This name for the American South first appears in 1859 in the lyrics of a minstrel song. The etymology is uncertain, but it is most likely a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland delimited by those eponymous surveyors.
The first recorded use of the of Dixie is from the song Johnny Roach, by Daniel D. Emmett, first performed in February 1859:
Gib me de place called Dixie land,
Wid hoe and shubble in my hand.
A few months later, in April, Emmett used Dixie again in his more famous song Dixie’s Land:
I wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land whar’ I was born in,
Early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
Dixie’s Land, or just Dixie, was an enormous hit. If they had popular music charts in 1859, the song would have topped them. For his part, however, Emmett never claimed coinage of Dixie. In 1872 he said:
“Dixie’s Land” is an old phrase applied to the Southern States...lying south of Mason and Dixon’s line. In my traveling days amongst the showmen, when we would start for a winter’s season south, while speaking of the change, they would invariably ejactulate [sic] the stereotyped saying—"I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land,” meaning the southern country.1
As mentioned, the best guess as to the origin of Dixie is a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1763, the proprietors of the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies, the Penn and Calvert families respectively, commissioned astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to survey the border between the two colonies. By 1773, the survey between those to colonies was complete and by 1779, the pair had also surveyed the Pennsylvania-Virginia (now West Virginia) border. Their survey not only marked the boundary between those colonies, but also the boundary between the free and slave states and the name became emblematic of that difference. According to this etymology, Mason’s name was dropped and the form was clipped to just Dixie. We see such a partial clipping in Grenville Mellen’s 1827 poem Our Chronicle of ‘26:
Teach him there is virtue north of Dixon’s line.
But while this is the most likely explanation, it is not the only possibility.
The strongest contending explanation is that it comes from a children’s game. The 28 December 1844 issue of the magazine The New World includes this line:
Doesn’t Old Fezziwig figure here like some planet that, bent upon a spree, joslled [sic] against all other planets in his system, crossing and recrossing their orbits, playing, “Dixey’s Land,” in the region of space.
The first detailed description of this game appears in 1861, but it is clear that the game has been influenced and altered by the war. From the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin of 39 July 1861:
A boy and girl would establish themselves as Dixie and Dixie’s wife. Imaginary lines would form the boundaries on the North and South, and the opposite party would attempt crossing the sacred domain, shouting as they entered upon it, ‘I am on Dixie’s land, and Dixie isn’t home.’ Soon, to their surprise, Dixie and his wife would rush to capture them, and as their position was in the centre they would soon succeed. As each one was caught he aided Dixie, and soon the whole opposing force was brought within the fold to share whatever had been united by them as the reward of entering Dixie’s Land.2
Another description of the game is given in William Wells Newell’s 1883 Games and Songs of American Children:
A boundary line marks out “Tom Tidler’s Ground,” […] This Eldorado has many different local names—Van Diemen’s land in Connecticut; Dixie’s Land in New York, an expression which antedates the war.
Newell’s further description of the game shows that it has incorporated Emmett’s lyrics, indicating that the children’s usage has been influenced by the song and the game:
A line having been drawn, to bound “Dixie’s Land,” the players cross the frontier with the challenge:
On Dixie’s land I’ll take my stand,
And live and die in Dixie.3
The New York Weekly of 30 December 1872 has this:
During any time within the last eighty years the term “Dixie’s Land” has been in use with the New York boys while engaged in the game of “tag.”4
So it appears that even though the game had changed somewhat, the name Dixie’s Land was in use by New York City children to refer to a game of tag.
The children may have gotten the name of the game from this legend of New York City. From the New Hampshire Sentinel of 27 June 1861:
The truth is that “Dixie” is an indigenous northern negro refrain, as common to the writer as the lamp-posts in New York city seventy or seventy-five years ago. It was one of the every-day allusions of boys at that time in all their out-door sports. And no one ever heard of Dixie’s Land being other than Manhattan Island until recently...When slavery existed in New York, one “Dixy” owned a large tract of land on Manhattan Island and a large number of slaves, and the increase in the abolition sentiment caused an emigration of the slaves to more thorough and secure slave sections, and the negroes who were thus set off (many being born there), naturally looked back to their old homes, where they had lived in clover, with feelings of regret, as they could not imagine any place like Dixy’s. Hence it became synonymous with an ideal locality, combining ease, combining comfort and material happiness of every description.5
While the irony of New York City being the true Dixie is delicious, we really have no reason to believe that this story is true. And this particular account is definitely wrong in calling the song a “northern negro refrain.” We know for certain that Emmett composed the song in 1859 and it is most definitely not a traditional tune.
But there was a game of tag played by New York City children called Dixie’s Land before the war. This may, in some way, have influenced Emmett’s song, perhaps by working its way into the jargon of the showmen that Emmett traveled with. But the best explanation still remains that the word comes from the Mason-Dixon Line.
There are other explanations that are sometimes given, but these have no evidence to support them. Two of the more common are as follows.
One is that the word comes from a minstrel performer named Dixey who performed in Philadelphia, and presumably elsewhere, as early as 1856. It seems likely that Emmett would have known the man and the Dixie in Emmett’s song may be this minstrel, but if so, Emmet makes no mention of it.6
The second that is often given is that Dixie is a reference to the French word dix, ten, that appeared on ten-dollar banknotes issued by the Citizen’s Bank of Louisiana before the Civil War. The problem with this explanation is that no slang usage of dix or dixie, referring to banknotes, has been found.
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 609-10.
2Jonathan Lighter, “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?”, American Dialect Society Mailing List, 11 Nov 2007.
3William Wells Newell, Games and Songs of American Children, edited by Carl Withers, 2d ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1903), 221-22.
4HDAS, v. 1, 609-10.
5Lighter, “Is It True?”
6Mitford M. Mathews, “Of Matters Lexicographical,” American Speech 26, no. 4 (Dec. 1951): 288.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton