Dear Word Detective: I live in North Carolina and “Cackalacky” seems to be a synonym for the old north state (as well as a barbecue sauce.) I was wondering if it originally had meaning or was just a great nonsense word. — Caroline Sunshine.
Ah, North Carolina, the Tar Heel State, otherwise known as the Old North State, both of which are seriously strange nicknames. I had, I must admit, never heard North Carolina referred to as “Cackalacky” before I read your question. I initially suspected that it was, as you suggest, simply “a great nonsense word,” a silly name the locals had invented. After a bit of research, however, I discovered that there is quite a bit more to the story.
The first thing to note is that “Cackalacky” seems to be used as a nickname for both North Carolina and South Carolina. The second, and more productive, thing I’ve learned about “Cackalacky” is that there are a lot of people out there, especially at the University of North Carolina (UNC), trying to figure out where this “Cackalacky” business came from.
In a 2005 posting to ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Association, Bonnie Taylor-Blake pointed to the work of two UNC faculty members, Paul Jones and Connie Elbe, who have been searching for information on “Cackalacky” (also, according to Taylor-Blake, sometimes seen in the forms Cackalackie, Cackalack, Kakalak, Kakalaka, Cakalacky, Kackalacky, Cakalaka, and others).
There are a number of theories about the origin of “Cackalacky,” but, despite the efforts of folks at UNC, so far no one has been able to pin down its source with any real certainty. Such vagueness is not uncommon in cases of “folk speech,” which may pass from generation to generation by word of mouth for many years without ever being written down. This seems to be especially true in the case of “Cackalacky,” which was apparently completely undocumented in printed form until it was used (in the form “cakalaka”) in the lyrics to a hip-hop song by A Tribe Called Quest in 1991. Since that time, use of the term in hip-hop lyrics and on the internet seems to increased its popularity quite a bit.
One theory about “Cackalacky,” suggested by Glenn Hinson at UNC, traces it to “a capella” gospel groups in the American South in the1930s, who used the rhythmic (but apparently meaningless) chant “clanka lanka” in their songs. This theory seems plausible. Elsewhere, a South Carolina newspaper reported back in 2003 that Page Skelton, the inventor of “Cackalacky” brand hot sauce, believes the word may have come from a combination of “Tsalaki” (pronounced cha-lak-ee), supposedly the Cherokee way to say “Cherokee,” and “cocklaleekie,” a Scottish soup. That theory strikes me as deeply implausible. But both of those theories are preferable to the one that traces “Cackalacky” to “Kakerlake.” which is German for “cockroach” (although you folks down there do have those disturbingly large “palmetto bugs,” which are actually just jumbo cockroaches).
So as it stands right now, the origin of “Cackalacky” remains a mystery. But with the increasing popularity of the term, it’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere, will stumble across some historical material, perhaps an old newspaper or memoir, that puts the matter to rest.