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shameless pleading






Boom chocka-locka-locka.

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.

74 comments to Cakalacky

  • Bonnie Taylor-Blake

    Hi, Evan.

    Thanks for your article on “Cackalacky” (and variants). I just thought I’d point out that we have a 1972 appearance of “Cackalacky,” which was used in a play. Also, “Calinky,” surely a close cousin, pops up in a 1974 work by James Michener. See below for more information. (I’m located still earlier forms of “Calinky” via Google Books, but — last time I checked — it was impossible to nail down precious bibliographic information.) — Bonnie

  • One thing that Dr Eble and Bland Simpson and I were able to recall but not document is that during the mid-1960s both Bland, who was living in Coastal NC, and me, living in Charlotte, heard the term Cackalack used. Those who used the term in both cases were enlisted men — Marines from Jacksonville or Soldiers from Fayetteville — who were unhappy about being stuck down here in Cackalack.

    I’ve seen no written evidence of this usage, but would love to hear/see anything anyone finds.

    I love Page Skelton’s hot sauce, but I trust his etymologies for which he has offered no evidence ;->

  • David Whitson

    There is no “South” in Cackalacky.

  • Lizz Price

    In elementary school, we frequently watched an educational PBS show (1980’s) that referred to South Carolina as South Cackalacky. If memory serves it was a reference to a bird. At least that is what we were told.

  • Kathy McCord

    I was born in 1950 and my grandmother schoolteacher often referred to our state as North Cackalacky. I’m sure she probably told me why, but I don’t remember. You mentioned the Scots and the Germans. That doesn’t help me since her German ancestors came to NC’s western part of the state in the 1600s, and my grandfather’s, ancestors were part of the first Scots to come here in the 1700s.

  • […] alerts me that Word Detective is now on the case. Here. Dr. Connie Eble, Dr. Glenn Hinson, and in particular Bonnie Taylor-Blake offer good information […]

  • […] With Google at my fingertips, I quickly learned that Cackalacky is a nickname for Carolina, USA and for many things originating in the two states, North and South, though the origins of the word are a mystery. […]

  • George Abruzzese

    My family would take trips down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina when I was a kid in the 80’s. My dad always referred to it as North Cackalacky. I always thought it was one of his weird nicknames as he did that with everything. I was surprised to find out that this one at least was not invented by him! lol As my dad was born in 1941, I can only imagine that he heard it growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, as most of his pop culture references come from that time period.

  • Traci

    I don’t know why you say the Cherokee or Scottish language sources are implausible. We surely do have The Cherokee and the Scotch-Irish settled in our mountains, with many of us descended from them with other words and phrases enduring since then. Think “poke” for the word, bag. Don’t you think that is a possibility?

    In any case, I grew up hearing my dad and grandfather using “North Cackalacky” as a synonym for North Carolina, often when trying to convey that we are in a remote, removed area from everyone else in the world. Still, it was always said with great warmth and pride.

    As far as using it when describing South Carolina–well, they don’t count anyway. ;)

    • They are implausable as origins largely because of the complete lack of any documentation that would in any way link Cherokee or Gaelic to the word Cacklacky save Skelton’s imagination (something put to great use in his creation of food products, but less so in the area of linguistic research).
      If the word had been coined or even in use pre-mid-20th century wouldn’t that word like say “poke” have been recorded at least once somewhere?
      No one has been able to show a single instance of any version of Cacklacky pre-1950.
      If you find such, do post here.

  • Michael Arrowood

    I’m a native Tar Heel (born 1961) and never heard this particular usage until about 10 years ago. I live in Western NC, and no one I knew ever referred to North or South Carolina by that term when I was growing up. I just assumed it was a recent slang invention… it would be very interesting if something more specific about its origins can be learned. Never heard of a native using it.

  • Andrew Davis

    I was born in NC in 1968, my family got to the Carolinas in 1697. I have never heard anyone ever use the term Cackalacty or any derivation of that word.

    In my experience, it has always been used by Northerners, in a slightly but not always sneering manner. Right after they ask if I have guns or know how to make shine.

    I do not believe it is a term which came from the Carolinas.

  • Ellis Green

    I’m from S.C., born in 1961. First hearing the term in the late 80’s/early 90’s, from well-known wrestler, The JunkYard Dog, who repeatedly used the phrase. People in my neighborhood thought he started it. Then I thought it was a young, hip-hop thing.

  • Rita

    I lived in South Carolina just outside of Charleston for about six years in the nineties. Nearly everyone I knew used the term ‘South Cackalacky’ at least once. My mother has called North Carolina ‘North Cackalacky’ for as long as I can remember.

  • I’ve lived in NC for almost my entire life. My family has lived in NC since before the Revolution. My grandma used the term “Cackalacky”…but only in reference to NC, never SC. Then I heard it in a song & it became very popular.

  • Marc

    Let’s stop the Carolina’s battle. Maybe if we both got along we’d be able to combine and be a powerhouse. For the record, Cackylacky can be used to refer to either Carolina. North Carolina is not the only state with Carolina in its name and FYI, NC did secede from SC soooo uhhh who was first? I’ll leave it with Cackylacky is for both Carolinas to share…no need to be greedy

    • Jeff White

      In 1710 the Carolina colony was divided, when Edward Hyde was appointed by the Lords Proprietors to be “…Governour for North Carolina Independent of the Governour of South Carolina.” The southern part was called South Carolina and the older, northern settlement North Carolina. This was when the nickname “Old North State” was born.

      Note: “[…]older, northern settlement[…]” So you were saying?

  • Randy

    From a Union letter/story:
    “Those North carolina boys carry so many possibles you and hear em clinkn’ a mile away.”
    From all pans and equipment they carried.

  • Three things:

    1. I hate “cackalacky” with the flaming passion of a thousand white-hot suns. Worse than nails on the chalkboard.
    2. I was born in NC (1966) and heard it from early childhood, usually in reference to SC, sometimes to NC. So, whatever its origins, they at least predate ’76 or so.
    3. No, I REALLY hate that not-a-word word.

  • not a gator

    I thought that this word was associated with and spread by the US Armed Forces, specifically Marines, who referred to South Carolina as South Cackalacky.

    The Cherokee connection seems plausible except that the oral histories given by other commenters point to a coastal origin, whereas the Cherokee lived inland.

    • Mary

      I was born in eastern NC in 1942 and attended college in Greensboro, NC. I lived in Florida for a good many years and spend a couple of years in Wisconsin.

      I never heard the word Cackalacky until I moved to California and was working on a Navy base. I belive the man who used it had been in the Marines. I also hated the word. It was foreign to me and, for whatever reason, seemed insulting.

  • Susan

    All I know is, I’ve lived in NC since 1962, and the first time I heard it was when the Carolina Panthers first arrived in Charlotte and the city welcomed them. I was watching it live on TV, and one of the players came out on the stage and said, “HELLO NORTH CAKALACKY!!!” Been using it ever since.

  • p3orion

    Although raised in both North and South Carolina, I never heard Cackalacky until I started meeting northerners in college; those from New Jersey seemed especially fond of the term. Given their general attitude about the south, I didn’t suspect that it was a positive or even neutral term, and to this day I’ve never heard a Carolina native use it. It’s probably similar to “Frisco” in reference to San Francisco, and should be used the same way: with knowledge that locals may find it somewhat offensive; you just have to decide whether you care or not.

  • shush..

    We should ask Charlie Brown of the hip-hop group Leaders Of the New School. He uses the term “North Cakalaka” in a song called “Scenario” released by A Tribe Called Quest in 1991. Maybe he can tell us the origin.

  • Bill H.

    I first remember hearing it used by golfers in S.C. in 1962. It was south cackalacy and north cacklacky.

  • Paul J. Stinson

    I am a native of Durham and my family has been here for a few hundred years. I have always heard the term for both Carolinas. Although I like the idea of a bird or native american inspiration, if I had to take a guess, I would think that the word is an onomatopoeia representing the sound of the automated looms in the mill towns across the Carolinas. This would be similar to the rise of Charlie Poole’s banjo music that incorporated the same rhythm from the mill in Spray, North Carolina. It probably shared another nickname “lint head” describing the same. The automated sound is ” boom-caka-laka-laka-boom”.

  • I was born and raised in NC. From a family of Tar Heels since 1700. Been a Sandlapper since 1972. First heard Cackalacky from my grandfather in the early 50s. It is just slang for Carolina. Dont know where it came from but certainly has no relationship to Yankees. Probably just redneck slang.

  • Tom Bland

    A radio DJ in Greenville, NC has used North Cackalacky in his show since the late 70’s and early 80’s. John Moore has a great beach music and oldies show and is a native of eastern NC. I think he may have served in the military after high school, which would have been around 1970. Thus, it may add some fuel to the theory that servicemen stationed in NC originated the term.

  • Bill Bowman

    I was born in Winston-Salem in 1948, raised in Guilford County, and spent most of my life in NC. I never heard the term until today when a woman from Memphis told me I looked very Cackalacky because of my seersucker suit and bowtie. I can’t decide if the term is complimentary or derisive.

  • Cathy Evans

    For folks who love this sort of thing, my husband got me “Talkin’ Tarheel” for my birthday. “Cackalacky” is in there as well as “buddyrow”, “poke” and many, many, MANY words for “things askew”!

  • […] sauce. He remarked that he had friend in the coast that used say she was from North Cackalacky. Here’s¬†one explanation of where the word came […]

  • ray r.

    Maybe it was someone who had some speech impediment when trying to pronounce “carolina”. Could have been pronounced “cackalina” back in the day???

  • EnArkhe

    I agree with Ray that the answer is simple: it is nothing more than a mispronunciation of “Carolina”. Reduplicating the first syllable of a weird is a very common error, especially with children. I bet somebody heard a child saying that, thought it was funny and then ” spread the word” so to speak.

  • Bill Robie

    In the mid-1960s, the Famed Players Retreat pub frequently had a live singer/piano player who’s name was, I believe, Sammy Gay. (“Swing and Sway with Sammy Gay”) One of the songs that he sang was a modification of what I later learned to have been a 1920s tin-pan alley song called, “Nagasaki” (pronounced in the song, “nag-uh-SACK-key”). This fanciful and bawdy song, which referred to a pre-WWII Japanese city visited by American sailors, reflected no real knowledge of Japan or its culture–but such things were of little importance to the American music industry in the 1920s. It talked about amusing things that sounded Japanese to Americans, and that was sufficient back then.

    Cab Calloway recorded this song, making it popular among early Jazz enthusiasts. My recollection is that Sammy Gay’s version adapted many of the same lyrics sung by Calloway, exchanging “Cackalacky” for “Nagasaki”.

    Since some of the lyrics in the “Nagasaki” version of the song make little sense in a Japanese setting, but somewhat more sense in a Southern setting, one can’t help but wonder if the “Cacalacky” version was indeed the original.

    In Sammy Gay’s version, part of the lyrics went:

    Hot ginger and dynamite
    There’s nothing but that at night back in Cackalacky
    Where the men all chew tobaccy
    And the women wicky wacky, woo

    The way they can entertain
    Would hurry a hurricane back in Cackalacky
    Where the men all chew tobaccy
    And the women wicky wacky, woo

  • Eric

    Earlier than Tribe Called Quest is this appearance in the ‘zine Samisdat that describes “a cultivated Nawth Kackalacky weed.”

  • Years back I read or heard somewhere it originated as a mildly teasing reference to poorer Carolinians who mispronounced Cadillac as Cackalack. But I can’t find the reference now.

  • Don Stanley

    I’ve been from North Cakylacky since grade school. Mid-’60s. Don’t know where it came from but hear most often from older people. Might have originated in WW1 or WW11 era.

  • Don Stanley

    I have been researching for the origin of Cackylacky (this is the version of the word I use. It is phonetically spelled the way I 1st heard it) I have always heard it used for N and S Carolina since I was a kid. First heard it around 1966 or ’67. While growing up, I heard the term fairly often usually from older folk. Since older folk seem to be slower to take up new slang words I think the term pre-dates the ’60’s While I am still interested in tracking down it origin, i have been side-tracked a little.
    I put a post on Asheville…the way it was (targeting the 50’s-the 80’s), Within a few hours I had comments coming fast and furious. Comments like ” I hate that word” “proud to be a North Cackylacky” “never heard that before but it sounds fun” “never heard that before but it makes my skin crawl” One of the page’s Administrators took offense and deleted the entire post! Well, I reposted offering an apology to anybody I might have offended and requesting from Admin a valid reason for the deletion of post. Boom! Here comes a flood of comments, this time basically in defense of the word Cackylacky and once again the post was deleted. I rec’d 2 PMs from the Head Administrator. The 1st stating “I don’t know why your 1st post was deleted, I was monitoring and thought it was interesting. No need to apologize. The 2nd stating “One of the other administrator deleted your post and we have a had complaints so your 2nd post has been deleted Do not post on this subject again!” WOW!
    All I wanted was to see if anybody in the Asheville community had any info on the origins of the word CackyLacky. Maybe they don’t like my spelling. Now more that ever I would like to know the origin of the word. It seems to be a Power word. Any feedback would be appreciated!

  • nicole

    Any possible connect to scotland’s Craigellachie? Tge town’s small and quite far north but the pronunciation is very similar.

  • Robin Martinez

    In 1986 there was a cartoon show called “Galaxy High,” an outer-space high school with aliens and two humans. The alien bully asked the human boy “Are you cackalack?”and then imitated a chicken clucking. I remember thinking the word was good onomatopoeia for “chicken” and immediately understandable in context, even without the sound effects.

