There's an old nickname for North Carolina, with a lot of variations: Cackalacky. Cackalack. North Cack.

Some folks love the terms. And a few seem to hate them.

They're weird, though they do roll off the tongue. Greensboro listener Josh Kellogg wanted to know more about them:

I have heard the term ‘Cackalack' and ‘Cackalacky' several times, and not being a North Carolina native, I've always been curious where that term came from, where did it originate, and what does it mean, really?

If you've come across the word recently, there's a good chance you have Page Skelton to thank. He's the easygoing founder of Cackalacky, Inc., the North Carolina sauce company that these days makes all sorts of products, including those ubiquitous, oval bumper stickers with the word smack dab in the center.

Skelton even has a Cackalacky song, though he insists there's a three-beer minimum to experience it.

Cackalacky, Inc. founder Page Skelton. Photo courtesy: Page Skelton

He says he first came across the word nearly 20 years ago, when he was getting ready to start the company.

“I was at a cookout, and one person said ‘Hey man, pass me some of that Cackalacky sauce,' and I was like ‘what?'" he says. "And it was like that ‘a-ha' moment.”

The word stuck. And Skelton says he loves what it evokes.

“It kind of has a folksiness to it. What I really thought was magic is, people giggle the first time they hear it," he says. "And they almost always—they laugh, they smile, it has kind of a self-deprecating quality to it.”

But where in the world did the word "Cackalacky" come from? Unfortunately, it's hard to know for sure. The research is a bit thin. Although not everyone has ignored it. That includes Paul Jones at the Library Science Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's THE guy on this topic.

Jones says he's heard it all. Some have claimed Cackalacky is a derivative of a Cherokee word. Others suggest it's an Americanization of the German word for cockroach – "Kakerlake." But Jones thinks these theories are bunk. After all, for words anyway, it's easy to create an origin story.

“If I had to make one up, I'd say it's a Welsh word that has to do with the noise a dragon makes when it belches,” Jones says.

Paul Jones. Photo credit: Phil Adquila

So what's the best theory? Well, Jones first came across Cackalack in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. As far as he can tell, it was a pejorative term used by military members stationed in North Carolina. 

"Particularly people at Fort Bragg, who were not from North Carolina, used the Cackalack word. ‘We're stuck down here in the boondocks, in Cackalack,'” he says.

Jones has found subsequent references elsewhere, particularly in a play from the 1970s. And he's heard anecdotal evidence of earlier references, but hasn't been able to corroborate them.

So what we're left with is this: a gentle insult from folks who didn't necessarily want to be here.

But like a lot of insults, this one has been reclaimed – at least by some people. And in this case, the evolution of Cackalack hit a major milestone in the early 1990s, when hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest released "Scenario," one of the most important songs from one of the most important rap groups ever.

Here's the lyric we're interested in:

Can I get a hit? (Hit!) Boom, bip
With a brother named Tip, and we're ready to flip
East coast stomping, ripping, and romping
New York, North Cak-a-laka, and Compton

This wasn't the first use of "Cackalacka" in hip-hop, but coming from Tribe, it's certainly the most visible. And musicians continue to use it.

Poet and rapper G Yamazawa – a Durham-born emcee – has known the word for a long time, though he wasn't always so high on it.

“To be honest, I never really liked the word," he says. "I never really aesthetically liked it, like, [never] wanted to rep Cackalack.”

But then it started showing up in his freestyle raps, becoming a verbal tool. And when it was time to burst into the rap game, out came his single "North Cack."

From "North Cack":

It's the North Cack baby I'm a boss
Carolina barbecue sauce, with the slaw
I'm the safe, the cellar and the vault
I'm the best, the effect, and the cause
I'm the law

Yamazawa's doing a few things with this song. Yes, he's calling out Tar Heel barbecue – but there's more. Not only is he repping his home state, front and center, he's also holding up a mirror to it.

“Wordsmiths and emcees and poets use the language and reflect the language that's being used already," he says. "And in the same way, once a wordsmith and a poet decides to use certain language in certain ways, it influences the way society uses those words as well.”

As far as he's concerned, however the Cackalacky thing started – as an insult, a nickname, or something else – the word has become a very real, if small, part of the ongoing conversation between art and real life.

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