Ask ten people for the first word that comes to mind when they think of Texas. Nine will, without a moment’s hesitation, say y’all, and the other guy will say, “Y’all is not a word.”
In the wide world of regional colloquialisms, its infamy is second to none. I’ve talked with foreign exchange students who were disappointed when, during their first day in Texas, no one greeted them with a cheery “Howdy, y’all!” Gaudy and impudent, y’all is Southern culture’s linguistic centerpiece—and, depending on whether or not you grew up below the Mason-Dixon, it’s either an efficient construction or an affront to the English language. As an expression, it is under constant assault from naysayers, but its appreciators can’t be bothered to defend it. As far as they’re concerned, the fewer outsiders copping their vocabulary, the better.
There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!” I moved there the day after finishing the third grade, but I was in no special hurry. My dad had been promoted to General Manager, prompting my family’s migration to a suburb called Keller, twenty miles northeast of Fort Worth. I was nine years old and proud of my thick Chicago accent. I missed my friends. It was too hot here.
But those initial discomforts were trifles once I encountered the odd alternate universe that is Texas pride. On my first day of school, I found out that we pledged not only to the United States, but also to our own state: “Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.” In the seventh grade, we took an entire course on Texas history, detailing the manifold exploits of the brave souls who settled the territory, died defending the Alamo, and won the young Republic’s independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto. Back in Chicago, you only saw Illinois flags in front of government buildings; in Keller, the Flag of Texas hung proudly from at least one house per block.
As a teenager, I never went through a stage of rebellion against my parents. My rebellion was against my cultish state. At school, I made it a point to abstain from the Texas pledge. I issued my sincerest thank you any time someone told me that I didn’t have a southern accent. And, as for y’all? I never once even thought about letting that miserable non-word slip out from between my lips.
But something changed when I moved to New York City for college. Almost as soon as I stepped off the plane at LaGuardia, pride for my begrudgingly adopted home state began to swell. It felt like the scene in Alien when the newborn extraterrestrial bursts from that poor guy’s chest—some mischievous creature was kicking around in my brain, making me brag to my roommates that Texas was once its own country and could, if it wished, fly its flag as high as the American one. I knew I was being obnoxious, but the brazen displays of state pride kept spewing forth. When Governor Rick Perry shamelessly remarked that Texas technically reserved the right to secede from the Union, I thought, “That is awesome,” and I took special pleasure in rooting for the Rangers when they met the Yankees in the playoffs this past September.
It took moving fifteen hundred miles away for me to realize that, like it or not, Texas was a part of me—and that, if I were to be honest with myself, I had grown quite fond of the place. I missed the cataclysmic sunsets and the canopy of stars at night; I missed being able to drive twenty miles west and see wide-open fields that stretched to the horizon; I missed getting an obscenely large burrito for $4.15 at the local Mexican hole-in-the-wall. For nine years, I had taken Texas for granted. This was my home.
That being established, the stage was set for my coming to terms with Southern American English’s most notorious specter. Last summer, I was home and working on the maintenance crew at a local golf course—which basically means I ran around all day in the hundred-degree heat with a walkie-talkie, waiting for my boss, Fernando, to buzz in and tell me what to do. I mowed grass, filled water coolers, picked up broken tees, pulled weeds, lifted downed trees into trailers after storms, and, in my proudest moment of my three months on the job, did battle with a coyote who decided to chase me while I was driving my golf cart.
Usually, though, I was taking care of greens. With the daytime temperature always threatening to punch into triple digits, each green needed to be watered once every hour, to keep the grass from browning and dying. I spent most afternoons speeding from hole to hole in my golf cart, jumping out to turn on the high-pressure hose and cover the green with a life-giving spray before rushing back to the cart and flying off to the next hole. What made things tricky was that I had to do all of this while golfers were on the course, firing white spherical bullets in my direction. On my second day, one of my coworkers was sent to the emergency room with a concussion after getting nailed in the head on the 13th fairway, so I learned quickly the art of tracing balls’ aerial courses to make sure they weren’t headed for me.
Almost as important as my dodging skills, though, was how I interacted with customers. See, these guys had paid upwards of one hundred dollars per game, and I was standing in the middle of the green with a hose spouting a forty-foot stream of water. Most golfers didn’t mind, but it was always good form to apologize for getting in their way. And this was when I found myself saying, “Y’all mind if I water the side of the green you’re not going to be on?” I was floored. I never meant to use y’all, but it worked its way in there somehow—and not just once. I started using it regularly and involuntarily, any time I wanted to sound polite or congenial. For some reason, it just felt friendlier, more likely to elicit a favorable response.
And then it hit me. Y’all has a hidden meaning, sandwiched between the two words it illicitly contracts. I had used it for a reason; I was telling those golfers, “I belong. You can trust me. We share something: a sense of place. A home.” Ten years after moving to Texas, I had finally come around.
I flew back to New York at the beginning of August, the final phase of my Texan metastasis complete. These days, though I’m back in an environment hostile to most things southern, I still sprinkle the occasional y’all into ordinary conversation. If these erudite, sophisticate-types fault me for daring to utter so fatuous a phrase, so be it. It doesn’t matter whether y’all is a word, because it’s something more. It’s a way to say, I come from somewhere, and that matters.
It sounds silly. Can a simple word really form such a bond between strangers? Surely that’s naïve. It’s possible that my nostalgia is getting the best of me, or that I’m just fishing for a cheap sense of belonging. All of that could be.
I don’t know—what do y’all think?