, or Coon-ass
, is an epithet
used in reference to a person of Cajun
Although some Cajuns use the word in regard to themselves, other Cajuns view the term as an ethnic slur against the Cajun people, especially when used by non-Cajuns. Socioeconomic factors appear to influence how Cajuns are likely to view the term: working-class Cajuns tend to regard the word "coonass" as a badge of ethnic pride; whereas middle- and upper-class Cajuns are more likely to regard the term as insulting or degrading, even when used by fellow Cajuns in reference to themselves. (In Sociolinguistics, this type of behavior is termed covert prestige.)
Despite an effort by Cajun activists to stamp out the term, it can be found on T-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers throughout Acadiana, the 22-parish Cajun homeland in south Louisiana.
The origins of "coonass" are obscure, and Cajuns have put forth several folk etymologies
in an effort to explain the word's origin. Some amateur linguists believe that the word refers to the Cajuns' occasional habit of eating raccoons
, or from the use of coonskin caps
by the Cajuns' ancestors while fighting in the Battle of New Orleans
or in the Revolutionary War
under Spanish colonial Governor Bernardo de Gálvez
. Other amateur linguists attribute the term to the racial slur "coon
," used in reference to African-Americans
— thus implying that Cajuns are lower than African-Americans in social standing. Yet others hold that the term derives from the shape of Cajun women after having children (like a raccoon viewed from above).
The most popular folk etymology, however, stems from late Louisiana congressman and cultural activist James "Jimmy" Domengeaux, who maintained that "coonass" derived from the continental French word "connasse," which means "stupid girl/woman" (the qualifier for a male is "connard". According to the fr:connasse, the French Larousse dictionnary, and the Con#Mots_d.C3.A9riv.C3.A9s, "conasse" enterted the French language at the beginning of the 19th century and the term pejoratively indicates the vulva to designate a stupid person. The closest translation in English would be "stupid cunt."). Domengeaux asserted that Frenchmen used the term in reference to Cajun soldiers serving in France during World War II, and that Anglo-American soldiers overheard the term, transformed it into "coonass," and brought it back to the U.S. as a disparaging term for Cajuns. Citing Domengeaux's etymology, Louisiana legislators passed a concurrent resolution in the 1980s condemning the word. (Contrary to popular belief, the lawmakers did not ban the term.)
Research has since disproved Domengeaux's "conasse" etymology. Indeed, photographic evidence shows that Cajuns themselves used the term prior to the time in which "conasse" allegedly morphed into "coonass.
Other etymological explanations exist, none of them convincing. The origin of "coonass" remains obscure and uncertain. Two or more causative factors may have been mutually reinforcing in fostering the term coonass.
Examples of Use
- Cajun governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards often used the word "coonass" in reference to himself and other Cajuns
- In the early 1980s, a Cajun worker sued his former employer over repeated use of the word "coonass" in the workplace. The lawsuit led directly to the federal government's recognition of the Cajuns as a national ethnic group as protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- While campaigning for President in Louisiana, Ronald Reagan once suggested his own appointment as an "honorary Cajun coonass."
- Although the Louisiana state legislature condemned the word's use in 1981, the Louisiana Air National Guard's acclaimed 159th Tactical Fighter Group referred to itself as the "Coonass Militia" until 1992.
- University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban came under fire in early 2007 for using the term while speaking "off the record" to a reporter. Audio of the conversation was leaked onto the Internet before garnering mainstream media attention.
- The term is used in a non-disparaging manner in the 1993 movie A Perfect World when Robert "Butch" Haynes (Kevin Costner) complains that he can't "find a good coonass waltz" on the radio.