“Polly want a derogatory term for a melanin-challenged Euro-American?”

Posted May 18th, 2012 by
Category: Popular Culture, Public History

CrackerThe 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!

  1. The title of this blog post comes from www.vendio.com. []
  2. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green, 2005. []

3 Responses to ““Polly want a derogatory term for a melanin-challenged Euro-American?””

  1. mgawa Says:

    well, from where i see this. being a "black" guy from georgia. cracker is a term used to blanketly label all whites irrespective of place or national origin. and i should say this is how i hear it used amongst people who classify as "black" in the united states. beyond that..u gots me.

  2. Sekhmet Neteru Says:

    I am also an African American and the word cracker is a term used to refer to any European or European American. Also you restated that the word braggart was used to refer to the the root word Crack a middle English word. That doesn’t make the connection other than proving the English were the last to develop a language. Also the suffix “er” is added to denote a known freqeunt action. Crack sounds like a word created from a sound an object made. Get to cracking, Crack a joke, Crack the whip on the slaves so they stay in line Crack the whip on the animals so they’ll move faster. The word Crack has negative meaning. In our culture the word cracker comes from the slave masters or their minions cracking that whip. It also means to lose your mind to break hold of reality. Crackers are for eating too and they have no nutritional value.

  3. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Sekhmet, I appreciate that you feel the word "cracker" must derive from the use of a plantation overseer's whip. But do you have any reason to believe this is so, other than the folk etymology that assumes it to be true?

    As Kristin explains here, linguists trace the origin of the word much further back, and we have records of the word being used by white people, to refer pejoratively to other white people, long before its use as a racial epithet arose in the 20th century. This doesn't mean that the word might not invoke the idea of an overseer's whip today, in the minds of some English speakers, but that this is a new meaning for the word, and not its origin at all.

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