When we first moved here, someone referred to “those coonass neighbors” down the street. I was disgusted that I moved to a land of bigotry. I asked hubby later if he too was disgusted and his reply was, “Greta, that is a commonly used term by the locals.” Alrighty then…learn something new every day! I have heard it used many times in many different ways and so here is the results of the 5 minutes of research I did:
Coonass, or Coon-ass, is an epithet used in reference to a person of Cajun ethnicity.
Although some Cajuns use the word in regard to themselves, other Cajuns view the term as an ethnic slur against the Cajun people, especially when used by non-Cajuns. Socioeconomic factors appear to influence how Cajuns are likely to view the term: working-class Cajuns tend to regard the word “coonass” as a badge of ethnic pride; whereas middle- and upper-class Cajuns are more likely to regard the term as insulting or degrading, even when used by fellow Cajuns in reference to themselves.
Despite an effort by Cajun activists to stamp out the term, it can be found on T-shirts, hats, and bumperstickers throughout Acadiana, the 22-parish Cajun homeland in south Louisiana.
Scroll down to these useful tidbits:
* Cajun governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards often used the word “coonass” in reference to himself and other Cajuns.
* In the early 1980s, a Cajun worker sued his former employer over repeated use of the word “coonass” in the workplace. The lawsuit led directly to the federal government’s recognition of the Cajuns as a national ethnic group as protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
* While campaigning for President in Louisiana, Ronald Reagan once suggested his own appointment as an “honorary Cajun coonass.”
* Although the Louisiana state legislature condemned the word’s use in 1981, the Louisiana Air National Guard’s acclaimed 159th Tactical Fighter Group referred to itself as the “Coonass Militia” until 1992.
* University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban came under fire in early 2007 for using the term while speaking “off the record” to a reporter. Audio of the conversation was leaked onto the Internet before garnering mainstream media attention.
So does this mean don’t use it???
Coonass is a controversial term in the Cajun lexicon: to some Cajuns it is regarded as the supreme ethnic slur, meaning “ignorant, backwards Cajun”; to others the term is a badge of pride, much like the word Chicano is for Mexican Americans. In South Louisiana, for example, one can often see bumper stickers reading “Warning â€” Coonass on Board!” or “Registered Coonass” (both of which generally depict a raccoonâ€™s backside). The wordâ€™s origin is unclear: folk etymology claims that coonass dates from World War II, when Cajun GIs serving in France were derided by native French speakers as conasse, meaning “dirty whore” or “idiot.” Non-French-speaking American GIs allegedly overheard the expression, converted it to the English “coonass,” and introduced the term back in the United States. There it supposedly soon caught on as a derisive term among non-Cajuns, who encountered many Cajuns in Gulf Coast oilfields. It is now known, however, that coonass predated the arrival of Cajun GIs in France during World War II, which undermines the conasse theory. Indeed, folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet has long rejected this theory, calling it “shaky linguistics at best.” He has suggested that the word originated in South Louisiana, and that it derived from the belief that Cajuns frequently ate raccoons. He has also proposed that the term contains a negative racial connotation: namely, that Cajuns were “beneath” or “under” blacks (or coons, as blacks were often called by racists). Despite efforts by Cajun activists like James Domengeaux and Warren A. Perrin to stamp out the termâ€™s use, coonass continues to circulate in South Louisiana and beyond. Its acceptability among the general public, however, tends to vary according to circumstances, and often depends on who says it and with what intention. Cajuns who dislike the term have been known to correct well-meaning outsiders who use the epithet.
Well…can I say it? Do I avoid it like I try and avoid drunk E-bay shopping? Do I correct or ask locals what they meant when they used it? Or do I just sit-back and enjoy things unique to the area?
cross-posted at Nola.com