Unusual use of "Tarheel" (1848, 1852)

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Mon Sep 23 18:37:45 UTC 2013

I think there's good plausibility to Tarheel for Douglass arising
from Bonnie's "application of tar to one's heel" anecdotes involving
blacks.  Especially with "an 1850 piece from Ohio"; Bonnie's "Fred
Douglass Tarheel" is 1852.  It certainly fits Douglass better than
"North Carolinian" or "poor white".  And for ""Pompey Tarheel" whom
Caesar was familiar with, Pompey (along with Caesar) was one of the
most popular "classical" slave names in both the 18th and 19th
centuries.  (My sources on demand.)


At 9/23/2013 11:31 AM, Bonnie Taylor-Blake wrote:
>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

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

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