Indigo Insights

Monday, August 30, 2004
Polly want a derogatory term
for a Melanin-Challenged Euro-American?

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the word "cracker"? Someone told me that it dated back to the slave days, when slave owners were called "crackers" because they cracked a whip on slaves. Is this true? -- Cygerr, via the internet.

Probably not, although that is one oft-heard theory among many. But before we proceed any further, we'd better back up a bit and explain (especially for our overseas readers) that "cracker" is a derogatory slang term usually used to mean a poor white person resident in the Southern U.S., especially in the state of Georgia, which is sometimes referred to as "the Cracker State." More than simply a regional slur, "cracker" carries the implication that the person is a racist, and is sometimes applied to any white person perceived as harboring racist sentiments, regardless of class or geographic particulars.

There are theories tracing "cracker" to the crack of a slavemaster's whip, or to "corncracker" (slang for country folk, who presumably ate a lot of corn). But the actual source is almost certainly the much older slang sense of "to crack" meaning "to boast or brag," first seen around 1460, and its derivative "cracker," meaning "braggart," which appeared around 1509. The earliest use of "cracker" used in the "poor white" sense discovered so far bears out the connection. In a letter written to the Earl of Dartmouth in 1766, an observer named Gavin Cochrane, referring to bands of outlaws operating at that time in the Southern U.S., noted: "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."

Evidently these outlaws were so successful that their exploits, along with their bragging habits, became legendary throughout the eastern United States. By the early 19th century, "cracker" had become a term applied to poor Southern whites in general.

[Yes, it's dedicated to him!]