South Cackalacky

Today’s morning name: South Cackalacky, mildly derogatory slang for South Carolina (suggesting crudeness, rusticity, and remoteness: the boondocks). And Cackalacky, for the Carolinas taken together, with the same associations. (Sorry,  Charleston, Charlotte, and Research Triangle.)

Then, of course, such associations can be inverted, to connote local pride, down-hominess, and the like. As has happened in this case.

Whence CackalackyEvan Morris’s Word Detective site on Cackalacky from 9/15/10:

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.

[Word Detective’s response] 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 [“Scenario”] 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.

So it’s a very distance riff on Carolina, amplified by a bunch of playful sound-symbolic material. Such inventions rarely have identifiable etymons, or at least not unique identifiable etymons, but are often melanges of stuff.

You can listen to “Scenario” here (#1). The relevant bit is “New York, North Kakalaka, and Compton” — referring to black areas of Queens NY, North Carolina, and Compton CA (in southern Los Angeles County).

Local color. The label Cackalacky has more recently been applied, affectionately, to all sorts of things associated with the Carolinas. Just two items…

Cackalacky sauces. From Spencer NC. From their site, one of the company’s products:

(#1) Famously Original™ Cackalacky® Hotter Sauce: Made with our famously original blend of sweet potatoes and signature secret spices and CAROLINA REAPER peppers, this is the HOTTER version of our Southern sauce that helped us introduce the Cackalacky® Brand to The Free World! Perfect as a dressing, dip, topping, and marinade!

Cack-A-Lacky ginger pale ale. From the Fullstream Brewery in Durham NC:


Evan Morris. I hadn’t used his Word Detective site for a while, so I searched for some information about recent entries — only to discover that he’d died three years ago. Brief notice on Word Detective:

Evan Morris, author and newspaper columnist, died on October 8, 2017, after a two-year struggle with cancer. He was 67. The author of four books about words and language, Evan was best-known for his popular website The Word Detective, based on his newspaper column of the same name.

An interesting and complex life, detailed in the Word Detective piece.

8 Responses to “South Cackalacky”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I think this may be an unusual usage. I lived in North Carolina off and on for more than ten years, between 1981 and 2006, and I’ve never heard this word before.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I don’t see what use there could be in labeling this an “unusual usage”, because you are yourself unfamiliar with it. Are you suggesting I shouldn’t have posted about it, because it’s ignorable, or what? In any event, it is clearly NOT a rare usage, whatever your experience is. Just google on “Cackalacky” and look at the piles of stuff you get.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        I realize now that the problem is that you report that you’d never heard the word before. You cannot possibly know that, given the astronomical amount of language that’s passed your ears and eyes during your life. You can only report not remembering its having caught your attention at some time, and that’s a very different thing.

        Even so, our recollections about what expressions we’ve noticed earlier in our experiences are astoundingly inaccurate, and so utterly undependable. It’s routine for someone to report that they’ve never heard or read some expression before, when you can then prove that they read it in a newspaper or heard it in a news report *that very morning*.

        I’m not saying that you must have heard “Cackalacky” before, only that YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY KNOW WHETHER YOU DID OR NOT. This is true for everybody, me and other professional linguists and lexicographers included, even though we’re exceptionally attuned to details of usage. We are also users of language, just like everybody else, and subject to the same limitations of memory.

  2. Bill Stewart Says:

    I suppose it’s an affectionate term, but seems pretty low-class to me.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, yes, low-class. But that leaves the way open for the deplored, low-class, group to embrace the epithet and turn it into a symbol of group pride. “Okie”, for example, is much like “Cackalacky”; it originates as a disdainful label for poor dust-bowl Oklahomans, and then is defiantly transformed by Merle Haggard in “Okie From Muskogee”.

  3. Hilmer Says:

    “Kakerlake” or “Kakerlak” are German words for cockroach, and forms of the word seem prevalent in West and North Germanic languages. I’m not suggesting that it’s an immediate source, but it could have sounded silly enough and insulting enough that someone applied it to the Carolinas and it stuck well after the original association was lost. (Cue Gregor Samsa jokes.)

  4. ray kay Says:

    North and South Cakalacky gained prominence in the 60’s as members of the military used them as slang designations for the states in which they were stationed. This had more to do with being in the military and away from home, family, and friends than anything else. There was no malicious or disparagement intended. Compare it to being stranded in Bum—- Egypt.

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