What is a Sercy?

When I was in college I had the privilege of working as a counselor at Rock Eagle 4-H Camp in Eatonton, GA. The four summers I spent there were some of the happiest of my life. We taught swimming, crafts, nature study and other practical skills to thousands of elementary-aged kids.

At night and on weekends, we counselors bonded into an infectiously happy group; some of us maintain close friendships to this day.

One of the camp counselor customs was to give each other surprise gifts. The small tokens might be atonement for a slight, an attempt to gain the eye of someone of the opposite sex, or a stab at sophomoric humor, like giving a carton of sour milk wrapped in an impressive package.

We called such a gift a “sercy”, alternately spelled “cerci” and “searcy”.

When I used the word on my radio show once, I found that others knew it too.

My question:

Do you know where the word “sercy“, “surcy“, “cerci” or “searcy” comes from? Do you have a plausible theory? Do you use it in conversation?

E-mail me and let me know your thoughts!

Here is a lovely meditation “On giving a Surcie”

Word Detective posits:

“I posed the question to the American Dialect Society mailing list, and received the following reply from Joan Hall, Associate Editor of DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English):

“The Dictionary of American Regional English files have anecdotal evidence for the term “sirsee” (variously spelled “circe,” “circi,” “surcy”) from NC, SC, GA, and PA, as well as two reports from Buffalo, NY and Oklahoma, where the speakers were said to come from “someplace else.”

“All evidence is oral, so the spellings are speakers’ attempts to represent the pronunciation. The etymology is uncertain, but one plausible source is the Scots verb “sussie,” meaning “to take trouble, to care, to bother oneself.” This probably came to Scotland from the French “souci,” meaning “care, trouble.” The term seems to be especially well known in Columbia, SC, where it is strongly associated with a women’s college. Michael Montgomery of the English Department of the University of SC has reported its use there.”

Mary Lutie F. confirms:

I was raised in S.C. and graduated from Columbia College( a girls’ college) in Columbia, SC in the early ‘60s. At college I learned the word “surcie”. It meant a small gift such as thinking of you; I love you; this reminded me of you, etc. Yes, it could be your favorite gum or object of your favorite color. My husband and I had two sons. This is a word I used affectionately with them as they grew up. Now I used it with our grandones. The original meaning I do not know but the word “surcie” really gives a warm fuzzy to the receiver as well as the giver.

R. C. says:

“I don’t know how to spell it but have discovered the word is widely used among students of women’s colleges. I first heard the word while a student at Tift College in Forsyth, GA. Since then the only other people I have heard use the word have been graduates of other women’s colleges in the south. Hearing it on your show was the first time I’ve heard anyone mention the word in years. I would be interested to know the origin of the word if any of your listeners know more.”

L. M. remarks:

“I was listening to your show this morning and hear you ask about the word “cerci” – a word that you were familiar with from your earlier days.

“I also learned of the word when I was in college in the late ’60’s. I am from VA and went to school a couple of years at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. My roommates and her friends -all from the North Carolina mountains -would use the word “cerci” anytime they left a small gift for you.

“It’s charm is that you never asked for it but it might be something you really liked -like your favorite gum, candy, ice cream or some small trinket. Usually it was something that you never asked for, as you mentioned, but was often given out of friendship.

I have used the word for years and have taught many people, including my spouse (who is now well trained in the giving of “cercis”) and my children the word -and have given and received many gifts labeled as such.

“Cerci” is my own spelling for the word. Most people have never heard of it… except I once met a colleague from Alabama and she knew the word and had used it her whole life. I thought once someone told me it originated from French meaning gift -but I could have dreamt that!”

L. B. in Dallas TX says

I have also been curious about the origin of this word. I have Georgia relatives who say “sercy” and Texas friends who say “sussy”. Tonight as I was watching an episode from FoodNetwork’s Road Tasted, starring Paula Deen’s boys, they visited a cookie company in Charleston , SC. The owner introduced the Deen boys to this word and described the practice of giving little gifts for no particular reason. She said in Charleston they call the gift a “sercy” -she said the word comes from a French word which means “surprise”.

