This article was written by Ken Johnston for the Rural Florida Living History Museum – Cracker Country’s newsletter
Recollections of the Past and was a text used in Outreach Programming.
There are many stories as to why the peoples in the geographic region from the Georgia Piedmont down through the Florida Panhandle and Peninsula are called
Cracker, most of them based on what is known as a
folk etymology. Just as the terms
folk music or
folk tale describe something rising from the plain people, or ordinary
folks, so folk etymology describes the way in which a particular group of people will derive an origin for a word in the local vocabulary that makes sense based on what they see around them. In the case of Cracker the two most common explanations for the name were from the cracking, instead of milling, of corn (Georgia), or the cracking of whips used to drive cattle (Florida). Folk etymologies such as these most often come about when the connection with the actual history or origin of a word has been lost or broken over time, and this is exactly what happened in the case of the word Cracker; for its use in describing a particular group of Southerners predates by two centuries the cracking of corn or whips.
The origin of Cracker is to be found in the word
craic, from Gaelic, the old language family of such Celtic peoples as the Irish and the Scots. Among the Irish it could mean
entertaining talk or
boisterous and bragging, and as the Irish enjoy immensely such spirited talk craic also meant
fun or a good time. Meanwhile, in Scotland, it was used to designate independent yeoman who were obnoxious to the aristocracy (presumably from speaking their minds in typical dour and emphatic Scottish fashion). While the word craic was used by both the Irish and Scots (who raided and traded among themselves), it was also appropriated by their English subjugators; being
anglicized in the process to
cracker and meaning
fast talker. It was used in this sense as early as 1595 by William Shakespeare in his play King John, Act 2 sc 1, when he has the Duke of Austria say of the fiery Philip—
What Cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?.
By the 1760’s the English were applying the term to the Scots-Irish settlers of the Southern backcountry and Appalachia; as in this passage from a Colonial letter sent to the Earl of Dartmouth:
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 rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode. In 1790, well before Florida cow-hunters were cracking whips, the Spanish Governor of Florida refers in a letter to
…those who are called Crackers, a species of white renegade. So the word came with these people as they moved southward into lower Georgia and Florida and began to be applied as a generic term to the descendants of the early frontiersmen of Celtic ancestry—and so we have it with us to this day. The term still has spurious stories attached to it. One particularly onerous such story has the word being derived from the sound of whips used on slaves; while this is probably a corruption of the cow-whip cracking story it is a blatant distortion of history in that Crackers, being the poorest members of society, did not own slaves or customarily work as over-seers for those who did (not meaning to deny aspirations that an individual Cracker may have had to join the slave owning Planter aristocracy).
A question that is sometimes raised is why the word
cracker did not also become part of the vocabulary in such places as the cities (and surrounding areas) of New York, Boston and Chicago which experienced a huge influx of the Irish in the aftermath of
An Gorta Mór (
the Great Hunger, as the Potato Famine of the late 1840’s was known to them). The rather simple explanation for this is that the majority of these Celtic immigrants were coming from the Catholic south and west of Ireland—people with whom the English did not have as much direct contact—while a majority of Celtic settlers in south-eastern North America were the Protestant Scots-Irish of the so called
Ulster Plantations in the northern counties of Ireland, with whom the English had much more contact. It was the English who had originally bestowed the word Cracker as a derogatory term, so the name stuck to the Celtic settlers in those earlier, English controlled Colonial societies; in the later waves of the mid 1800’s it was Yankee Americans who were the predominate force in the society receiving the Irish—and they didn’t have or need Cracker as a term to disparage the Irish—
Catholic was derogatory enough for them.
A proper ending for this discussion is, I think, to show how the words
cracker are still used today in the lands from where they came to us:
From Waterford News & Star, July 13, 2001—Waterford, Ireland
Ceol & Craic Festival Weekend Planned. This August Bank Holiday weekend is going to be a cracker in Stradbally! Starting off on Friday night, there will be traditional music on offer through a number of the local pubs.…Times for the Country Market from 10:30am to 12pm. Stalls of fresh veggies, home baked goods, plants ad crafts are on the menu, but Sunday will be the day for the real craic!
Two other examples can, surprisingly, be found on American television. The first example is from the PBS series Manor House, in which modern volunteers see how they would fare living in an English manor of 1910. When describing in modern terms his attraction for one of the other participants Kenny Skelton, serving as Hall Boy, says of Ellen Beard, Scullery Maid,
She’s a cracking bird. In addition on the Comedy Central program, The Daily Show when host Jon Stewart asked guest Craig Fergusson, host of The Late Show and a native of Scotland, how he enjoyed interviewing, Mr. Fergusson replied
Oh it’s great craic!
The Oxford English Dictionary
Albion’s Seed – David Hackett Fischer
Cracker – Dana Ste. Claire
The New Georgia Encyclopedia – Dr. John Burrison
Irish Dictionary – Seamus Mac Mathuna & Ailbhe O’Corrain