Coonass, or Coon-ass is used in reference to a person of Cajun ethnicity. Many consider it an insult but others consider it a compliment or badge of honor. Although many Cajuns use the word in regard to themselves, other Cajuns view the term as an ethnic slur against the Cajun people, especially when used by non-Cajuns. Socioeconomic factors appear to influence how Cajuns are likely to view the term: working-class Cajuns tend to regard the word "coonass" as a badge of ethnic pride, whereas middle- and upper-class Cajuns are more likely to regard the term as insulting or degrading, even when used by fellow Cajuns in reference to themselves. (In Sociolinguistics, this type of behavior is termed covert prestige.) Despite an effort by Cajun activists to stamp out the term, it can be found on T-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers throughout Acadiana, the 22-parish Cajun homeland in south Louisiana. The term is also used by some of Cajun descent in nearby East Texas and Mississippi.
The origins of "coonass" are obscure, and Cajuns have put forth several folk etymologies in an effort to explain the word's origin. Some amateur linguists believe that the word refers to the Cajuns' occasional habit of eating raccoons, or from the use of coonskin caps by the Cajuns' ancestors while fighting in the Battle of New Orleans or in the Revolutionary War under Spanish colonial Governor Bernardo de Gálvez. Other amateur linguists attribute the term to the racial slur "coon," used in reference to African-Americans — thus implying that Cajuns are lower than African-Americans in social standing. Another holds that the term derives from the shape of Cajun women after having children (like a raccoon viewed from above). And yet another folk etymology maintains that "coonass" is a corruption of the French and Latin word “cunnus," a vulgar term for vulva.
The most popular folk etymology, however, stems from late Louisiana congressman and cultural activist James "Jimmy" Domengeaux, who maintained that "coonass" derived from the continental French word "connasse." According to the French Wiktionary, the French Larousse dictionnary, and the French Wikipedia, "connasse" entered the French language at the beginning of the 19th century and the term translates loosely to dirty prostitute. Domengeaux asserted that Frenchmen used the term in reference to Cajun soldiers serving in France during World War II, and that Anglo-American soldiers overheard the term, transformed it into "coonass" and brought it back to the U.S. as a disparaging term for Cajuns. Citing Domengeaux's etymology, Louisiana legislators passed a concurrent resolution in the 1980s condemning the word. Contrary to popular belief, the lawmakers did not ban the term. Research has since disproved Domengeaux's "connasse" etymology. Indeed, photographic evidence shows that Cajuns themselves used the term prior to the time in which "connasse" allegedly morphed into "coonass."
Examples of Use
- In the television show Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, host Larry the Cable Guy accompanies a group of alligator gar fishermen who refer to themselves as "Coonasses."
- In the television show Swamp People, one of the hunters featured on the show describes himself as "coonass", in regards to that he lives off of the land and makes his living by hunting.
- Cajun governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards often used the word "coonass" in reference to himself and other Cajuns, though was corrected by attorney Warren Perrin that some people take offense to the term, and ceased its use.
- In the early 1980s, a Cajun worker sued his former employer over repeated use of the word "coonass" in the workplace. The lawsuit led directly to the federal government's recognition of the Cajuns as a national ethnic group as protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- In the movie Casey's Shadow, Walter Matthau's character was oft referred to as "Coonass" by his nemesis.
- While campaigning for President in Louisiana, Ronald Reagan once suggested his own appointment as an "honorary Cajun coonass."
- Although the Louisiana State Legislature condemned the word's use in 1981, the Louisiana Air National Guard's acclaimed 159th Tactical Fighter Group referred to itself as the "Coonass Militia" until 1992.
- University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban came under fire in early 2007 for using the term while speaking "off the record" to a reporter. Audio of the conversation was leaked onto the Internet before garnering mainstream media attention.
- The term is used in a non-disparaging manner in the 1993 movie A Perfect World when Robert "Butch" Haynes (Kevin Costner) complains that he can't "find a good coonass waltz" on the radio.
- In the HBO series True Blood, Rene Lenier refers to himself as a Coonass when speaking to Sookie.
- In the Charlie Daniels hit "Trudy" off of his 1974 album Fire on the Mountain (album) there is a line in the song where he refers to himself as a coonass "But it took half the cops in Dallas County just to put one coonass boy in jail.".
- In John McPhee's essay "Atchafalaya", about efforts to control flooding on the Mississippi River, from his book The Control of Nature, one Louisiana native approvingly tells McPhee "you are pure coon-ass" because he uses a red bandana handkerchief.
- Bernard, Shane K. (April 2003). The Cajuns: Americanization of a People. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-523-3.