How to spell the word craic (or crack?) and what Shakespeare would have said

An Irishman’s Diary: The bard’s ‘cracker’ was somebody who talked big

Crack/craic: William Shakespeare would have put a K in it. Image: Painting known as the ‘Chandos portrait’/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Crack/craic: William Shakespeare would have put a K in it. Image: Painting known as the ‘Chandos portrait’/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Shakespeare was a man who enjoyed the crack. Or even the “craic”, as 97 per cent of Twitter users now spell it, according to a poll being carried out, even as I write, by Róisín Ingle. But the Bard, of course, would have put a K in it, as in this extract from King John, in which Philip the Bastard (that’s the name Shakespeare gives him, not my description) and the Duke of Austria are engaged in mutual trash-talk.

Bastard: But, ass, I’ll take that burden from your back,/Or lay on that shall make your shoulders crack. Austria: What cracker is this same that deafs our ears/With this abundance of superfluous breath?

We’ll glide gently over Shakespeare’s use of the words “ass” and “crack” in the same sentence there, even though the perceived indelicacy of crack’s English spelling, including its latter-day drug connotations, is a common excuse for the “craic” variant. In any case, the more relevant term in the extract is “cracker”, used as a put-down by the Duke.

King John was written in the 1590s, around the same time that, over in Ireland, Edmund Spenser was complaining in The Faerie Queene about “vainglorious crakes”. Spenser meant “braggarts”, apparently. And that was what the Duke of Austria meant too. Shakespeare’s “cracker” was somebody who talked big.

Fast-forward two centuries, when the word “cracker” has emigrated to the American colonies, especially the south. It still means “brash talker”. But it has now also become synonymous with a certain kind of white settler: Scots-Irish usually, poor, and wild bordering on anarchic.

Wild and savage

Benjamin Franklin writes of them in similar vein, for being “wild and savage as the Indians”. And they even get namechecked in Darwin’s The Origin of Species, via an American professor, who describes livestock-breeding practices among the “crackers”, described in brackets as “Florida squatters”.

But there was another common thread in descriptions of them. They were considered comedians too. Hence their prominent role in the introduction of a 1994 anthology of humorous writing from the US south, by Roy Blount jnr. 

Blount described crackers as “wild, oral, whiskey-loving, unfastidious, tribal, horse-racing, government-hating, Wasp-scorned Irish and Welsh and pre-Presbyterian Scots”. And since his collection ranged from the essays of Mark Twain to the lyrics of BB King, he finds at least one thing they had in common with their neighbours of different colour.

“Cracking”, he explained, “is a Scots and Irish term for pointed boastful joshing and also an African-American synonym for ‘Signifyin(g)’ [verbal game-play in which, for example, insults are used as terms of affection] ”.

Yes, as Blount goes on to say, the relationship between these two groups was rarely cosy. It was and remains overshadowed by slavery. Indeed, there is a commonly held belief that “cracker” comes instead from the whips used by such settlers, first as livestock-herders and later as slave owners.

For that and other reasons, it became as much a term of disparagement in southern black America as it had been in the white north, where it was all but forgotten until a high-profile murder case in 2013, where the defendant was referred to in evidence as a “creepy-ass cracker” (he turned out to be Hispanic, which would have put him beyond the traditional definition).

In any case, despite its negative connotations, deserved and otherwise, the C-word has somehow survived in places such as Georgia as a badge of honour.

People using it of themselves mean that although they may be poor, or of poor ancestry, they’re also honest (ish), good-humoured, and unpretentious. There is even a Cracker Cuisine to match. Like the great ones of Europe, it draws on whatever is fresh and locally available, although in this case that can mean alligator.

I realise we have moved a very long way here from the question of why so many Irish people now think “craic” is the correct – or only – spelling of the word for high-spirited conversation. Some contributors to the Twitter debate appear to be outraged by suggestions from snobby Irish Times types that it isn’t, necessarily.

But having also noticed their tendency to express themselves in a brash, sometimes comical manner, I am forced to conclude that, in more ways than one, they’re all crackers too.

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