be related to “it’s time for you to get a watch,” as it pokes fun at the person for not knowing the time and highlights our society’s reliance on time. Timeliness is very important in the United States, whereas in other cultures being on time isn’t as important. So, when someone doesn’t have a watch or isn’t aware of what time it is, people make fun of them because they should know what time it is in a society where time is everything.