Say it with sotto voce

I have very smart friends. Way smarter than I am. I’m reminded of the old business mantra that says, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Well, folks, I’m usually in the right room, and I love it. When I talk with my smarty McSmart smart friends, I always learn something new, get to exercise the old gray matter trying to keep up, and expand my horizons and, in this particular case, my vocabulary.

I have one particular long-time bosom buddy who, for the purposes of this blog, we’ll call Joyce. You’d be hard pressed to meet a smarter person. (I was going to say “woman” instead of “person” but I realized that I would be succumbing to anti-feminist norms and truly she’s smarter than most women and men alike. Gotta break those bad habits.) You can talk art, politics, literature, science — you pick the topic, and Joyce will have an intelligent contribution to the conversation.

Don’t you wish you could say that about everyone? Anyhow…

Joyce recently introduced me to a term I’d never heard before — sotto voce. So as not to appear thick as a brick, I quickly looked it up on my phone. What in the world did we ever do before the cell phone? Wait until you got home to look a word up, I guess. It’s not like you can tote a Webster’s around in your handbag. Now we can appear smart on the fly.

As it turns out, Southerners use sotto voce all the time and probably don’t even know it. I know I didn’t. It’s the practice of lowering one’s voice for emphasis, literally “under the voice.” You’ve definitely heard it, usually to describe something bad, scandalous, or impolite. The sotto voce might occur at times like this (illustrated in italics below).

Q: I see they buried that old geezer Mr. Snodgrass. What’d he die of?
A: Probably meanness, but they say it was cancer.

Q: Where’s Erma’s daughter been? I haven’t seen her in a month of Sundays!
A: Oh, she’s been staying with her aunt in Meridian for the last few months. You know she’s expecting.

Q: Did you hear that Mamie and Bitsy got into a fight over who’s potato salad would be set out first at the covered dish dinner.
A: Yes! And I heard that Bitsy called Mamie a whore and told her to go straight to hell!

Q: Girl, Flossie had to take a second job just to make ends meet.
A: Well, you know old Jim Bob is shiftless. He drinks.

Q: Did you try Ernestine’s fried chicken?
A: Girl! I wouldn’t eat her chicken if I was starving to death. Don’t you know it’s store-bought?

Q: Did you hear about that trashy Rita and her sister’s husband?
A: Yes! The sheriff caught them behind the Pig in his car. The were doing it.

And if you’re a mama, you’ve probably used sotto voce in a slightly different manner. Say your precious angel is running up and down the aisles of the church and you finally catch him or her by the arm. While they writhe and squirm, you smile at all the busy-bodies then lean over and, with your hot breath right in their little ear, and say something like, If you don’t stop acting like a wild animal I’m going to tell your Daddy and you won’t get any dessert for a week and you’d better forget about going to play at your friend’s house were you raised in a barn you heathen remember yourself and straighten up before I wear your little ass out!

Or so I’ve heard.

Why do we do feel the need to be hush-hush about the bad things? I have a few theories. First, I think if you don’t say a thing too loud it won’t get on you (like cancer). The odds are more in your favor if you don’t invoke bad things in a regular voice.

Then there’s the issue of impropriety. Ladies don’t use swear words or talk about things like sex. At least not where people can hear them. Ladies whisper about scandal so as not to be widely heard and thought of as trashy. Most people would rather be dead than trashy.

And naturally you don’t want to be thought of as a gossip. Right up there, or down there, with being trashy is being gossipy. But if you whisper the latest dirt to someone, you’re not loudly gossiping. Just merely sharing the facts like a good neighbor.

Which all brings us back to smart people.

Smart people have the sense to not talk bad about folks where they can be heard. That’s why it pays to have smart friends. You get all the dirt (and then some) and no one is ever the wiser.

Sotto voce.

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash