cotton-picking, cotton-picker

Cotton-picking is a difficult adjective. On the one hand its origin is rooted in a metaphor for slavery in the American South, and as such carries racist connotations with it. But on the other hand, it’s often used without any racist intent at all. So while someone might use it innocently, that person’s audience might legitimately misinterpret the speaker’s intent.

The metaphor underlying the adjective is that of black slaves in the American South harvesting cotton. The Oxford English Dictionary records this literal sense of the noun cotton-picking as early as 1795 and cotton-picker, referring to a person or machine that does this from 1833. Literal use of the terms in contexts clearly about harvesting cotton is rarely problematic. The problem comes in with the extended, figurative uses of the terms.

Figuratively, cotton-picking is used either as a general term of abuse for a person or as a euphemism for damned. One of the earliest uses, and it’s a transitional one that both literally refers to a slave who picks cotton and is also used derogatorily, is from Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave, referring to a young black girl whose owner refuses to sell her along with her mother, thus separating them. He does this because the girl would be worth more in a few years because:

She was a beauty—a picture—a doll—one of the regular bloods—none of your thick-lipped, bullet-headed, cotton-picking niggers—if she was might he be d--d.

Cotton-picking starts appearing regularly in print in the 1930s, often in non-racial contexts. Yet, these early extended uses are almost all from the American South, so the subtext is distinctly racist, even if the context is not. For instance there is this from Audie Murphy’s WWII memoir To Hell and Back, published in 1950. Murphy was a native of Texas:

Okay, gourd-head. Get that cotton-picking butt off the ground.

Here there is no overt racial context, it is one white soldier talking to another, but the underlying racist metaphor remains obvious.

The noun cotton-picker follows a similar pattern, although it has remained in use as a clear racial epithet. Extended use as a derogatory term for a black person dates to 1880 in Elizabeth Avery Meriwether’s novel The Master of Red Leaf. Again, this is a transitional use, both literally referring to a black woman who picks cotton and being used as an epithet:

These latter quite looked down on Gilly, and one I heard call her a “Country Jake.” “Yes, a regular cotton picker!”

By 1930 cotton-picker is being glossed in dictionaries as a general epithet for a black person, and this use continues to the present day.

But in parallel with cotton-picking, the noun cotton-picker was also used, again starting in the American South, as an epithet for white people too. But even though used in a non-racial context, the epithet is fundamentally racist, equating the person being insulted with blacks. From Jerome Harris’s 1919 Dizzed to a Million, a memoir about his WWI service in the field artillery:

What are these boys from the South? Are they cotton-pickers, corn-crackers, stump jumpers, ridge-runners or bog-leapers?

Some of the bleaching away of the racial connotations of these terms, so that present-day speakers use the term casually without racial intent, may stem from a 1952 Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Bugs says:

Get your cotton-pickin’ hooks offa me!

Generations of kids have grown up watching this cartoon and hearing the term without realizing its racial connotations. Of course, these Looney Tunes cartoons, being products of their day, often contained racist content, with the more obvious bits edited out in later television broadcasts.


Sources:

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2018, s. v. cotton-picking adj., cotton-picker, n.

Lighter, Jonathan, ed. Historical Dictionary of American Slang, vol. 1, A–G, Random House, 1994.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. cotton-picking n. and adj., cotton-picker, n.

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