    In Portland, OR, the wife of the founder of Cackalack’s Hot Chicken Shack is from Asheville.

    I wonder if the root word meant chicken, began as a scornful term, and then got turned into a source of affection and even pride for the Carolinas?

  • Judson Guerard

    I was born in the old tar pit in 51. My grandmother taught school and edited a small poetry magazine for most of her life. Words were her bag. I’m sure I heard the term when I was a kid, but with no explanation. One thing is for sure about the south (and north kakalake in particular): simply because it’s new to you doesn’t mean it’s recent or new, and a simple explanation is probably inadequate.

  • Bob

    I went through boot camp at Parris Island, South Cackalacky and infantry training at Camp Lejeune, North Cackalacky in the late 60’s. . .When we got off the bus the Drill Instructors immediately referred to the State as South Cackalacky. . .no one knew the actual history of the word, but the Drill Instructor informed us that it had been a part of Marine Lingo since before WW2. . .he also said that the Army, in North Cackalacky, used the word, too.

  • Greg Gaines

    I agree with the assumption that the word came from the sound of the looms in the fabric mills. I grew up near Columbia Mills in Columbia SC and heard this term as far back as 1955.

  • Deborah (Hedrick) Prevatt

    I was born and raised in North Carolina in 1963. We lived in the rural area of Statesville, closer to Troutman and the Catawaba River than the town of Statesville, but always had a Statesville address. As a child I remember my Grandfather using North Cackalacky all the time and remember asking him what it meant but I don’t recall what his answer was. It’s one of those things I should have written down and regret not doing so.

  • David Hines

    I was born in Brevard NC in 54 and lived within sight of the Blue Ridge my entire childhood. Heard my father use this term many times referring to where we lived. He always seamed proud of the expression, but for some reason it offended me back then.

  • Jeremy Sapp

    I’m from the low country in Georgia, and I was always told that kakalaki was a Gullah (or Geechee) word for Carolina. I’m trying to substantiate that claim as I write this…

  • You should concider the military we used the term amongst homie back in 82
    Was my first knowledge of the term

  • Dr. Ken Bradstock

    I thought the post about the word, “poke” as a paper bag was interesting since I grew up with it in the Appalachian Plateau near Pittsburgh. When we moved into Avery County in the 1960’s we discovered that many terms were the same as those I heard when I was a child. It must have been the influence of the Scots/Irish influence in the mountains. “Cackalacky” was not a word I heard used until we moved to the Piedmont in the ’70’s and it was used with affection not derision.

  • Don’t know if this topic is moot due to lack of timeliness, but, I first heard the term “Cackalacky” in the late 60s-early 70s during formation roll call in the Marine Corps. Sergeants, bored with the tedium of calling roll every morning, would be somewhat creative…in their minds…in coming up with last names based on the geography (state info was listed along with full name) or ethnicity of the person whose name was being called. Anyone Slavic was always “Ski”, anyone from the Carolinas was always “Cackalacky”and there was something for Italians, which I can’t remember…maybe “Meatball”. I had never heard the term “Cackalacky” before then.

  • Cac – Scottish Gaelic word for the act or the description of excrement.

    Lackey – Scottish Gaelic word for A footman, liveried male servant.
    A fawning, servile follower; a lickspittle.

  • Ajani Bandele-Mason

    I have a view that there’re two words join together. The first being ‘khaki’ (a denim type Farm-worker/Military uniform) and the second word is ‘Lackey'(Servant, follower or Footman) …forming a very derogatory statement. Hence NOT surprising that there’s, now, a denial about the word…in the same way the “N” is now substituted for Ni88er

    (I am From Barbados, Caribbean…the Carolina connection?)

  • Cora

    I first heard it when I joined the Army in the early 80s. Born and raised in southeastern NC and had never heard it. I intensely dislike it, it always seemed to be used in a derogatory manner.

  • I’m from Gawja & don’t have a dog in this fight. But I strongly concur with Andrew Davis’ comments, as his experience mirrors my own. I was born in 1960, & never heard the expression until I, like he, went North in the late 70s\early 80s. Besides, we Southerners seldom, if ever, deliberately mangle the pronunciation of our own point of origin, except when making a point, no matter how many syllables are involved, no matter which dialect or accent we use. Since military personnel are often the broadest-travelled in any country, that plus the post-40s be-bop influence seem the most reasonable deductions to me. I do not believe the term “Cackalacky” was ever in mainstream use until after the 1980s. SNL would’ve been delighted to apply it in a skit spoofing late Senator Ed Meese, if it had been.

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