Thursday, August 07, 2008


Cracker is a derogatory term that was applied to poor Southern whites, especially those who lived in Georgia and Florida. The word has at its root the verb to crack, which had many disparate meanings according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

• To make a dry sharp sound in breaking.
• To make a sharp or explosive noise (said of thunder or a cannon (chiefly dial.), a rifle, a whip, etc.).
• To slap, smack, box.
• To utter, pronounce, or tell aloud, briskly, or with éclat.
• To talk big, boast, brag; sometimes, to talk scornfully (of others).
• To converse briskly and sociably, chat, talk of the news.
• To break anything hard with a sudden sharp report; now chiefly of things hollow, a skull, a nut, etc.
• To break or crush (corn, etc.) into small pieces.
• To snap or split asunder.
• To break without complete separation or displacement of parts, as when a fracture or fissure does not extend quite across.
• To damage (something immaterial) so that it can never again be sound; to ruin virtually.
• To move with a stroke or jerk.
• To decompose (heavy oils such as petroleum) by the application of heat and high pressure alone or by means of a catalyst so as to produce lighter hydrocarbons (e.g. petrol) of better quality and with a better yield than can be obtained by distillation.
• Of a door: to be slightly ajar; to leave slightly ajar.

Consequently, there are competing theories as to the origin of cracker as an epithet.
from a boaster, braggart, and liar. [1766: G. COCHRANE Letter, 27 June (D.A.), “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.”]
from corn-cracker, since they were said to subsist on corn or maize. [1878: N. H. BISHOP Voyage of a Paper Canoe, 228 “That class of..people called in the south because they subsist largely upon corn. Corn Crackers, or Crackers. These Crackers are the ‘poor white folks’ of the planter.”]
from the sound made by their whip. [1887: Boston Beacon, 11 June, “The word Cracker … is supposed to have been suggested by their cracking whips over oxen or mules in taking their cotton to the market.”]

In modern use, a cracker is someone who breaches the security of a computer system.

SIDEBAR: cracker recipes

SIDEBAR: Wordspy – cracker

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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