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shameless pleading

Cakalacky

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.

34 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

    http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0808C&L=ADS-L&P=R2679

  • 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.

    • They are implausible 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.

  • 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”! http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/12509.html

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

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