Unusual use of "Tarheel" (1848, 1852)

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Mon Sep 23 15:31:07 UTC 2013

On Sun, Sep 22, 2013 at 9:55 PM, Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at gmail.com> wrote:

> On 9/21/2013 6:45 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>> ... Fred Douglass Tarheel? He certainly was not a poor white, and for
>> the later connotation I read that he was born in Maryland...
> IIRC Douglass spent much of his youth in Maryland, where he learned to
> read and write. He certainly was not born there.
> "Tarheel", much like "Buckeye" and a number of other state resident
> denominations originally were derogatory and had a number of different
> but related meanings. At this point, I would not venture to guess which
> of these is implied here.

I know this likely sounds very strange, and I'm a little hesitant to
put this out there, but I think it's at least possible that "Tarheel"
was used here because this symbolic/fictional character was black.
Bear with me.  (I mean, I think that's the image this name, based on
Frederick Douglass, was meant to convey.  I'm not sure what to make of
the 1848 anecdote, which I shared in a previous message, in which a
black man mentions "Pompey Tarheel."  I didn't really get the anecdote
itself and couldn't figure out whether "Pompey Tarheel" was another
black man or something else, but at least "Caesar" was familiar with a
"Pompey Tarheel.")

It's a longshot, I know, but I bring this up because of the apparent
popularity of an antebellum anecdote involving the application of tar
to one's heel for the purpose of picking up coppers (cents) during a
game.  (This was cheating, by the way.)  Black males are the
protagonists in this narrative.  Further and more to the point, an
1860 article that describes this anecdote is titled "Dar's a Nigger
got Tar on his Heel" (said by a black male) and explains that "[t]his
is a favorite saying down South."  It's hard to verify whether this
indeed was a favorite saying in the antebellum South and who was using
it and why, but I do have an 1850 piece from Ohio that in passing,
without explanation, makes use of "tar on de heel" (in quotation marks
as well) when referring to walking on pitch on a boat deck on a hot
day.  (I have way too much data on this, which I can share if anyone
is interested.)

I don't know what, if anything, any of this may have to do with the
application of "Tar Heels" to North Carolinians.  We have one or two
vastly better theories for how that application came about; I don't
think another -- one based on a presumed "favorite saying down South"
patterned after black speech of the period -- makes much sense or is
necessary.  (I should also note that I've found uses of "tar on the
heels" and the similar that don't relate to this anecdote.)

Still, I can't discount that "Fred Douglass Tarheel" and "Pompey
Tarheel" could be related to this anecdote.  (And it would be
"Tarheel" and not "Tar heel" because this would necessarily have to be
one word in order to work as a last name.)

-- Bonnie

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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