Florida “Crackers”

The word “cracker” is often used to refer to people who have lived in Florida (and Georgia) for multiple generations. The term originally referred to Florida cowmen and pioneers but is now used to describe people whose families settled in Florida before the invention of window screens, air conditioning, insect repellant, and the Interstate Highway system. To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, if your family’s roots in Florida go back earlier than, say, 1950, you may be a cracker.

The term “cracker” is often said to refer to the “crack” of the slavemaster’s or the cattle herder’s whip. This is the History Channel’s theory on origin of the word and also the theory advanced by the Florida Historical Society. And while it is true that Florida cowmen herded cattle by whip and dog rather than by lasso, the term cracker probably derives from the Middle English word craik, meaning a braggart. That is clearly the meaning of the term as it appears in Shakespeare’s play King John (1595): “What cracker is this … that deafes our ears / With this abundance of superfluous breath?” In contemporary Gaelic, craik is still used to refer to a vain, boastful person. The “crack of the whip” business is probably a confection.

Other theories I have heard include the guess that “cracker” is a variation on the Spanish word cuaquero, meaning Quaker. In the colonial era, the Catholic Spanish referred to all Protestants derisively as “Quakers,” so “cracker” was intended as a slur on the Protestant Scots-Irish settlers of the region. Still another guess is that the word derives from “cracking” (grinding) corn to make corn flour. Still another is that it refers to the hardtack biscuits (crackers) that were the cowboys’ staple fare. There is no serious etymological evidence favoring any of these interpretations.

Whether the term is a compliment or a disparagement depends on context. When the African American relatives of Trayvon Martin refer to his killer as a “redneck cracker,” cracker is synonymous with bigot or racist. And if a Yankee calls a long-haired country boy from North Florida a “cracker,” cracker is synonymous with ignorant or backward. But if two cattle herders from Kissimmee are in the bar having a few beers and refer to each other as “crackers,” it is a term of endearment.

Mike Miller’s essay on the Florida cracker (“Florida Cracker: Smile When You Call Me a Cracker, Stranger!”) sets out the following standards. A proper cracker:

  • Has a family history that predates the huge explosion in Florida’s population after the Second World War.
  • Is self-reliant (“When modern civilization collapses, the Florida cracker will be hunting, fishing, trapping and growing his own food while the rest of us will be standing in line at the government owned grocery store with our ration stamps.”)
  • Is white, was raised in a rural setting, and self-identifies as a Southerner (usually meaning that there is a Confederate battle flag displayed on the cracker’s pickup truck).

Real crackers also eat cooter (a soft shell turtle), grits, chitlins (pig intestines cleaned and deep-fat fried), greens, fried alligator tail meat, hominy (white corn soaked in lye and then boiled), and pineywoods rooters (feral hogs that crackers love to hunt). Cracker politics are anti-Establishment, anti-big-government, and anti-welfare-state conservatism.

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