Susan S. opines:

In Entomology (UGA, ~1973) we learned that earwigs, and a few other insects, have ‘cerci’ on their rear abdomen-like another set of pincers that are often used in mating.

J. S. in South Carolina adds:

“I did a Google search on Sercy and found your website. Too cool that so many others know the word and use it! I think it is great tradition. I give my boys sercys and hope they pass it on too! Looks like it is a southern thing, my mom’s family is from Aiken, SC.

“My mom always used the word sercy when my brother and I were growing up. Our mom turns 60 and we are celebrating her birthday on Easter this year. My brother and I are putting together a “letter” for her that lists the 60 things we are thankful for but never told her. One of the things was sercys, but we could not figure out how to spell it. We emailed my Aunt in France to see if she knew how to spell the word. Here is what she came up with:

“Mema used to say that all the time. Since I have lived in France I’ve often thought of where it came from. I think it might be a distortion of “souci” which can mean a thought or care. You sometimes say sans souci …”without a care”. I can’t find it legitimately used. I did a search and found a great blog or stream on SouthernLiving.com. “A ….children’s last minute sercy/ gift.”

“So I guess we can go with SERCY. Often it is hard to pronounce the “u” and there are funny changes in language from one country to another.”

C. W. shares

“I am Southern born and raised. We always referred to these small gifts as ‘happies’. It wasn’t until I was living in Sumter, SC that a dear friend of mine asked me what type of ‘cercy’ she should give my husband for helping her move some materials for our VBS.

“I have to say, I was taken aback for a moment. I asked her, “What is a cercy and why do you want to give my husband one?” That was my first introduction to ‘cercy’ and I was over 30.

“The only people that seem to know what it means live in this area. However, I am on a mission to spread this wonderful concept to others. I still call them ‘happies’ some of the time, but ‘cercy’ just seems southern and classy. I have never had someone turn away from a ‘cercy’ yet.”

D. C. W. enthuses:

“I use this term all the time!! I love giving sercies and whenever I give one to a Northern friend and try to explain it, they always look at me sideways. One important clarification about a sercy is that it is not meant to be reciprocated. It is just a “I saw this and thought of you” type of gift. I love being Southern!!”

Shelbye J R. confides:

“I was in Hilton Head with my mom and aunt this weekend and brought up the title of my next book – “Mama’s Sersey.” That lead to a discussion of how to spell the word – my spelling came from the fact that I thought the word was strictly used in our family – my mom used to tell me about how her father would bring home Hershey bars to his daughters, and my brain made the connection that, when they were younger, they couldn’t pronounce “Hershey” so it because “Sersey.”

“They corrected me and let me know that it used by a lot of other people when they were growing up in Southern Alabama. We all live in Georgia now and my mom and aunt have lived part of their lives in South Carolina and Alabama, so it’s definitely a southern thing!

“By the way, I, too, was a counselor at Rock Eagle 2001-2002 and Tybee 2003. We never called those little gifts a “sercy”..we called them “glitter” because they were almost always accompanied by an obnoxiously glitter covered artsy-fartsy handmade card! Funny how things change!”

Rev. Doug M. in Charleston, WV emailed

“Just wanted to let you know that, at our Christmas dinner last night, we had a lengthy discussion about the word “sercy,” which only my wife and I had heard. I first heard it from a friend in Charlotte, NC who brought a small gift to us when he arrived for dinner and said, “This is just a sercy.” That is, in fact, the only time I’ve ever heard it used by anyone other than us (and that only after he had used it).

“Anyway, last night we did a good bit of investigating, but did not find anything substantial until I ran across your website discussion of the word. (Spelling was, of course, the issue!) Interestingly, my wife attended a women’s college in the South.”

