Word of the Week, 8/8-8/12/11 – Dixie

Dix·ie (dikse), n.  1. the Southern States of the United States; Dixie Land.  2. a lively song about the South, written in 1859, sung during the Civil War,  and still popular. —adj. of or having to do with the South of the United States; Southern.  [American English; origin uncertain]

~ The World Book Dictionary

Most likely, the term is simply a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland that separated the slave states from the free states…

By the 1830s the term Mason and Dixon had come to figuratively denote the boundary between the slave and free states.  Somewhere in the transition from meaning the boundary to denoting the southern states, Mason was lost and all that remained was Dixie.

~ Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, David Wilton

David Wilton, author of the book Word Myths, explains that the earliest written record of the word Dixie is found in the song, Johnny Roach, written by Daniel D. Emmett in February 1859.  Astonishingly, to modern sensibilities, Emmett was a black-face performer from Ohio.  Emmett also authored the more popular song, Dixie’s Land, which he first performed in April 1859.  (See the YouTube video below.)

Wilton reports that Emmett claimed that the word was already in use when he requisitioned it for his songs.  It was a term he picked up as a traveling showmen, saying “Dixie’s Land” referred to the Southern States.

The term beget another song that became a rallying tune among Confederate troops and sympathizers.  If Wilton is correct in tracing the origin back to the Mason-Dixon Line dividing the North from the South, or the free states from the slave states, it made a logical nickname for the CSA.

 The association with this cause gave rise to several other words, most notably:

Dix·ie·crat  n.  1. one of those Democrats who opposed first the civil-rights program of the Truman Administration and later the civil-rights plank of the 1948 platform of the Democratic Party: The Dixiecrats took four states from him [President Truman] in ’48, but he was elected, nevertheless (Newsweek).  2. a later follower of the Dixiecrats.  [American English < Dixie + (demo)crat]

 ~ The World Book Dictionary

Wilton also addresses several false eponymous origins for Dixie:  1) It has been suggested that the word is a reference to Manhattan slave owner, Johan Dixie (also spelled Dixy), a benevolent slave owner whose slaves were sold down South either because he died or because the law in New York changed–the origin suggested by references to how good life had been in “Dixie’s Land”; no evidence exist to support this claim.  2) In 1951, Mitford Mathews uncovered evidence of a musical performer, named Dixey, who performed in Philadelphia–Mathews suggests a connection between Emmett and the artist, but as Wilton points out, this does not agree with Emmett’s explanation and no other evidence exists.

Other false origins include a link to the French dix (ten) which appeared on bilingual monetary notes printed by the Citizen’s Bank of Louisiana and dispersed throughout the South.  Wilton has found no evidence that the bills were referred to as dixies, nor that the term was associated with the banknotes in the region before modern times.  Another false origin, dating back to the late 19th century, is in reference to a game of tag played in New York, but there is no evidence to support these claims; in fact, the evidence provided in the game’s song lyrics suggests that it was in use after the Civil War.

A Google image search of Dixie brings up artwork incorporating Confederate flags and slogans (or photographs and magazine covers of the country band, the Dixie Chicks).  The term remains a loaded one, frequently conjuring up the country’s oldest divisions, repeatedly renewed through Supreme Court decisions, political machinations, regional events and civil protest.

One of my strongest associations with the word, comes from an interview from a former Washington Redskin–the first, in fact, to break the color barrier on the team, which was the last organization in the NFL to do so.  The team’s owner greeted him gruffly and asked him to join the room in singing “Dixie“.


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Filed under Historian's Journal, Word of the Week

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