Monday, October 27, 2014

The Cracker

Cracker Cattle

What is the etymology of the term Cracker?  We all know what a Cracker was (or is).  A Southern Anglo-Celt, usually of Scots-Irish origin, who lives in the backcountry.   The term appears intact and in use by the mid-1700s in Colonial America.  One eighteenth-century definition of what a Cracker provides a good description; in 1776 a Colonial official wrote 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 place of abode.
They were basically a semi nomadic group who were excellent hunters, kept free range cattle and pigs, and lived in the backcountry.  They were normally of Ulster ancestry, but not exclusively so.

Cracker is still a much used term.  Dubious sources, such as Wikipedia, tell us it is a “usually derogatory term for white people.” Wikipedia also offers a proposed etymology of the term coming from the sound of the “whips” used by Southern whites on their livestock.
The real story is more complex.  It is term with links to Ulster and associated with the people we know as the Scots-Irish.  The original Crackers are also associated with free range cattle and lived in the backcountry.  That much is on firm ground, but the etymology is more difficult to deduce, but I believe is also linked to Ulster.  There are several possible origins, which I will not list and state each one’s case. 
Creachadóir:  This is the word I believe is the actual origin of Cracker. It is Ulster Gaelic and Scots Gaelic (Creachadair) word meaning, “raider and freebooter,” but also associated with the free range cattle drovers in Ulster.  In short, I think Cracker is the anglicised form of Creachadóir. 

Creach: (Ulster Gaelic) means a “herd of cattle,” and also a “Cattle raid.”   You will also find the word Greigh in Scot Gaelic meaning a “herd of cattle.”   There is also the Scots-Gaelic word Gréighear meaning a “farm grieve.”  (someone who took care of livestock) 
Other possible etymologies:

Cracaire: This word means “talker” or a person that chats a lot and is related to the modern Irish word “Craic” meaning “a gathering where people talk, have refreshments, and have a good time.”  As far as I can tell, the use of Cracaire and Craic are more recent in their use in the Gaelic language and I do not think this is the etymology of Cracker, but it is a debatable point.    

I think the salient element is the linking of Crackers to cattle.  Creach was anglicised as Creacht and was used from the mid-1500s into the early 1800s to describe both a herd of cattle and the drovers (cowboys) of the herd.  These men were also used for raiding parties.  So in actual use a Creacht was both a free range cowboy and raider and freebooter. In modern Gaelic usage the older meaning of free range cowboy has been dropped and now the definition is “raider and freebooter, ” but it was the same thing, or person, in a historical context.  So, in Ulster, we have the word Creach and Creacht in use in both Hiberno-English and Gaelic and meaning exactly what the Southern Crackers were.  Given the fact that the Crackers were from Ulster and were free range cowboys the Creach, Creacht, and Creachadóir, origin from Cracker is logical.
A Cracker Cowboy by Frederic Remington
The anglicised form may be from Creachadóir or it could be from Creach and anglicised from adding an English suffix of “er.”   I think however, the former more likely. 

So, the likely etymology of Cracker is from the Ulster and Scots Gaelic word Creachadóir.  For the record, Cracker is not considered derogatory among the Crackers living in the South today.  The opposite is true, it is an often used term of ethnic self-description and is a source of pride.  It means you are indigenous to the South, ancestors from Ulster or northwest Britain, have roots in the Uplands or Backcountry, are independent, self-reliant, you act in an honorable way, are good with weapons, hunting, fishing, and are man that knows how to do things.  As the Southern Crackers settled Texas and the Southwest they became the Cowboy, a cultural continuum of their unique lifestyle.   
Cowboy 1888