Tar heels [1846]

Bonnie Taylor-Blake taylor-blake at NC.RR.COM
Sun Aug 16 22:42:46 UTC 2009

Some time ago, Doug Wilson noted (in regard to an 1846 sighting of "Tar
heels" used with reference to poor Southern whites),

> "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?

Doug's full contribution is in the archives:


Although I'm still holding onto the notion that the origin of "Tar heels"
has something to do with Southerners working in tar-producing areas, here's
something that reminds me of Doug's theory,


MEADVILLE, Franklin co.
September 26, 1840.

"Dear Sir:  The Old Soldier carries the full swing in this county.  The
Democrats are making a clean sweep here in old Franklin, and the log cabin
and Tippecanoe Club are running into the ground in our section.  Hard cider
and the shaking of coon skins, and the rattling of gourds wont do, for we
wear tar on our heels and drink corn whisky out of a *chunk bottle* --
Whiggery can't win in these diggings."

[From *The Mississippian*, Jackson, Miss., 9 October 1840, Front Page,
Column 2; via the 19th-Century U.S. Newspapers database.]


Whether Meadville, Mississippi's "we wear tar on our heels" 1) signifies
Scots-Irish heritage (by alluding to a long-ago practice of smearing tar on
one's heels), 2) somehow describes Democrats, 3) has anything at all to do
with people working with tar, or 4) indicates something else entirely, is
unclear to me.

I should add that the expression "tar on his heel" was mentioned in 1818 as
a synonym for "inebriated."  This according to an updated list of ways to
say "drunken"; see, for example, *The National Aegis* (Worcester, Mass., 18
February 1818, p. 4) and *The Dartmouth Gazette* (Hanover, 4 March 1818, p.
3), both viewable in the America's Historical Newspapers database.  (In
2004, Ben Zimmer posted a 1771 version of the list, which lacked "tar on his
heel."  See link far below.)

Of course, it's anyone's guess whether 1840's "we wear tar on our heels" is
related to 1846's "Tar heels."

-- Bonnie


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

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