Thursday, August 5, 2010

Debunking the Alleged Origin of the Word "Coonass"

Note: See also my new blog article on this topic, titled More on That Word "Coonass": A Labor Dispute Trial Documents Its Use in 1940.

The thing I enjoy most about being a historian is the detective work — piecing together clues in search of historical facts. And sometimes that search results in the debunking of myths.

Take the alleged etymology (that is, word origin) of the term coonass, an ethnic label that some use as a synonym for Cajun. It's a controversial word because while many Cajuns embrace the term and regard it as a badge of ethnic pride, other Cajuns consider it highly offensive.

A novelty "Registered Coonass" sticker.
This etymology goes as follows: During World War II native Frenchmen inexplicably derided their Cajun GI liberators as conasses, a standard French word meaning "stupid person" or "dirty prostitute." Anglo-American GIs overheard this slur, misunderstood it as coonass, and used it in reference to Cajun GIs. After the war, the term came to be applied to Cajuns in general.

This alleged etymology is well-known and is still cited on occasion as authoritative. It appears to have been thought up in the early 1970s by the late cultural activist, politician, and attorney James "Jimmy" Domengeaux (1907-1988). (His surname is pronounced in the French manner as DUH-MAZH-ZHEE-O, much like the surname of baseball great Joe DiMaggio.)* As head of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), Domengeaux railed against the term's use, including its use by then-Governor Edwin W. Edwards in jovial reference to himself.

Jimmy Domengeaux in 1968.
(Source: La Louisiane [documentary],

Even if Domengeaux himself did not concoct this etymology, he certainly did more than anyone else to popularize it. In fact, the Louisiana state legislature condemned the use of coonass in 1981 not because the word referred to a raccoon's posterior, but because, as Domengeaux claimed, it supposedly hailed from the French slur conasse.

Excerpt from a 1981 resolution
condemning the word coonass.
(Source: Louisiana State Legislature)

I myself had always assumed that a blue-ribbon panel of university-trained linguists must have formulated the conasse explanation. I was therefore surprised to learn that it was merely one man's hypothesis. (Someone who had not taken Domengeaux’s etymology at face value was Cajun scholar Barry Jean Ancelet of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Ancelet rejected Domengeaux's notion as "shaky linguistics at best.")

It was quite by accident, however, that I ended up debunking Domengeaux's popular conasse etymology.

In the late 1990s I was searching the online database of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration for anything having to do with the Nike-Cajun rocket. The U.S. military invented the Nike-Cajun in the 1950s as a sounding rocket for testing the atmosphere. But why, I wondered, had it been called the Nike-Cajun rocket? The name evoked a strange combination of ancient Greek mythology and rural south Louisiana folklife.

A Nike-Cajun rocket.
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration) 

I'll explain the origin of the Nike-Cajun in a later posting (see my article "The Nike-Cajun Rocket: How It Got Its Name") — but it was while researching this rocket that I stumbled across a reference to World War II stock footage depicting something called the Cajun Coonass.

What in the world was that? I wondered. As it turned out, the Cajun Coonass was the nickname of a U.S. warplane. In fact, the National Archives had a photograph of the airplane shot by the Army Signal Corps in April 1943.

The date’s significance took a few seconds to register. "That's over a year before D-Day.”

In other words, it was over a year before there were any Cajuns in France to be called conasse, the word that supposedly morphed into coonass: Domengeaux’s etymology was wrong.

Ordering a print of the photograph, I found that it did indeed show a U.S. airplane, specifically a C-47, sporting the word coonass on its fuselage — juxtaposed (some would say redundantly) with the word Cajun.

According to Army Signal Corps data on the back of the original print, the image was made not only over a year before the Allied invasion of France, but halfway around the world, in the South Pacific. (The plane's pilot, I should explain, was a Cajun from Sunset, Louisiana, and thus he had the privilege of naming the plane. It's therefore interesting that he chose the word coonass.)

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass (with enlarged inset).
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

Granted, Cajun GIs could have been called conasse as early as 1942, when U.S. troops went up against Vichy French forces in North Africa; or even during World War I, when U.S. doughboys served in France. But Domengeaux had not made these claims, nor had the Louisiana state legislature made them in its concurrent resolution condemning coonass. In fact, the resolution stated, "[S]ince World War II, certain persons commenced using the word 'coonass' in referring to an Acadian (Cajun)" because "[T]he word . . . originated when French-speaking Louisiana soldiers stationed in France were often called by native French soldiers as 'conasse.' . . ."

My own feeling is that coonass originated much closer to "home," that is, in the Acadiana region of south Louisiana or right across the border in east Texas, where Cajun culture mingled with the WASP-ish Bible-belt culture of the Lone Star State. This is mere speculation on my part, however, and for now the term's origin remains a mystery.

But thanks to this serendipitous discovery of the Cajun Coonass photograph in the National Archives, I now know the term did not arise as Domengeaux claimed in his conasse theory.

Some activists have expressed concern that debunking the conasse theory might set back the effort to stamp out coonass. My opinion is that the disproved conasse theory isn’t needed to stamp out the word: it should suffice to say, if one is so inclined, “I don’t want to be referred to as the backside of a raccoon!”

For more information on the word coonass and its colorful history, see my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003), pp. 8, 15, 96-97, 109, 138, 142.

Cover of my book
The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003)

Addendum of 13 March 2012

Here is World War II stock motion picture footage from the National Archives and Records Administration showing the Cajun Coonass and its crew. The pilot, Lt. Albert Burleigh, hailed from Sunset, Louisiana; he is shown first in line among the crew and is wearing an officer's cap. Like the above still photo (apparently taken at the same time), this film was shot in April 1943 at the Port Moresby airfield in Papua New Guinea.

(Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

A note on selected source material:

The original Cajun Coonass still photograph is in the National Archives and Records Administration and is photograph #342-FH-3A-32507-79171a.c. It is dated "April, 1943" on the back after a typewritten list of the plane's crewmembers; and it is dated "rec'd 7 Jan. 1944" on the front — both dates predating the D-Day arrival of Cajun GIs in France. I obtained photocopies (verso and recto) and a glossy print of this image from the National Archives in 1998.

Data from the front (verso) and back (recto)
of the Cajun Coonass still photograph
establishing when and where the image was taken.
(Click to enlarge.)

The Cajun Coonass motion picture footage also comes from the National Archives and is film NWDNM(m)-342-USAF-12835-1 (reel #2) or NWDNM(m)-342-USAF-19392 (reel #4), both reels being supplied to me by the National Archives in 1999 on a single VHS tape.


*This pronunciation is confirmed by the website of Domengeaux's own former law firm, which states "Our law firm was established in Lafayette in 1957 by attorney James R. 'Jimmy' Domengeaux (pronounced like DiMaggio). . . ." Source: Domengeaux, Wright, Roy & Edwards website,, accessed 17 February 2013.