View Full Version : Race & word historians: history of the term "coon?"

11-26-2005, 08:44 PM
I am writing about the 1910s, when the word "coon" was still used by blacks and whites alike (James Reese Europe and Bert Williams both used the term), though it was obviously pejorative even back then (not as much so as You-Know-What was, of course). Coon songs, coon shouters; it seems to have been widely used in show-business circles especially.

Does anyone know anything about the history of the term coon? Where it came from, how old it is, when it passed from "mildly acceptable" to "beyond the pale?"

Mr. Blue Sky
11-26-2005, 08:55 PM
A UK site says this (http://phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/40/messages/642.html)

Living in the south, I grew up hearing this term. The origin I've always heard is that it's a reference to raccons. Raccoons are known to steal food from garbage cans and gardens. Some Southerners considered blacks to be thieves and would refer to them as coons because of this.

Your origin may vary.

11-26-2005, 09:00 PM
Interesting and helpful:

"coon was orignally a short form for raccoon in 1741, then by 1832 meant a frontier rustic, and by 1840 a Whig. The 1834 song 'Zip Coon' (better known today as 'Turkey in the Straw') didn't refer specifically to either a White or a Black and the 'coon songs' of the 1840s and 50s were Whig political songs. By 1862, however, coon had come to mean a Black and this use was made very common by the popular 1896 song 'All Coons Look Alike to Me,' written by Ernest Hogan, a Black who didn't consider the word derogatory at the time."

11-26-2005, 09:01 PM

A Negro. slang. (Derog.)
1862 Songs for the Times 3 Play up, Pomp, you yaller coon. 1892 Congress. Rec. 4 Feb. 856/1 Instead of seating one colored Representative, they seated two,{em}two coons in place of the elected Representatives of the people. 1903 Westm. Gaz. 18 May 3/2 The former represented a lively..jovial coon{em}possibly ‘coon’ is not the right word, which, however, is accepted here as modern slang for a nigger. 1948 Chicago Defender 23 Oct. 7/2 A lot of us are referred to as ‘nigger’, ‘coon’, ‘darky’, etc., right to our faces. 1969 Oz Apr. 46/3 You might..deplore the way that the publicity was angled{em}poor old coon, he'll thank us in the end.

Origin is unknown. Suggested to have derived from "barracoon. A rough barrack, set of sheds, or enclosure, in which Black slaves (originally), convicts, etc., are temporarily detained." Barracoon itself is Portugese in origin.

11-26-2005, 09:25 PM
I'd be strongly inclined to disregard an anonymous contribution to a message board that provides no references to support its claims, especially it since it contradicts the OED.

b. attrib. or adj. in sense 2c = of, pertaining to, or supposedly characteristic of a Negro or Negroes; spec. coon-shout (see quot. 1946); so coon-shouter, -shouting; coon song orig. U.S., a Negro song; a popular song resembling the songs of the Negroes.

The first usage for Coon Song is apparently 1887, so if that author has any references to suport their claim that the term was in common usage in the 1840s and 50s they should probably send it to the OED editors.

Similarly the claim that coon meant a rustic or frontiersman in 1832 seems totally without any basis. The OED has numerous refernces to coon meaning a cunning or sly person, including one from 1832, but none that suggest it meant a rustic or rural white.

It seems like that contributor read the OED and cobbled together a lot of largely unrelated usages based purely on chronology. Just because coon is first used to refer to a racoon and then later used to refer to Whigs and later still to sly people and still later to refer to Negroes doesn't mean the words are derived fom one another. They may or may not all have a common link to racoons, although probably they don't.

11-26-2005, 10:00 PM
A coon dog (http://akc.org/breeds/black_tan_coonhound/index.cfm) is a hound (http://akc.org/breeds/bluetick_coonhound/index.cfm) good for hunting raccoons, I know. They are rather prized in some areas, because they are good hunting dogs in general. As for the deeper origins of the word, I'm uncertain. I'd always heard it as a slang term for raccoon, and when I was older a racial slur. I thought at the time that it was along the same lines as "zebra" for a racial slur, referring to mixed ethnic origins. Particularily nasty IMO. I wanted to go have a word with the people who called my cousin that myself when she was crying and told me why.

11-26-2005, 10:01 PM
Adding, I couldn't go have a word, because we lived out of town, and it was schoolmates who'd said it to her. We were heading home before she'd be back in school.

11-26-2005, 10:53 PM
Eve, you've probably seen this site, but for those who don't know:[url=http://ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/coon/] here's[/b] a basic rundown on the perjorative term.

11-26-2005, 10:57 PM
I'd be strongly inclined to disregard an anonymous contribution to a message board that provides no references to support its claims, especially it since it contradicts the OED.

Now, to be fair, if you 'd clicked on Mr. Blue Sky's link, it cites "I Hear America Talking" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976).

elelle, I'll check that URL, thanks.

11-26-2005, 11:42 PM
Eve. Since I think you have access to some good libraries up your way, you need to get/read Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, vol. I, edited by Jon Lighter. This is THE definitive book on US slang. It will answer all your questions.

To clear up a few things that have been posted here:

The early 1830's cites are perhaps not about a "rustic" or rural person specifically, although they almost certainly meant, to quote Jon Lighter, a man; fellow, esp. a sly or otherwise remarkable fellow.

The simultaneous use of the word to mean a black person appears in the 1834(perhaps 1829) song lyric "O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler." The next cite by Lighter in the sense of a black is from 1848--"Dey may talk ob dandy niggers/But dey neber see dis coon/A prombernading Broadway/On a Sunday afternoon." There is also a reference in the 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin--"Well, Tom, yer coons[escaped slaves] are fairly treed."

The emblem of the Whig party was a raccoon. The earliest cite linking coons/Whigs is 1842.

Certainly by 1910 the use to mean "fellow" was almost totally gone, and the use to mean "Negro" was almost universal.

I can supply more info on specific questions.

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