The Origins of the Term “Cracker”

saltine crackers

In The Sensitivity of White People and the Problem of Race in America, I proposed that the term “cracker,” when used in reference to white people, originated when black slaves equated racist bosses with the cracking sound of the whips they wielded. That etymology came to me by way of black friends in whose family lore this story lives.

Recently, a reader challenged my folkloric etymology of “cracker,” leading me to do a little research. I checked Wikipedia and found this etymology. The first couple of theories agree that the sound of a whip is the source of the term. But, as looking things up in Wikipedia is no substitute for “research,” I turned to Nell Irvin Painter‘s remarkable historical account of the creation of the white “race,” The History of White People.

Painter points to an early use of the term “cracker” in reference to European bond servants being shipped abroad in the early 1700s as part of the English effort to punish Irish insurrectionists. This class of servant was considered the dregs of English society, and they and their descendents continued to be regarded as such in North America. So, according to Painter, “cracker” may originally have been a term used for white slaves.

All very interesting, but etymology isn’t the same as meaning. There’s a lot to learn by studying the historical roots of language. But history tends to flatten out the way that people throughout time actually lived. Our own stories give meaning to what we generally regard as historical facts, like the fact that Americans were once slaves, slavers, or their minions, because they show us how we relate to these “facts” in ways that dignify our own lives.

Understood in the context of social meaning, “cracker” is a both a reminder of the fact that racial whiteness is a political construct, and of how that political construct was resisted by those it victimized, including some white people who, because of being the descendents of bond servants, enjoyed race privilege only contingent on their cooperation with white supremacy. White supremacy which, by the way, didn’t benefit them nearly as much as it did elites.

There were once white slaves, not just in America but throughout Europe and even in parts of Africa and Asia. Terms like “cracker” were used to dehumanize them in the minds of the slaver, making it possible for them to enslave people and walk away feeling like good Christians or whatever.

In America, this older system was replaced with race slavery which was justified through the creation of a the system that deemed the class “white” owner and exploiter, and the class “black” property. Over time, whiteness expanded in meaning and enveloped all European Americans in order for white elites to build the coalition necessary to maintain white supremacy. That made “crackers into oppressors, but that doesn’t mean they were anything other than “scum” in the minds of white elites.

Did black people resist white supremacy by creating a language that included references to whites as “crackers” because of the sound of the whip, or as a reminder to themselves and white people that some whites were once also slaves? Or, was cracker simply in common usage during the period of American history before race, when blacks and whites often labored together? Regardless of which interpretation is “right,” white people, not black people, invented the term and made it popular as an indication of their superior status and power over other white people.

So the story of the term “cracker” is a story about power, how it was wielded and over whom. And it’s about how those who were victimized by unjust power resisted abuse and maintained their humanity.







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15 Responses to The Origins of the Term “Cracker”

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  1. Khalif Muhammad October 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    Interesting. It is my theory that the term “cracker” and “redneck” were terms that applied to low-income “White” people whom I suspect weren’t considered “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”, many of which were “Irish”, who came here and worked as indentured servants (they gave seven years labor to the W.A.S.P.s, in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter.) Or if they were “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” and had committed some kind of crime in “England” that resulted in their being indentured servants in “New England”. Most of them still needed work after their indentured time ended and could not go back to “England”, add to that a number of slave rebellions that occurred in which poor “White” people and slaves worked against the elite. Certain laws were passed with strict punishment given to any “White” persons caught aiding any slaves. These same people became the “overseers”, “slave hunters”, “slave traders”,”slave breakers”, “slave patrols” etc. They were like the “middleman” between the wealthy slave owners and their slaves. many of them wanting to prove their loyalty to the system were hired out to break the will of slaves whom stood up to it. They developed reputations for breaking the will, and the slaves associated them being called “crackers” by the slave masters as their being a specialist in dealing with unruly slaves, using the whip in that process.

    • Vanp December 19, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

      It is probably derived from the verb to crack used in the sense “to boast” (as in not what it’s cracked up to be) in Elizabethan times, documented in Shakespeare’s King John (1595): “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?” This sense of cracker, used to describe loud braggarts, persisted especially in Hiberno-English and it, and its Gaelicized spelling craic, are still in use in Ireland, Scotland and Northern England. This explanation is given in the earliest recorded reference to the term in the specific meaning under discussion here, in a letter dated 27 June 1766 by one G. Cochrane (in some sources identified as being addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth). Different texts, different opinions. To ascertain that it only means that white were slave-owners is a bit overbroad and a hasty generalization to pidgeonhole white, but whatever floats your cracker.

