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Last Word on the Origin of ‘Dixie’

Land of CottonSeveral people who read my recent Good Word Dixie, wrote in to remind me of an alternative explanation which most etymologists think little of. Tom Arfsten even backed his claim up with a quotation:
 
“In Stuart Berg Flexner’s book, I Hear America Talking (1976 Touchstone Books), this explanation is listed:

‘However, scholars know that Dixie comes from the ten-dollar notes issued by the Citizens’ Bank in bilingual Louisiana before the Civil War and bearing the French word dix “ten”, on the reverse side. Soon New Orleans, then Louisiana and the entire South were called The Land of Dixie, and later Dixieland and Dixie.’”

Citizens Bank $10 noteThis story on its surface simply doesn’t seem to make sense, which has led many (including me in the past) to reject it. Why would Scottish and Irish settlers on the East coast use a French word for ten from a small Lousiana bank (Banque Des Citoyens de la Louisiana) to name their region? Only a small minority of Louisianians spoke French and they probably pronounced the word correctly (dees). Why would English-speakers choose the word for ten, rather than the word for one (Unitie), or five (Sangsie), or 100 (Centsie)?

Well, let’s begin with the last question. English-speaking Lousianians, in fact, chose dix because it looks more like an English word than the others (see Folk Etymology). Second, it is true that all currency issued by Banque de Citoyens was referred to as dixies and, moreover, steamboat owners preferred that currency because the bank was one of the most stable and dependable in the South and its currency was accepted in both the French and English sections of New Orleans.

Remember, this was the 1850s, before the Federal Government printed money. Money was printed by private banks, most of which went under during the Civil War. The most dependable printed money in Lousiana at the time was that printed by the Citizen’s Bank. This made it highly desirable up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries.

We also need to keep in mind that the Mississippi was the main thoroughfare between the North and South at the time, the cotton-tobacco highway in the heyday of cotton and tobacco. For this reason, when departing from the North, and asked where they were going, stemboat captains and members of their crews often responded, “To Dixie Land,” meaning to the place where they planned to make lots of dixies.

Dan EmmettThe reason Dixie came to apply to the entire South is because the word wasDan Emmett in Blackface popularized in a song written by a minstrel musician and performer named Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904; portrait left, in blackface right). Emmett was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, served in the Army briefly in his teens, then joined the Cincinatti Circus and traveled through Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and Kentucky. No doubt from time to time he traveled by steamboat, where he would have certainly heard the word. While in the circus he began performing “Negro” songs on his banjo. 
 
In 1842 he moved to New York City, where his career began to grow rapidly. He performed in blackface under the name of “The Renowned Ethiopian Minstrel” in bars, restaurants, and billiard parlors with several other performers, just as minstrel shows were becoming popular. The songs he composed during his carreer included several other popular minstrel tunes still alive today, including as “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “Old Dan Tucker”.

His most famous composition was published in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War (1861-1866), “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land“. The song was already very popular in New York and surrounding area but when the War started, it became the veritable theme-song of the South. The color of the presumed singer was lost in the mayhem of that war and European Americans sang it even more heartily than African Americans.

Emmett’s song was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln who said after the war ended: “I have always thought that ‘Dixie’ was one of the best tunes I ever heard. I had heard our adversaries had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it.” So its appeal was general, throughout the nation. The meaning of the term “Dixie” had expanded to include the entire South, the Confederacy, as opposed to the North.

References

Riehl, Janet Grace, “Dixie: How a Ten-Dollar Bill Became a Song”, Riehl Life, Village of Wisdom for the 21st Century, September 18, 2009.

The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, Vol. XX, 1915, pp. 1-4 (http://books.google.com/books?id=mPAOAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA6-IA1).

Plus the links in the text.

One Response to “Last Word on the Origin of ‘Dixie’”

  1. Janet Riehl Says:

    Thank you for referencing the post on Riehlife. There is a series of five posts on the Civil War. My father (93) typed these up out of old magazine articles. He felt they would be of use and wanted them to be more widely known.

    Janet Riehl

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