A Cracker is all they're cracked up to be
Cracker is one of the oldest "epithets" for hardworking, white Southerners who have an abiding tie to the land. For many, there is a mystery to the origin of a word that might be described best through lifestyles than by its historical development.
I swanny, I was pert near to finshin' my writin' 'bout a good ol' boy when I thought: I reckon I ought to do better by these here folks what's done so much for us and learn a bit more 'bout my kin folk and neighbors.
Cracker origin theories
There seems to be three main assumptions on the origin of the word Cracker — four if your count mine.
• Assumption one: Cracker comes from a Celtic word meaning braggart or loudmouth. This theory, according to The American Dialect group, which is dedicated to bridging the gap between the scholarly and literary worlds of dialectology, doesn't explain why the word would be applied to the usually reserved folk of the Florida backwoods. I guess they never actually talked to a Cracker.
Although I hail from South Carolina, I consider myself a Cracker and wear the label as a badge of honor. Our basic philosophy is: "Take a breath, lose a turn." All's fair in the fine art of story telling.
• Assumption two: Cracker comes from the practice of "corncracking," or grinding dried corn that's used as grits — which is always plural mind you.
When Cracker is used in this sense, it refers to somebody who can't afford any other food. Well, if you know how to cook grits the right way, what else do you need?
• Assumption three: According to the The American Dialect group, Cracker has been used since the early 1800s because it was the sound of the whips the Florida cattlemen used to drive their cattle and oxen. Actually, at the end the whip was a tip called a cracker, so perhaps this was also a reason.
• Assumption four from the Undercover Historian: From 1718-1775, Anglo- Saxon refugees of the Norman Conquest called Scots-Irish settled in the Appalachian backcountry. Not afraid of hard work, they came to America looking for a good life and a good fight every now and again. Florida was a natural progression for these folks who were looking for a piece of land and looking to be left alone. When they came, they brought their American Old English (also called American Anglo Saxon) with them and turned it into what we now call Appalachian English, an archaic variety of the language that still preserves many features that date back to the development of the English language in Britain. This sweet form, which is often thought to be substandard today, is actually the outmoded standard of yesteryears.
Other relatively isolated mountain areas show a similar preservation of archaic speech. Linguist Mario Pei says the speech of the Ozarks comes closer to Elizabethan English than the speech of modern London. Now ain't 'dat sumpin'?
Crackers in our neck of the wood
One of the most revered books on the Florida Cracker culture is Rob Storter's "Crackers in the Glades — Life and Times in the Old Everglades." At age 70, Mr. Storter, whose family settled Everglade (later renamed Everglades City by Baron Collier) in the late 1800s, spent the last 15 years of his life drawing his memories of growing up around the turn of the century in the last frontier in America. By the time of his death, he had amassed a collection of folk art and interpretations that depicts a time when people lived in sync and worked with the natural cycle of nature on a small scale within a very unique ecosystem. Mr. Storter passed in 1984, leaving us a matchless perception of a Cracker's life and time.
A mystery no more
We are all beholden to the likes of the Storters, Franks, McSwains, Captain Morgan, the Beckfords and others. These Cracker gentlemen raised their families and left a legacy in their own way, a way that still charms and intrigues us today. Those who worry that the term might be considered derogatory should be reminded what Will Rogers said: "If you ain't got no malice in your heart, you can't have none in your gag."
Well, there's no malice in my heart for hardworking Crackers like my family or my adopted extended family in Naples — so I reckon they are all they're cracked up to be — and oh so much more.
Lois Bolin is the co-founder of Naples Cultural Landscape, a fund at the Community Foundation of Collier County. Naples Backyard History is the fund's educational initiative. For more information, visit the NBYH Mini-Museum at 1300 Third St. S., call 594-2978 or visit www.naplesbackyardhistory.org.