Gina H. adds:

“I was born and raised in Charleston, SC (lucky me; I know!) and my family has always used the term to refer to a small gift for no reason. It doesn’t have to be a purchased gift, the thought truly is the gift. For example, my sister going to the trouble of getting a recipe for pepper jelly from the grandmother of a friend, is the perfect example of a cerci. She took the time to get the recipe for me, write it up on a recipe card and mail it to me. I had not asked for the recipe, merely commented that the jelly she was serving was some of the best I had tasted.

“I had never heard anyone outside my family use the term until I met someone from Easley, SC. As an adult, I come across someone, every now and then, who is familiar with the term. That someone is always from or has some connection to the south. No one ever knows it’s origin or how to spell it. My mother always thought it had something to do with some kind of goddess (Greek, Roman???) associated with giving small tokens of affection for no reason other than letting the recipient know you were thinking of them.

“I think it is quintessentially southern – a charming colloquialism, steeped in tradition, for a thoughtful gesture.”

From Leipzig/Germany, Lara K. emails:

“for coincidence I found your page, more exactly the article in which you were searching for a possible etymology of the word sercy. Сердце (serdtsje) is the russian word for heart. The pronouciation completely differs to a br. or am. English one (which should be something like ‘sair-tseh) but anyway, there should be some semantic coincidences. It can also be derivated from other slavic words (“srdce” in czech or “serce” in polish) Maybe it helps you finding the solution.”

Good to hear from Deo V.

“Glad to see your website and thought I’d weigh in on the topic. I have used this term quite a bit since I first heard it from my son’s college girl friend many years ago. Both were attending the University of South Carolina, in Columbia SC, at the time. Ashley was a native of the Newberry District approximately 40 or so miles west north west of Columbia. Her family had been there for many generations. She was of the typical Scots/Irish Southern lineage and the term had been used by the family and those in the area for generations. I have asked many folks in my travels around the US about this wonderful term and have come to a couple of theories about it. First, it is definitely SOUTHERN and second it most likely has its roots in the Scot/Irish immigrants. There are many colloquial terms used in the south which have direct links to the Gaelic language of the Scots. Most everyone I have met who knows this term or has used it for generations back is of Scot/Irish decent or lived in an area heavily populated by the same. A wonderful word, a beautiful tradition, exemplifying the grace, hospitality and warmth of the Southern spirit. God Bless Dixie

Likewise, Mike E. says:

“I found your website as I just got back from purchasing a sercy for my girlfriend and I was looking up how to spell it for a poem to her. She’s from Salley , SC , and it seems her family and friends have used this term forever to describe any type of small gift that is given without any particular reason other than to show someone that you were thinking of them. I’m from NJ and my first thought when I received a sercy was “OK, so what do they want from me?” Nothing is the answer; it’s a no-strings-attached, feel good gesture to give one just to make someone smile. I love the South.”

From Herndon VA, Bruce J. says:

“I just hit your web site when I did a Google search for “sercy”, a word I picked up working at summer camp at the Clemson University Outdoor Recreation Laboratory in 1981. The fellow who introduced the word to me was raised in Clemson, SC, which is about 20 miles from Easley, a location given by one of your other correspondents. I, myself, was raised in the S.C. Lowcountry, and I have never heard the word anywhere else, not even from a graduate of Hollins College (a women’s college near Roanoke, Va.)whom I dated for a while. Thank you for writing about it!

Now here’s an interesting comment from Joshua W. in Mobile, AL:

“I found this fascinating discussion while searching for the correct spelling of the name of Searcy mental hospital in Mt. Vernon Alabama. In Mobile this word is synonymous with someone “going away to the funny farm” Example: “They’re gonna put you in Searcy, boy!” It has a wholly negative connotation and is not used by anyone, to my knowledge to mean gift. I have lived here 32 years and was born here, and though my grandparents have passed so I cannot now ask them, I can’t recall there having used this word for any reason. Well, I sure like your meaning better and I aim to spread this wonderful tradition!”

Walter replied: In Georgia, it was always “You’re gonna get sent to Milledgeville!!” which was the name of OUR state mental hospital.

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