Several years ago noted folklorist and linguist Barry Jean Ancelet of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette wrote the following analysis of the ever-controversial word coonass — a word some Cajuns embrace as a badge of ethnic pride, even as other Cajuns reject it as a vulgar ethnic slur. The word remains controversial to the present, popping up in the media every so often to remind us of its unsettled status. Inevitably, those on either side of the issue will clash in the “letters to the editor” section of the local newspapers before the subject fades again into the background. As far as we know, however, Ancelet’s analysis, though sometimes quoted, has never actually been published in full; and therefore with his permission we are honored to include it in our inaugural issue.
~ The Editors
by Barry Jean Ancelet
The term “coon ass” is thought by some to have come from the French conasse: n. f. (v. 1810; de con), Vulg. et péj. Idiot, imbécile (Petit Robert: Dictionnaire de la langue française, p. 355. This was indeed the opinion of James Domengeaux, the late chairman of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, who spent much of the latter part of his career trying to discourage the use of the term, including successfully lobbying for a Louisiana Senate resolution (Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 170) condemning the term and its use. It is also the opinion of Warren Perrin, former chairman of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. This argument is based on the obvious similarity of the sounds and the conjecture that the process is the same one that gave us “poontang” (an indelicate euphemism for sex or females), from the French putain (whore or prostitute), via American GIs in France during World War Two. This is shaky linguistics at best. While GIs throughout much of the U.S. adopted the slang “poontang,” virtually no one outside of South Louisiana uses “coonass” in a general way. And “poontang” retained a meaning close to its French origin, while “coonass” demeans only Louisiana Cajuns, males and females, with no sexual implication. Furthermore, conasse is unknown in Louisiana French, so “coonass,” which exists only in English, probably did not originate among the Cajuns themselves. It did likely originate in or near South Louisiana, however, since it is only directed at the Cajuns.
Despite the insistence that the term has nothing to do with raccoons, it is not unlikely that “coonass” evolved simply as an expression of the doubly racist notion that Cajuns were even lower on the social scale than “coons,” a disparaging term for African Americans. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for the name of an animal to be used as a disparaging name for an ethnic group stereotypically known for eating that food. This is why the English call the French “frogs,” just as the French sometimes refer to the English as “les rosbifs” (roast beefs). African Americans and Cajuns alike have been known to eat, among many other things, raccoons, and “coonie” has also been used to refer to Cajuns. In fact, several versions of the “coonass” license plates and bumper stickers have included a rather graphic illustration of the animal and anatomy in question.
There are several more or less obtuse and convoluted theories concerning the etymology of this expression which did indeed have a certain amount of currency in the recent past. (One, having to do with the notion that Cajuns wore coonskin caps during the War of 1812, is way off-base for several reasons: frontiersmen from many places wore coonskin caps; and the term was not widely heard until the 1940s or ‘50s.) Some have used it as a term of endearment, even as an expression of cultural and ethnic pride in an attempt, I suspect, to take the sting out of what was once undeniably intended to be and taken as an insult, much in the same way that some African Americans use the racist epithet “nigger” among themselves to try to disarm that hurtful word. As James Dormon explains in his book, The People Called Cajuns: An Introduction to an Ethnohistory (Lafayette: USL Center for Louisiana Studies, 1983; p. 87):
The term “coonass,” originally a term of ethnic derision introduced by “outsiders” to apply to Cajuns, is of uncertain linguistic origin. It may have been a racial allusion suggesting a Cajun-black genetic mixture. But it has come to be used by participants in the Cajun ethnic revival efforts (however informal) as a term of pungent if crude approbation and self-identification.
Many Cajuns who once were not bothered by the in-group use of the term now seem to have discovered that you simply cannot take the “ass” out of “coonass.” Despite efforts to rehabilitate the term, it remains vulgar at best, and vulgar and insulting at worst. Outsiders seem to think that it may be a cute term of endearment, a smile-when-you-say-that kind of expression, and try to use it to indicate their affection for Cajuns and by extension to include themselves in the group. Inside, usage of the term seems to have slipped recently, as Cajuns have improved their self-image. Bumper stickers and T-shirts featuring the word are increasingly rare. It still can be heard, though much less frequently than before, and many now express their objection to this sort of unsavory reference. Unfortunately, there are some Cajuns who insist that it has no pejorative value, that they ascribe a positive value to its use when identifying themselves or other Cajuns. Well-meaning Cajuns have often come up to me to tell me how much they have come to appreciate “coonass culture” because of my efforts. When I wince and take the opportunity to point out my objection to the term, many are surprised and unconvinced. I have come to accept, with considerable regret, that those who continue to insist that they are proud to be “coonasses” at that point probably are indeed.
Recent historical research has uncovered new findings about the etymology of the word coonass. See Shane K. Bernard, “Debunking the Alleged Origin of the Word ‘Coonass,'” Bayou Teche Dispatches [blog], http://bayoutechedispatches.
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Editors: Sue Schleifer, Sally O. Donlon, Jim Phillips Consultant: Shane K. Bernard