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.