The southernmost things on the planet, according to data

Hundreds of thousands of Airbnb listings allowed us to map and calculate how the southern United States 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. (Sportswire Icon/Sportswire Icon via Getty Images)

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If you want to calculate the southernmost things on Earth, you first need to draw a line around “South”.

The South is not only geographical. Many states in the southern half of the United States are not even remotely southern. It’s not entirely historical – it probably crosses the borders of the Confederate States of America, but doesn’t encompass all of the former slave states on the Union side. It’s entirely cultural. And culture is notoriously difficult to measure.

Normally, an argument like this would be settled by the Census Bureau, the ultimate arbiter of all things dumb. But the Southern census definition seems extremely generous, sweeping all states from Delaware in the east to Oklahoma in the west.

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Data journalists rushed to fill the gap. As we noted in last week’s article on the American Midwest, the definition of regions like the South has been kind of a rite of passage in the industry, with people like Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight and Soo Oh at Vox take smart, data-driven swings.

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

We realized that all of these Airbnb hosts were creating a one-of-a-kind map of America’s true cultural frontiers. Airbnb listings represent hundreds of thousands of pages of text capturing exactly how Americans describe their home region to foreigners, and each word is associated with a geographic location.

This small overview would eventually lead to a database of over half a million listings. With him, we were able to calculate which words and which ideas made the culture of the South unique. But first we need to define “the South”.

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

By this measure, the heart of the South is in the Deep South band of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Their neighbors to the north — Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia — are also relatively easy inclusions.

From there it gets harder: West Virginia, Florida, Texas and DC are on the bubble. By our calculations, hosts in these locations are only about a tenth more likely to drop the Southern name from their listings than their friends in Mississippi, the southernmost state of them all.

But they’re also much more southern than the rest of the country, and our data shows they include large areas with a strong southern culture — think East Texas or the Florida Panhandle — so it made sense to include them.

Admittedly, 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 DC – which is also home to slavers up to emancipation in 1862 – saw a decisive infusion of Southern culture in the mid-20th century, when black men and women from further south flooded there in search of economic opportunity in the midst of the Great Migration.

With the outline of the South firmly drawn, we can calculate the southernmost things. To meet our criteria, something had to be mentioned in at least 200 ads. 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 southernmost words in our entire database are “prewar” and “plantation,” words deeply tied to the Confederacy and a romantic vision of an era defined by mass black enslavement. (“Confederate” also ranks among the top 15 southernmost words.)

But it also shows an ecologically unique place, with alligators, dolphins, armadillos, shrimp and rockfish among the southernmost 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 southernmost things in the entire database. The same goes for the daiquiri.

Airbnb apologizes after Mississippi ‘slave shack’ was classified as a luxury getaway

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

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