We (unintentionally) started a debate about the origin of the word “buckaroo” with our quiz Can you speak American? last week. In an excerpt from Richard Bailey’s Speaking American, he argues that it comes from the West African language Efik (pages 52-54). A response from OED editor Dr. Katrin Thier will follow.
Not all Barbadians were brutish planters tyrannizing over those unfortunate enough to be in their power. In 1684, Thomas Tryon published some Friendly Advice in support of the conversion of slaves to Christianity. (The practical problem was that Christians might seek emancipation, and it was thus in the planters’ interest to keep these evangelizing efforts from being successful.) Tryon presented his argument in the form of a dialogue between a slave and his master, though without doing much to give an air of authenticity to the conversation:
SLAVE: I desire first you would lay that frightful Cudgel a little further off, and then begging Pardon for the Presumption, since this is the Day you observe to serve God in, I would crave leave to be a little instructed touching that Service, and wherein it consists.
MASTER: Why? It consists in being Christians, as we are — But what should I talk to such a dark ignorant Heathen, scarce capable of common Sense, much less able to understand things of such an high and mysterious Nature.
SL. I confess we are poor silly dark ignorant Creatures, and for ought I find, so many of the Bacchararo’s too, as well as we; but that you may not grudge your Time or Pains, I will assure you, that I will attend very seriously to what you say, and possibly may prove somewhat more docile than some of our Complexion; For I was the Son of a Phitisheer, that is, a kind of Priest in our Country and Way; he was also a Sophy, and had studied the Nature of things, and was well skill’d in Physick and natural Magick …. (Tryon 1684 , 150–51)
Tryon inserted a note to explain Bacchararo’s: “So the Negro’s in their Language call the Whites.” This publication (and the note) provide the first evidence of the word that in its modern spelling is rendered backra or buckra (Craigie and Hulbert 1938-44; Cassidy and LePage 1980; Allsopp 1996; Collymore 1957).
Buckra is very much an indicator word revealing the Barbadian connection to South Carolina. Today, according to The Dictionary of American Regional English, the word is found “chiefly” in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, though it is well known in many regions of the United States (Cassidy and Hall 1985). In the Caribbean, it has been employed in various compounds, though early evidence is lacking for many of them: backra fire ‘electricity,’ backra-johnny ‘poor white,’ backra missy ‘daughter of a planter,’ backra nigger ‘light-skinned person of mixed black and white ancestry,’ backra pickney ‘white child.’
Buckaroo persisted in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. In the 1970s, two investigators examined nicknames of people in the region and noted that the given names were often of English origin and the nicknames of African. The person bearing the nickname buckaroo was, they reported, especially skilled in the management of farm animals, and they asserted that the name was derived from vaquero ‘cow hand’ (< Spanish vaca ‘cow’). More likely, however, is the explanation that it was the special skill rather than the animals that accounted for the nickname (Baird and Twining 1991).
The etymology of buckra is well established. It derives from the Efik language of West Africa and describes people with power and knowledge regardless of race. However, it soon became specialized to refer to white people; as one lexicographer explains, “The Efik, being long established middle-men at the slave-trading center at Calabar, E[astern] Nigeria, would prob[ably] have established the item as a loan-word and spread it among slaves of other language groups who also brought it to the New World” (Allsopp 1996). In South Carolina, this spread of buckra is evidenced in a report in 1737 of a slave revolt in Antigua. In a letter published in Charleston, a correspondent noted that initial stages of the uprising had been scotched, but on returning home one Major Nugent was told by a slave: “Bockorau go to sleep too soon.” Though he would not say more, the informer plucked a hair from his head: “you do no more than so” (South-Carolina Gazette, April 16–23, 1737, 2).
In other words, the initial action was many hairs shy of a haircut. The social dimension of this revolt is of interest since an African-born slave was the first leader and the recruits “Top-Tradesmen” among the Creoles ‘persons born in the island.’ Once successful in killing all the whites, the Creoles planned to butcher the Cormantees — that is, slaves associated with the West African port of Cromanty and speakers of the Ashanti language — and set up a government on their own. The plot attracted literate slaves, many of them Christians who had sworn on the sacrament to keep the plot secret. The letter published in the Gazette made it clear that the evangelizing efforts of the bishop of London had deadly consequences.
Tales of slave uprisings struck fear among the whites of South Carolina, but what is of special linguistic interest in the letter from Antigua is that the reported speech of the informing slave shows evidence of creolized English and employs a variant of buckra without any further explanation. And of course nobody needed an explanation since the term was already widely current. The vocabulary of slavery was deeply embedded in the American English of the region, increasingly so as the number of slaves of African-origin in South Carolina grew from about 3,000 in 1700 to nearly 40,000 in 1740. The decade from 1730 to 1740, when this slave population doubled, was the era of the most dramatic increase (Wood 1974, 152). British immigrants and Barbardians alike were immersed in a richly multiracial and polyglot community.
Richard W. Bailey was the author of Speaking American: A History of English in the United States, Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language, Nineteenth-Century English, and Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff. Bailey served in the course of his career as the President of the American Dialect Society and of the Dictionary Society of North America, and the associate editor for The Oxford Companion to the English Language. A long-time faculty member at the University of Michigan, he retired as Fred Newton Scott Collegiate Professor of English.