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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.

63 comments to Cakalacky

  • 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.

  • 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.

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