Posted by ESC on September 30, 2000
In Reply to: Coon's age posted by Allen Watson on September 30, 2000
: The phrase in the subject is in the database as to meaning, but not origin. Is it referring to the age of a racoon, and if so, why? Are racoons long-lived? Or, is it a use of the disparaging term for black persons, and therefore to be avoided?
"In a coon's age" refers to the animal, a raccoon. The phrase pre-dates the use of "coon" to mean a country bumpkin of any color and then its use as a racist term for a black person. However, I would use caution when using the phrase "in a coon's age" because many city folk don't realize that it refers to raccoon and might think you were using a racial slur. That being said, here's some information I put together the last time someone brought up the subject:
IN A COON'S AGE - This expression is common among my people in the mountains of southern West Virginia. This area did not have a large slave population. Think pioneer-tromping-through- the-woods Daniel and Rebecca Boone people. Not Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler on a plantation. We didn't have slaves, we had big families. Our culture was based on farming and hunting. People had large families to share in the work.
Raccoons were and are common in the area. And they are not shy creatures. So there's plenty of opportunity to observe their behavior. Naturally coons have become part of the language.
"a coon's age - Meaning 'a very long time,' a coon's age is an Americanism recorded in 1843 and probably related to the old English expression 'in a crow's age,' meaning the same. The American term is an improvement, if only because the raccoon usually lives longer -- up to 13 years in the wild - than the crow." From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997), Page 168.
Wild raccoons are not afraid of people and will come around if you feed them. Trying to pet them, however, is not recommended. They will bite. In recent years my parents had a frequent raccoon visitor. I'm sure my pioneer ancestors amused themselves by feeding a raccoon or two. So a family would have an opportunity to note the life-span of a coon.
And people hunted raccoons. So they had a chance to observe the animal going quickly up a tree to get away from dogs. Thus definition No. 2 in this entry:
" 'coon or coon: 1. N. raccoon (Procyon lotor.) 'coon skins.2. v.t. to steal. 'I had to coon an ace of hearts'.3. v.i., to creep like a coon, clinging close. 'I cooned acrost on a log." From "Smoky Mountain Voices: A Lexicon of Southern Appalachian Speech" by Harold F. Farwell, Jr., and J. Karl Nicholas, editors. (The University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, Ky., 1993), Page 45. This book is based on a lifetime of work by Horace Kephart among the people who lived in or near the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
Now, as I said before, "coon" came to mean a whole different thing later on in other parts of the country. The saying was recorded in 1843 (but I am sure it was in use decades earlier) but "coon" didn't become a term for black people until 20 years later. Here's an entry on that:
"coon was orignally a short form for raccoon in 1741.then by 1832 meant a frontier rustic, and by 1840 a Whig. The 1834 song 'Zip Coon' (better know today as 'Turkey in the Straw') didn't refer specifically to either a White or a Black and the 'coon songs' of the 1840s and 50s were Whig political songs. By 1862, however, coon had come to mean a Black and this use was made very common by the popular 1896 song 'All Coons Look Alike to Me,' written by Ernest Hogan, a Black who didn't consider the word derogatory at the time." From "I Hear America Talking" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976), Page 54.
I rest my case.