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Cracker

Dear AC,

Being from Australia I often hear the term "cracker" used by black American comedians, in reference to white people. Can you tell me what is the meaning and where did the term originate.

Many thanks,

Michael C.
Grafton, New South Wales
Australia



Dear Michael,

There must be something in the air. Yours is the second letter I've gotten recently on the subject of racial insults. Back in the 1700s, cracker was a derogatory term used by American whites to describe poor Southerners of their own race. Since then, its meaning has become more generalized and it is often used by blacks to describe whites, especially racist whites. However, the word still retains the flavor of Southern poverty.

Its history is far less clear. You can find the word as far back as Shakespeare. In The Life and Death of King John, Philip the Bastard calls the Duke of Austria an ass (another insult that's been around a while). The duke responds by saying, "What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?" In this sense, a cracker is a loudmouth and boastful person. Similar instances of this word used about Southerners can be found in literature of colonial America.

Although this theory is my personal favorite, there are others. Another possibility is the connection with corn liquor produced in the South, since corn is "cracked" before being mixed with other ingredients and fermented into alcohol. In the US, this industry is strongly associated with Southern states, especially the illegal "moonshine" corn whiskey that was produced secretly to avoid government taxation in the 1800s. On a recent visit to my parents, who live down in North Carolina, we visited a cultural museum where one of the featured exhibits was a still (the equipment for producing corn whiskey). To the best of my knowledge, there are no stills in museums up here in Boston. Most sources that believe this to be the root of the word point to song The Blue Tail Fly (more popularly known as Jimmy Crack Corn) which tells the story of a slave who escapes punishment when his master is killed in a riding accident - even though it happened because he failed to keep flies from biting the master's nervous horse.

While there are other colorful ideas about the roots of this word (cracking whips, white people's resemblance to Saltine crackers, etc.), they have less support from the academic community. There is also no relationship between this word and crack cocaine, just in case you were wondering. That word comes from the preparation of the drug - you have to crack it into small pieces before smoking it.

So how bad is it to say cracker? Well, everything is relative, but I'd have to say, "not very." For a black to say it to a white in a bar might cause a fight, but you can say it on television and the state of Georgia even lists "The Cracker State" on their official website as a nickname. More than that, there have been two major musical acts (both white) to use the name in the last decade. The rock band Cracker, started in the early 90s, was the first. However, the title was apparently such a desirable property that musician Matt Shafer asked them for permission to use the exact same name, but spelled with a K. They said no, and he went on to become popular as Uncle Kracker. Although he comes from Michigan, Shafer even named one of his albums Double Wide after the prefabricated mobile homes favored by poor white Southerners.

The truth is that cracker and its many synonyms are not considered as strong or offensive as similar negative words for minorities. As the majority in the US (making up over 82% of the total population), whites can be offended by the term, but given the illustrations above, obviously do not take it too seriously or find it threatening. As the dominant culture, whites also have more influence on the language. For example, according to the now defunct Racial Slur Database (you can still find copies of this online at http://gyral.blackshell.com/names.html), there are roughly twice as many derogatory English Slang terms for blacks as for whites.

This deficit of strong insults for whites is also demonstrated by an old sketch from Saturday Night Live. In the scene, black comedian Richard Pryor and white comedian Chevy Chase trade racial insults. While Chase's verbal attacks on African Americans grow worse and worse (porch monkey, jungle bunny, nigger) Pryor quickly runs out of bad words to describe white people and must desperately repeat himself with the much milder word honky.

Although that was back in the 1970s, there haven't been any great additions of serious insults for whites since then. It would be nice, of course, if we could all get along and make racial slurs a thing of the past, but I doubt if that will happen in my lifetime. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that one day, we can all be insulted equally.

Your pal,

A. C. Kemp

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