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shameless pleading


Phasers on stun.

Dear Word Detective: Request origin of the word “Dixie.” — Clayton Yost.

A man of few words, aren’t we? I must admit that I was tempted to skip your question because it sounded a bit too much like Captain Kirk talking to the computer on Star Trek (“Computer: request distance to the Beta Carotene system.”). Then again, you do have the same last name as my book agent, so I’ll let it slide. On such gossamer threads does our fate depend, as S.J. Perelman once noted.

Besides, your question is a good one. So good, in fact, that I have not one, not two, but three dandy answers for you, and you get to choose the one that strikes your fancy.

The first theory is rated as the least likely by Hugh Rawson in his book “Devious Derivations,” but considered entirely plausible by Robert Hendrickson in his “Whistlin’ Dixie — A Dictionary of Southern Expressions.” The original “Dixie,” goes this theory, was actually Johan Dixie (or Dixy), a Manhattan slave owner (yes, there were such things) in the 1800’s. With the abolition of slavery in the northern states, Dixie, known as a decent slave owner (a debatable concept, to put it mildly), had to send his slaves to the South. Faced with harsher treatment in the South, the slaves remembered “Dixieland” (later shortened to just “Dixie”) as a land of contentment. As unlikely as this story seems (it makes New York City the original “Dixieland,” after all), newspaper accounts published in the same period indicate that it may actually be true.

Second up is the somewhat less glamorous theory that “Dixie” may have arisen as a shortening of “Mason-Dixon Line,” the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland regarded as the geographical boundary between the North and South before the Civil War.

The third (and in my humble opinion most likely) theory is that “Dixie” comes from the French word “dix” (ten), which appeared on bilingual banknotes issued in New Orleans before the Civil War. These notes were used as currency throughout the South and may have been known as “Dixies.” If so, describing the South as “Dixieland” would have been natural.

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