Category: Popular Culture, Public History
The origin of the word “cracker” was never important to me.1 Growing up in Vermont, my only relationship to the word was something we put in soup or ate with cheese. I was vaguely aware that it was a pejorative term of southerners, but I never gave it much thought.
That all changed a few years ago when I started working for the Tracing Center. I was trying to think of an interesting introductory activity for a teacher workshop – I wanted something that would ground people in the content of slavery and get them comfortable with the idea of talking about difficult subjects. I chose four words – “slave”, “master”, “cracker”, and “quadroon” – and each person was given one word to respond to in writing. They were to write down whatever came to mind about the word and then we went around in a circle and shared responses. I’ve done this activity multiple times hence and have found it a great way to start a discussion. However, I always run into the same problem … people will ask about the origin of the word “cracker”?
We would probably all agree that in contemporary lexicon, “cracker” refers to a poor, white person from the South with racist tendencies. However, everyone has their own opinion on the word’s origin. Lots of people think it originated in the antebellum era and has something to do with the cracking sound made by the whip of an overseer or driver. That would be an incorrect assumption. The etymology of the word is so much more interesting than that.
During the Elizabethan era, the word was used to describe braggarts – the root of this is the Middle English word “crack” referring to entertaining conversation. Ever hear someone use the phrase “crack a joke”? Same origin. Our favorite wordsmith William Shakespeare used it in his 1595 play King John, “What cracker is this that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?”
The word’s origin in the Americas appears as early as a 1766 letter to the Earl of Dartmouth from a G. Cochrane, “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers, a name they have got from being best boasters, they are a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”2 So we know that “crackers” mid-18th century foundation in the Americas was as a reference to a group of nomadic, unruly southern windbags. I’ve also seen it used as a derivative of “corn-cracker,” a diminutive used to reference poor farmers who raise only “cracked” products such as wheat and corn. It wasn’t until the early-mid 20th century that “cracker” became a pejorative racial epithet.
So I now proudly deputize all Tracing Center blog-readers as “Myth Busters.” If you hear people giving the wrong origin of this word, please correct them. Stop the mythology!
- The title of this blog post comes from www.vendio.com. [↩]
- Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green, 2005. [↩]