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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

  • Jerry Arnold

    I first heard the word in the mid 70’s while serving in the US Navy

  • Daniel Madore

    I just heard Cackalacka on a Tribe Called Quest song called “Scenario” from the 90s, in the second verse.

    ‘East coast stomping, ripping and romping
    New York, North Cak-a-laka, and Compton
    Checka-checka-check it out,’

  • Nimrod Bodfish

    I think it originates from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.

  • Ree

    I live in TheOld North State and have heard the term Cackalacky and just saw it as a car window decal. I am still at a complete loss for the meaning/origin and I thought you would know ?

  • Andrew H

    I first encountered the term in January 1986 in Columbia, SC, where I had just moved to attend the University of South Carolina after completing a hitch in the Marines. I had also just joined the local US Marine Reserve unit and was asked by one of it members–a young African-American Marine from elsewhere in the state–where I was from, because as he put it, “you sure ain’t from South Cackalacky.”

  • Heath Wentworth

    Just thought I would leave a note that in 1998 we were using that term when I was in high school.

  • James

    Well my Grandfather was born in 1918, lived in the eastern area of the state and moved from North Carolina to Concrete Washington around 1946. He often referred to North Carolina as Cackalacky. I remember it’s use for sure in the 1970s, but him having left NC in the 40s and never went back, I cannot suggest an origin for the word, but he thought of it as a common slang term for the Carolinas.

    • Hammer Six

      I’m in Spokane, so I’m aware of Concrete. Nonetheless, my familiarity with Cackalacky comes from my 24 years in the Army. I’m inclined to attribute this colorful term to the military–well known for coining a term for sure! I would be interested in your Grandfather’s military service, as it might indicate his use of Cackalacky.

  • Cackalacky

    This forum is nothing short of hilarious.

  • Mark Hetrick

    I remember Cackalacky from my time at Camp Lejeune, N.C. In 1963.

  • David Caudle

    How about something relative to cackle (of chickens)?

  • Tom

    I grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee. I always thought it was just plain ole good-natured Southern slang for either North Cackalaky or South Cackalaky. I think it’s old mountain folk talk meant more as a term of endearment, or good-natured ribbing. I do believe it’s pretty old though, as my family goes back here many generations of dirt poor farmers.

  • DebiBotteron

    Good job!

  • lyrics

    I was brought into the world in the old tar pit in ’51. My grandma taught school and edited a little verse magazine for a large portion of her life. Words were her pack. I’m certain I heard the term when I was a child, however with no clarification. One thing is without a doubt about the south (and north kakalake specifically): basically in light of the fact that it’s unfamiliar to you doesn’t mean it’s new or new, and a straightforward clarification is likely lacking.

  • James Carroll

    Was raised in Nash County NC, and first heard the word cackalackey in the army at Fort Campbell, KY, when an NCO asked me if I was from Ole Cackalackey…

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