I recently bestowed my December Twit of the Month Award on Michael Krasny for an appalling radio interview with the late Daniel Cassidy. At one point, Krasny mentions the word cracker to Cassidy. Cracker is a slang term, originally referring to the poor whites of certain southern states, and now used as a disparaging term for a white man. A letter to the Earl of Dartmouth dated to the 1760s says: “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.”
In the interview, Cassidy laughs smugly and says that he is certain that the word cracker is derived from Irish. In his insane rubbishy book, Cassidy says that it comes from similar Irish or Scottish Gaelic words meaning boaster or jester. Cassidy is right that there are terms for boaster or jester in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic which sound like cracker (cracaire or craicire in Irish, cracaire or cnacair in Scottish Gaelic).
However, just because there are similar words in English and Gaelic doesn’t tell us anything about why they are similar. There are four possible explanations.
One is that this is pure coincidence. This is less unlikely than you might think (look at Irish daor and English dear, both meaning expensive, both pronounced similarly and completely unrelated). However, it is still pretty unlikely, so we will leave this possibility aside.
Secondly, there is the possibility that the two words are cognates, words which derive from an earlier language which was ancestral to both sets of languages. However, there is no history to explain the words craicire in Irish or cnacair in Scottish Gaelic and these words can only be traced back a couple of hundred years in the Gaelic languages, so this is unlikely.
The third possibility is that the similar words result from borrowing and that that borrowing was from the Gaelic languages to English. As crack meant a loud noise and then boastful talk in English and cracker for boaster dates back at least to the 16th century in English, it makes more sense to regard cracker in English/Scots as being the original and the Gaelic words as borrowings, particularly given that there is a pattern of borrowing from English to Irish and no pattern of extensive borrowing from Irish to English. The word craic may be treated as an Irish word now but it is very definitely a borrowing from English or Scots and therefore can’t be the origin of craicire. Cracaire in Irish (modern spelling craicire) is first found (as far as I can ascertain) in O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary of 1817, where it means a boaster. I cannot find any reference to it in Corpas na Gaeilge (a collection of poems, prose works and songs in Irish from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with over seven million words of searchable text). It is not in the Electronic Dictionary of Irish Texts.
In other words, the fourth possibility is by far the most likely – that this word originates from English or Scots cracker (derived from crack meaning loud noise, conversation) and then was borrowed into Irish and Scottish Gaelic in the 18th century. The word seems to be derived from the Middle English cnac, or crak, which originally meant the sound of the cracking of a whip and later came to mean loud or bragging talk. Cracker goes back a long way in English. It is found in Shakespeare’s King John (1595): “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?”
Just a word about a couple of other pieces of dishonesty in Cassidy’s idiotic book. In the book, Cassidy mentions that some slang dictionaries claim that cracker is linked to the sound of slave-masters cracking their whips and says that Dwelly’s dictionary confirms this. However, when we look at the original quotation from Dwelly, it directs you to the word cnacair:
“Cnacair, sm Talker, (Scot, cracker). 2 Cracker. 3 Cracker of a whip. 4 Knocker. (see: http://www.dwelly.info/index.aspx)”
In other words, it does mention ‘cracker of a whip’, as Cassidy says. However, it also says that this is not really a Gaelic word at all, but a borrowing from Scots (not Scottish Gaelic, but the Lowland Scots cousin of English). How did Cassidy miss this vital piece of information? Well, I don’t believe he did. He continually doctored and edited the information he found in his sources in order to make the best case possible for whatever piece of nonsense he was trying to prove. He had no respect for the truth or for the values of genuine scholarship.
I should also point out that this word is mentioned in Green English, Loretto Todd’s May 2000 book on the Irish influence on English. I have discussed this before. It is a rather slapdash affair, though nowhere near as flaky as Cassidy’s ‘research’. I am convinced that Cassidy used it as a source, though there is no acknowledgement of his indebtedness in the book.
Incidentally, there was also an historian of Celtic influences on the Old South called Grady McWhiney who insisted (erroneously) that cracker derived from craic. I don’t know if Cassidy had come across this book or not.
Once again, Cassidy’s claims turn out to be self-serving, dishonest, badly-researched baloney.