  2. Selva Tinnan December 27, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Hi, Scot;

    I enjoyed your post, and consider it accurate overall regarding how ‘cracker’ was a self-chosen term whites used to distinguish themselves from black servants and slaves. You might have mentioned how much the Bible was quoted in colonial days to ‘prove’ that black people were that color because they had earned God’s disfavor.

    But I want to add a suggestion as to the real origins of the term ‘cracker’ in Old Europe.

    Our modern custom of loading hogs, cows, turkeys, ducks and even chickens onto trucks or train cars was never imaginable in Old Europe, or here in the new Colonies. The best use of corn especially, and other grains, was to fatten up your livestock and then herd it to market. On dirt or gravel roads that wandered through hill and dale, thick forests and across creeks and rivers. At least the meat could walk itself to the slaughterhouse, which the corn could not do.

    Well, the stock would wander off the trail, and without a lot of supervision would never come out the other side of the forest. So you needed human supervisors. Cheap ones. In the form of young boys (6 years and up) right off the farm. They’d never had an schooling to speak of, but went to work walking alongside these herds of pigs, cows, ducks, turkeys, chickens snapping little whips of leather cord, often on sticks, to produce a crack that hurried the animals along, and kept them from stopping to graze.

    These ‘cracker’ boys were under the supervision of grown men, drovers, who were paid by the farmer to get their meat to the marketplace. These boys naturally took pride in their first job, and were praised for their skills by the drovers and farmers, so it really meant something to them, even if they later learned another trade or got some schooling, joined the military, whatever — they would always speak of their humble and early beginnings as a ‘cracker’ with pride. As in, “No one ever handed me anything.”

    The point being, this use of ‘cracking whips’ predates organized racial slavery, certainly all over Europe and colonial America, and is probably the original origin of the phrase, as a recognized dirty job, but one with some power to it.

    When you crack a whip near a human being, it better be a big whip, and he needs to believe you will hurt him or her with it, or they will not take you seriously. But livestock? They always respond with fear, even if you are a six year old boy, and your whip is a bit of leather thong on a hickory stick. That makes you a cracker, off to see the world.

  3. George Merk May 31, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    Cracker, redneck and hoosier are three negative terms used by earliest Americans to characterize those Scottish, Irish, and North English that emigrated in the last quarter of the 1700’s. These rugged folks pioneered the Pennsylvania backcountry, Appachlachia, and the Western frontier of the South.

    • E Powell September 23, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

      “North English”
      Explain, because that makes no sense.

      • Ian Watkinson (@ian_w) October 19, 2015 at 10:44 am #

        North English doesn’t make sense, to cover people from the north of England, but North American does? How about African American…how can that make sense either you’re American or you’re not. Given we all go back to Africa if we go back far enough.

        Yours – African Englishman.

  4. Jeffrey Alan Dean-Nassar June 2, 2015 at 8:04 pm # is a great read and a more thorough and nuanced investigation in to the origin of the word “cracker” to describe groups of people. Being a 4th generation Floridian, I grew up hearing the term “Florida cracker” used with pride, and not because it had anything at all to do with slaves.

  5. Robert December 17, 2015 at 9:28 pm #

    “Cracker” is actually cajon in origin. White French Cajons would hunt alligators and use whips, to Hurd the gators. So the nickname cracker for white man arrived. They also would sunburn quite often giving them rednecks, thus the birth of the other nickname.

  6. E. Woman April 21, 2016 at 9:40 pm #

    Whites were not slaves. They were transportees. Convicts who were sent to America as indentured servants to work off their jail sentence. After they served their time they were free. Don’t use Dr. Painter’s to work to spread that ridiculous myth.

    • Dudemon May 5, 2016 at 6:56 pm #

      Hmm, that’s convenient, just all convicts eh? No poor English children nabbed off the streets, No Irish? Truth and history if you actually research would show you that the majority of indentured servants never lived to see freedom. They cost less than African slaves and worked side by side with them. Unfortunately we live in a world in which our political narrative of the time supercedes actual history.

  7. Brad Jones April 24, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

    Redneck is a term for American coal miners who wore red bandanas around their necks to signify they were pro-union.

  8. Chris May 13, 2016 at 6:21 pm #

    There is another type of “Cracker” it’s a cowboy in Florida that used to crack a whip to drive cattle here in Florida.


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