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Down Memory Lane to Tobacco Road

Ever willing to gratify readers of this blog, I take on their questions:

What does "cracker' mean and what is its derivation?

The Oxford English Dictionary, like many others, will tell you that cracker is a “contemptuous name given in southern States of N. America to the ‘poor whites’; whence, familiarly, to the native whites of Georgia and Florida.” That’s at the main cracker entry. An allied definition appears at the corn-cracker entry: “A contemptuous name for a ‘poor white’ in the Southern States (? from his subsisting on corn or maize); a ‘cracker’. Also, a native of Kentucky.”

It is not quite the equivalent of hillbilly, which indicates poor whites of Appalachia rather than Georgia; or linthead, which identifies poor whites from the cotton-mill districts of the Carolinas; or redneck, which has an even broader geographical reach. But it is, like its first cousins, disparaging.

The origin is obscure. One theory is that it comes from the aforementioned corn-cracker. You’ll remember that Jimmy cracked corn (but perhaps you don’t care). But that etymology is questionable, partly because the citations are not the oldest.

A more interesting theory is that it comes from cracker in the sense of “one who cracks,” not just objects, but also jokes. There are some fairly old citations indicating that a cracker is a boaster or braggart or liar, as in this from Shakespeare’s King John:

"What cracker is this same that deafes our eares / With this abundance of superfluous breath?"

The OED offers this passage of a letter from 1766: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”

Cracker, like many disparaging terms, reeks of class distinctions. My parents, who spent their whole lives in Fleming County, Kentucky, who lived for many years in modest circumstances and who spoke with a pronounced regional accent, nevertheless spoke condescendingly of other Fleming Countians whose accents were even stronger. Language is an invaluable support in our efforts to identify people to look down on.

And a few other questions:

Do copy editors ever get together and throw down? Like, someone hands a pair of editors some high school essay, and they race to see who can most quickly clean it up?

Every blessed night.

There should be a Bulwer-Lytton prize for journalism.

Perhaps we could send in what the Pulitzer Prize-winning texts look like before they go through the copy desk.

Mr. McIntyre, did I just read the word "ass" in your post?

Indeed you did. But if my masters ever get wind of what I’m doing here. …

What good is it to be a Titan of Copy Editing if you can be "overruled"?

Being a titan of copy editing is roughly equivalent to being the proverbial one-eyed man in the valley of the blind.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (6)
        

Comments

Cracker has a significantly different meaning in Florida. As a Northerner, I was horrified when I saw the word in print at my first job down on the Space Coast. I equated it in my mind with something disparaging, like "honky." My husband and several other native Floridians I knew assured me that, at least in Florida, cracker is a term of pride for native Floridians, derived from the cattle drivers who would "crack" their whips. It has been permitted in print in all four Florida newspapers I have worked at, and local groups around here have Cracker Day Festivals (in which cattle-related skills are promoted, much BBQ is consumed and a fun time is had by all).

Denise has beaten me to the classic, rural, Florida meaning of Cracker (the crack of the cattle whip). It is indeed used throughout the state, with Cracker Fest, Cracker Days, etc., abounding. Two Florida animals, now in more limited numbers, are the Cracker Cow and Cracker Horse.

And Denise, the Space Coast's Cracker Fest is now called the Old Florida Fest.

Thanks, Beth. I was actually referring to the Cracker Day festival in Bunnell (I work in Daytona now), which has an overabundance of proud Crackers, much more so than any area I knew of in Brevard. :-) (Though my husband is a proud Brevard Cracker, from waaaaay out by Lake Washington. . .)

I find it strange that melungeons have been found in texas and louisianna and ohio, but for some strange reason not in georgia and florida? Goodle melungeon crackers...nada...I've done some prelim on this and found the % age of melungeon names in early georgia exceeds 50%, while in florida its below 20%...but the early names are there, like driggers and locklear.

Dromgooles description of melungeon life sounds like an 1820 travelogue thru ga or florida. And then there is the pony boys...disaffected tories floridian pirates who find themselves in NW ga about the time the cherokee are packing up to leave. Finally defeated they run back to where? Tennessee?

I think this is an area that needs some work.I think it says something about what happened to the creek and cherokee as well.

There are some 'proud crackers' here in Brevard county. But, It is used as a derogatory term here also.By the 'blacks' to the 'whites'. Although there is still a crackerfest every year in October at a nature center. I am shocked and horrified by the racial division and prejudice attitude that is present here. We moved here 2 months ago.

As a native born, ninth generation Floridian, I have never before heard or read the expression "space coast." Gag me with a spoon!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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