Just for Fun – Florida Cracker Etymology

I’m late posting, mea culpa, so here’s something light to think about.

Michael has already written about the “history” of words and the use of language. It’s important to always remember that every single word we speak, read and write has a history not only because the history of words is very interesting, but also to remind ourselves of how words can change their meaning depending on the social context and often implicit, common usage.

As an example, think of the word “gay” – to my grandparents, being gay meant being happy and the life of the party. Today it means being homosexual. A span of a couple of decades or so, or two or three generations and “WHAM!” – all meaning has changed.

I’m getting ready to head back to the United States, to my second adopted home of Florida (which is why I am late in posting) – as a Brit with a passion for history, I have always centered my spiritual leanings towards the US of A on the North Eastern seaboard and played in the “colonies” of Massachussetts, Vermont and Maine. Florida was a destination that has only attracted me because I first ended up in hospital after an accident in Central America over 20 years ago and thereafter, because of an unusual set of family circumstances.

Florida has a vivid colonial history. Forget Disney and the theme parks; it is the home of the oldest private university in the US (Stetson – he of the big hat) and the home of the very first settlements that actually survived (St Augustine) and has affected the use of English in own right. The hordes of tourists treating Florida as a surrogate Blackpool in the States simply miss out on what Florida really has to offer – so be it.

Five years ago, I happened to be in the sleepy county town of DeLand; halfway between the dross of Daytona and the glitz of Orlando. I set up camp in Bill & Frank’s Brickhouse on Woodland Boulevard and admired the Stetson chicks (“Excuse me, but do you ever wear anything low cut and sexy?”), drank the watery beer (“No wonder you guys have to sell this stuff on a buy one get one free basis!”) and generally behaved like a reprobate. (“Karl are you really like this at home?”)

Halcyon Days!

Scott is a Florida Cracker. His family have been there for several generations, which in terms of the US means he is a “plank owner” – his ancestors were frontiersmen and women who tamed a swamp before Mickey Mouse was invented. He told me one evening as we made merry, the meaning of the word “Cracker” – it’s a term used to describe people who have their real, generational roots in Florida. Cracker came from the whips used by slavemasters as the early colonisation of Florida was forcible by slaves and indentured workers.

It all sounded so plausible – except he was very wrong.

The word “Cracker” actually has a far more deeply rooted history and a far more civilised origin than slavery.

A cracker was a word used in Elizabethan times to describe a braggart – someone who was loud mouthed and full of hot air. Shakespeare actually wrote a line or two in 1560 using the word:

“Who is this cracker that deafens us…with superfluous air.”

Before you presume that this is a typical adjective for Americans – loud and boastful, remember this is what the word meant in 1560 and not what it meant in 19th century Florida some three hundred years before America was invented.

From this Elizabethan word and meaning, the term “crack” was softened; it became a term used to describe something that was entertaining and a cracker was someone we would refer to as a racconteur today. A purveyor of amusing anecdotes and jokes. The Irish-English adopted the word and in Gaelic, we have the word “craic” or “craigh” – today the Irish will say “Enjoy the craic!” and in English we may say that someone “Cracked a joke”.

The Irish-English in America were a wanton lot, drunk and bawdy, frequently moving from place to place – probably good examples of the party loving Floridians I know today. As colonisation from the Old Country (ie the UK) headed west and south, a particular group of Irish-Scottish-English hybrids explored and lived in the sub-tropical south – Georgia and Florida. The English colonial governors, referred to them as boastful braggarts and derogatorily called them “Crackers” in ye olde English sense of the word. Not to be outdone, these cowboys took the sleight as a personal compliment and referred to themselves in the 19th century as “Florida Crackers” – happy, joking, jocular settlers who originally tamed Florida before mosquito screens and air conditioning.

As an aside, another good friend of mine and Florida Cracker is Junior – he has the two-man saw used to cut the wood that many of the old homes in DeLand were built with – Junior is certainly a Floridian plank owner in every sense of those words.

Clearly the word “crack” has some history behind it and words should never be taken at face value; consider how enjoying the craic means something very different in the trailer park of south Deland known as ShaDeLand; “Do you want some crack?”

Personally, I’m a Craic Head not a Crack Head so Bill & Frank – get the Hoops ready!