Data reveals what really defines the American South

Hundreds of thousands of Airbnb listings allowed us to map and calculate how the American South describes itself

Mike the Tiger entertains the crowd during a game between the Louisiana State Tigers and the Auburn Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.
Mike the Tiger entertains the crowd during a game between the Louisiana State Tigers and the Auburn Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. (Icon Sportswire/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If you wish to calculate the most Southern things on Earth, you must first draw a line around “the South.”

It’s hard!

The South isn’t just geographic. Plenty of states in the southern half of the United States aren’t even remotely Southern. It’s not entirely historical — it probably goes beyond the boundaries of the Confederate States of America, but doesn’t encompass every former slave state on the Union side. It’s entirely cultural. And culture is notoriously hard to measure.

Normally, an argument like this would be settled by the Census Bureau, the ultimate arbiter of all things dweeb. But the Census definition of the South seems wildly generous, sweeping up every state from Delaware in the East to Oklahoma in the West.

Department of Data
We here at the Department of Data are dedicated to exploring the weird and wondrous power of the data that defines our world. Read more.

Data journalists have raced to fill the breach. As we noted in last week’s column about the American Midwest, defining regions like the South has been something of a rite of passage in the industry, with folks like Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight and Soo Oh at Vox taking smart, data-driven swings.

But a final answer remained elusive until we noticed just how many places on Airbnb advertise their “Southern hospitality” or their “Midwestern charm.”

All those Airbnb hosts were, we realized, creating a one-of-a-kind map of America’s true cultural boundaries. Airbnb listings represent hundreds of thousands of pages of text capturing exactly how Americans describe their home regions to outsiders, and every single word of it has a geographic location attached.

That little insight would eventually lead to a database of more than half a million listings. With it, we could calculate what words and ideas made Southern culture unique. But first we’d have to define “the South.”

It wasn’t as simple as searching listings for the word “Southern” — too many people say they’re in “Southern Oregon” or advertise their home’s “Southern exposure.” But we soon found that searching for phrases such as “Southern charm” or “Southern hospitality” would limit the results to true Southerners.

By that measure, the South’s heartland lies in the Deep South strip of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Their northern neighbors — Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia — are also relatively easy inclusions.

From there it gets dicier: West Virginia, Florida, Texas and D.C. are on the bubble. By our reckoning, hosts in those places are only about a tenth as likely to name-drop the South in their listings as are their friends in Mississippi, the most Southern state of them all.

But they’re also substantially more Southern than the rest of the country, and our data show they include major regions with strong Southern culture — think East Texas or the Florida Panhandle — so it made sense to include them.

To be sure, this version of the South includes areas that were more or less loyal to the Union during the Civil War (it’s complicated). Kentucky and West Virginia were slave states with substantial pockets of rebel sympathizers, while D.C. — also home to enslavers until emancipation in 1862 — experienced a decisive infusion of Southern culture in the mid-20th century, when Black men and women from farther south flooded there in search of economic opportunity amid the Great Migration.

With the outline of the South firmly drawn, we can calculate the most Southern things. To meet our criteria, something had to be mentioned in at least 200 listings. We removed place names and anything that got more than a third of its listings from a single state — they represent a state, not a region.

The result shows a South still defined by the legacy of slavery. The two most Southern words in our entire database are “antebellum” and “plantation,” words deeply tied to the Confederacy and a romanticized vision of an era defined by the mass enslavement of Black people. (“Confederate” also ranks among the top 15 most Southern words.)

But it also shows a place that’s unique ecologically, with alligators, dolphins, armadillos, shrimp and redfish all being among the most Southern words in the database. Southern trees like crape myrtle and longleaf pine didn’t have enough mentions to make the final cut but would have been among the most-Southern things in the entire database. The same goes for the daiquiri.

Airbnb apologizes after Mississippi ‘slave cabin’ listed as luxury getaway

Many other entries point to classic touchstones of Southern culture, such as the second-person plural pronoun “y’all,” Mississippi-born crossover artist and pompadour popularizer Elvis Presley and that most hallowed Southern holiday, “game day.”

Hello, friends! The Department of Data runs on fun facts. Tell us what you’re curious about: What are the most Appalachian things on Earth? Do Europeans really use half as much energy as Americans? Why has the share of women working in manufacturing fallen steadily since 1980? Just ask!

To be sure you never miss a fun fact or awesome answer, sign up to receive email updates. If your question inspires a column, we’ll send a button and an ID card recognizing you as an official agent of the Department of Data.

Loading...
Loading...