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What Makes Southern Manners Peculiar?

"Southerners live in the 18th century." This common charge is not altogether false, since the peculiar habits, customs, and meanings of words found often in the American South are found also in 18th-century English authors. Most English-speaking people use the word "manners" now only in the senses designated by the Oxford English Dictionary as current: "External behaviour in social intercourse" or "Polite behaviour or deportment; habits indicative of good breeding." But the oldest meaning for "manners," which has also had the longest continual use, is now marked obsolete. The first citation in the OED for this meaning is dated 1225; the last citation is dated 1794. The next to last citation, dated 1757, comes from Samuel Johnson. This obsolete meaning is: "A person's habitual behaviour or conduct, esp. in reference to its moral aspect, moral character."

Those who think of manners in this sense are 200 years behind the times. But the mode of thought that connects moral character to manners had been accepted for over 2,000 years when it fell out of use among English-speaking people. The Greek word ethos and the Latin word mores join behavior, character, and morals into a general notion. This general notion is the source for the concept expressed in the English word "manners," "which early became the recognized translation of L. modus...

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