What does ‘cracker-barrel’ actually mean?
In July 2015, an online petition appeared online that suggested Americans should start protesting the popular American chain restaurant Cracker Barrel, because the word cracker is an offensive term for white people. The petition, posted on Change.org by Ryan Koch of Des Moines, Iowa, went viral, accruing more than 15,000 signatures, and shared on social media much more than that. (A similar petition on the petitions.whitehouse.gov website also appeared last week, and has collected nearly 100,000 signatures.) Part of Koch’s petition says: ‘I say all of us European Americans start protesting C****er Barrel. It uses an offensive slur and it is deeply offensive and mocks our long and proud heritage’. Instead, the petition suggests, we should switch over to the less offensive ‘Caucasian’ Barrel.
While the petition makes the satire obvious (Koch has even added an update: ‘People, it’s SATIRE!’), the Internet does not seem so sure, and some have taken to Twitter to complain about the ‘offensive’ name. News media have also jumped into the fray, and Cracker Barrel has even released a statement to the press expressing their awareness of the satirical nature of the petition, and offered assurance that they ‘have no plans to change our name as it is synonymous with great food and great service’.
What does cracker-barrel mean?
So, what does cracker mean? The term cracker is indeed an offensive term in the US referring to poor whites. However, what does the term ‘cracker-barrel’ actually refer to?
Cracker-barrel refers to something ‘plain, simple, and unsophisticated’, especially of a philosophy. For example: ‘When he came to read the creators of the English realistic novel, he recognized the cracker-barrel philosophy in them at once’. The term has its origins in the country stores of the late 19th-century US, where the barrels of soda crackers ended up being the site of informal discussions between customers. The philosophizing taking place over these cracker barrels would have been, presumably, of the plain and simple sort. This extended use of the term as a modifier is reminiscent of the way in which ‘water-cooler’ came to be used in the phrase ‘water-cooler conversation’, with reference to the chatting and socializing that occurs between office workers in the communal area around a water cooler.
What does cracker mean?
But is the offensive term cracker at all related to cracker-barrel? The derogatory term cracker, referring generally to a poor, white person, goes as far back as the early-19th century, with a more geographically specific usage predating that. (A citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from a 1766 letter by G. Cochrane reads: ‘I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode’.) The sense of cracker referring to a thin, hard wafer or biscuit goes back a bit earlier, to the first half of the 18th century.
While the precise origins of the slur cracker are not known, the explanations offered by lexicographers typically do not involve the food. Instead, some have suggested that the term originates with corn-cracker, a contemptuous term for a poor white in the southern US, probably after their subsistence on corn, although there is no conclusive evidence for this connection.
Ultimately, because the term ‘cracker-barrel’ is directly connected to barrels full of crackers, and the foodstuff likely played no role in originating the slur, it seems unlikely that the slur played a role in the origin of ‘cracker-barrel’.
Check out our post on words that most people don’t realize have offensive origins.
Photo credit: Ildar Sagdejev (Specious), via Wikimedia Commons