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.
|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.)