Tar heels [1846]

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon Apr 13 03:45:51 UTC 2009

Bonnie Taylor-Blake wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Bonnie Taylor-Blake <taylor-blake at NC.RR.COM>
> Subject:      Tar heels [1846]
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Here's an antebellum use of "Tar heels" that seems applied broadly to poor
> Southern whites, though it's possible the term may have had more specific
> application to those living in tar-producing areas of the South.  (Bayley
> was writing from Amesbury, Massachusetts, and may not have accurately
> reflected nuances in usage.)
> >From what I can tell of others' research, the earliest appearances of "Tar
> heel" noted so far have dated to 1863.  All are linked in some fashion to
> North Carolina.
> -- Bonnie
> ----------------------
> There are at this moment at least as many poor whites in the slave states as
> there are slaves, who are hardly less miserable than the slaves themselves.
> They have no weight in society, grow up in ignorance, are not permitted to
> vote and are tolerated as an evil, of which the slaveholder would gladly be
> rid.  They are never spoken of without some contemptuous epithet.  "Red
> shanks," "Tar heels," &c., are the names by which they are commonly known.
> The slaveholders look with infinite contempt upon these poor men -- a
> feeling which they cherish for poor men every where.
> (From A.L. Bayley, "To the Workingmen of Essex," *The Emancipator* [New
> York, NY], 21 October 1846.)

"Redshank" is an epithet historically applied to Highland Scots (or
sometimes Irishmen), apparently reflecting  a stereotypical lack of
clothing for the legs. Could "tar heel" be originally a comparable
epithet for [poor and/or unsophisticated] Scots or Irishmen?


[1817] [savage Highlanders in an old poem] <<How in such stormes they
came so farr; / The reason is, they're smear'd with tar; / Which doth
defend them heel and neck, / Just as it doth their sheep protect ....>>

(The same page shows the contemptuous [I think] expression "redshank


[1847] [retrospective, Aberdeenshire ca. 1800] <<The heels of the men's
stockings were always covered with a piece of white plaiding; this was
called "heel-caping," and the heelcaps were often coated over with tar
to prevent them wearing away by the "janking" of the "brogs.">>

Of course any such so-called "tar heels" would have been happy to
reinterpret the term (say, around 1863) with reference to courage/tenacity.

-- Doug Wilson


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