Charleston's Secret Word...

John F. Abess

Great Homes of Charleston


Do you know of any city or state in the USA that actually uses a word that has no meaning to outsiders? 


Surely there are others. After all, the South as a whole has some lovely distinguishing phrases that mystify folks in other locales. For instance:


         Well, Shut My Mouth! (Shocked and speechless)


         Y’all (Southern version of “You’se Guys”)


         Bless Your Heart! (Variety of meanings dependent upon context—some complimentary, others not)


         I’m Fix’n to ... (Preparing to perform some task)


         Hush Your Mouth! (Polite “shut up”)


         Gimme Some Sugar! (Not the actual sweet stuff but hugs and kisses, often by a grandmother to a child.)


         Yes, Ma’am. (Not meant to be offensive related to age, but a term of respect to any woman.  This cannot be repeated too often during a stern lecture or talking-to.)


         Well, I Declare! (Something to say without meaning anything)


         Have a Blest Day! (Exactly what it means)        


But when it comes to having an actual word understood only by those having been raised in the area, there's indeed some novelty to that. Or at least, if there are others, they're as “Scarce as Hen’s Teeth.” (Hen’s teeth, I’m advised, don’t exist.) 


Nobody actually knows how to correctly spell the word. Suspected spellings are Sursee, Cercie, Surcie, Circi, Searcy, SirseeBut since it's predominantly a spoken tradition, there is no conventional accepted spelling. A search of online dictionaries, including Merriam Webster, came up empty.  (There is, I read, a town in Switzerland by the name of Sursee.) 


Despite uncertain spelling, the word is “overheard” and the word is real. For me, I was engaged in conversation with a Southern belle when she used the word. Politely, I had to ask her: is that even a REAL word? She had never before been asked that question. Well, that led us both to some research. Thank goodness for the Internet.  


It was there that I found reference to a woman, raised in Charleston, who had used the word in college. Its use spread to women who had not been raised in Charleston. One reference identified a college in Columbia as being a hot spot for use of the word. Another source indicated the word has been associated with “The Carolinas: Charleston and Columbia.” Another reference indicates the word is generally used by ladies who conjure up visions of white gloves, iced tea, azaleas, and a quiet genteel nature—southern belles. 


The meaning of surcee is “an inexpensive gift,” though the form that takes does not seem to matter. It could be a homemade box of cookies, a small book, any item of special significance to a friend. What does matter is that the giver spent time and energy thinking about the recipient and made the effort to do something for that person.


Surcees are about thoughtfulness. They are never to be “expected,” which makes their occurrence more special or appreciated.


Fitting, isn't it, that this word is said to originate right here in Charleston? After all, we've just (again) accepted the crown of top city to visit in all of Canada and the United States (Travel & Leisure), not to mention the top city to visit in the entire world (Conde Nast Traveler).


It seems we've got all kinds of unexpected gifts—those of charm, manners, sophistication, history, style, and language. We hand them out freely.


The question is: how does that square with that other Top 10 list we graced recently, that eyebrow-raising claim of Holy City snobbery? Well, shut my mouth. Because if the "Best" rankings are any indication, pretension is one "surcee" we don't hand out quite as generously. Or cirsee... er, sircee. Whatever.