Saying Origin

Posted by ESC on April 06, 2005

In Reply to: Saying Origin posted by Bruce Kahl on April 06, 2005

: : Does anyone know what the saying "In a coon's age" means?

: It means to live a long time.

: Racoons here in the NE part of the US are usually seen as road kill but maybe they live a long time elsewhere.

You know, we had a big controversy here at one point about whether "coon's age" refers to black people. It doesn't. From the archives:

"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.

More on the use of "coon" based on an observation of the animal and its habits:
" '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.

As you may know, the "coon" came to mean a whole different thing unrelated to expression "in a coon's age." Coon was first a term for a white person from the country, then it became an insulting term for a black person. "A coon's age" was recorded in 1843 (but I am sure it was in use decades earlier) but the word "coon" didn't become a racial slur 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: An Illustrated History of American Words and Phrases by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976), Page 54.