[Ads-l] Alligator Bait

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 20 23:51:01 UTC 2020

There is an old racist slur, "alligator bait," used to refer to black 
people, especially black children.

There are numerous memes and articles that get circulated around the 
internet suggesting that the expression was derived from the actual 
practice of using children as bait in hunting alligators; placing them 
in shallow water, or sometimes tying them to a post or tree, luring the 
alligators in close, and then shooting them in the eye at the last 
possible second.

Most of those articles cite a few, scattered newspaper articles, most 
frequently a 1923 article out of Chipley, Florida and a 1908 article 
about moving alligators from the indoor winter quarters to the outdoor 
summer alligator pools at the Bronx zoon in 1908.  The Chipley story 
gets a lot of press because it appeared in Time Magazine, which did 
report on the existence of the report but did not vouch for its factual 
basis.  Also frequently cited are several articles about hunting 
crocodiles in Ceylon or India, using similar techniques.

Having made a deep dive into the swamp that is alligator/crocodile 
hunting literature, I believe that the various crocodile and alligator 
hunting stories are all fictional, derived from a single story published 
in England in 1888, and that that article was written by a retired 
British officer better known for submitting military-humor (or should I 
say humour) to Punch magazine, so its veracity is questionable.  The 
copycat stories reported nearly identical techniques, using nearly 
identical language, with increasingly elaborate and less plausible 
details over the years, and not always black or Indian babies.  Some 
stories are about kidnapped Russian Jewish babies shipped off to Egypt 
for crocodile hunting, or "nice fat cracker" babies rented for 50 cents 
a day in southern Florida.

I also identified the author of the 1923 piece out of Chipley, Florida 
as an itinerant newspaper telegraph operator and copy-reader, who later 
had more success as a "sex philosopher," giving sex education lectures, 
sometimes following sexually explicit movies, with live demonstration 
models on stage; so his story is of questionable origin.  His story also 
requires the reader to believe that mothers would rent their children 
out for $2 a day to hunters who "never miss", so there's that too.

The expression, "alligator bait," seems more likely a manifestation of 
an old wives' tale about alligators, and earlier crocodiles preferring 
babies over adults, and darker skinned babies over light skinned babies. 
  So, not so much being actively used as bait by hunters, but just 
believed to be more likely to become food for alligators.  That myth can 
be traced to Egypt and Cameroon in the 1700s.

The expression also seems to have quickly become widespread in 1898, 
following the publication of a single photographic image of naked babies 
published in Knoxville, Tennessee, and sold under the name "Alligator 

And in a tie-in with the etymology of "Dude" which has occupied the 
minds of some on this list, the earliest joke about "alligator bait," 
using that expression, was about New York Dudes in Florida a few months 
after the word was coined.

A lot of weird stuff.  You be the judge.

You can read about it in my latest post.


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

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