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Encountered most recently in the Procol Harum song "Lime Street." Does the phrase refer to a raccoon, or is the word here used in the sense of the slur?

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    – tchrist
    Sep 23, 2023 at 23:35
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    Just FYI regarding the specific 1967 song mentioned, "Lime Street" refers to the city center of Liverpool. (Unlike say the Beatles, Procol Harum were from the more or less London area, and had nothing to do with the North; I've no idea why they were singing about Liverpool; nor why they used a US idiom. The port city of Liverpool was known in the 50s/60s to get US influences and music first (as endlessly recounted by Liverpudlian bands), so maybe it was actually some sort of "we're hip to US influences" US slang reference.
    – Fattie
    Sep 24, 2023 at 15:32

2 Answers 2

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'Coon' similes in mid-nineteenth-century U.S. English

Raccoons are notoriously clever and dexterous animals that many farmers view (or once viewed) as varmints. In the nineteenth century, a number of expressions arose in connection with the slyness, resourcefulness, wildness, or unpredictability of raccoons. Examples include "snug as a 'coon" (example from 1834, from a speech by none other than Davey Crockett), "jolly as a coon" (example from 1840, in reference to William Henry Harrison prior to is election as U.S. President), "shy as a coon" (example from 1840), "happy as a ’coon in a corn-field" (example from 1841), "You are a mighty cunning ’coon, old General.", "sharp as a ’coon’s tail" (examples from 1842), "smart as a ’coon" (example from 1844), "straite as a coon's leg (example from 1844; this is a sarcastic phrase, as raccoons' hind legs are not straight), "drunk as a coon" (example from 1846),"knowin' as a coon in a chicken coop" (example from 1847), "cunning as a 'coon (racoon)" (example from 1847), snug as a coon in a beanfield" (example from 1849), "tarnation smart as a 'coon with three legs chasing a 'tarnal flash of lightning up the rainbow" (example from 1849), "safe as a coon in a holler tree" (example from 1850, "sharp as a coon" (example from 1850), "spry as a ’coon" (example from 1851), "spry and peart ... as a ’coon in autumn" (example from 1852), "’cute [that is, acute] as a ’coon (example from 1852), "fat as a coon in the fall" (example from 1855), "right as a coon" (example from 1860), "crooked as a coon's hind leg" (example from 1861), "dead as a coon" (example from 1866), and "artful as a coon" (example from 1869).

One of these expressions was "crazy as a coon."

The earliest Google books match for this expression is from Lucius Sargent, "Margaret's Bridal," reprinted in Temperance Tales, volume 2 (1848):

"Reasonable bounds [on drinking alcohol]," replied Mr. McNinny, "are the old bounds, to be sure. While the friends of temperance confined their operations to the suppression of the use of ardent spirit, their labors were attended with success. But now the ultraists are bringing ruin on the best of causes. Fermentation is God's work ; distillation is man's work." — "Stranger," said a raw-boned Kentuckian, who had listened in silence for some time, "both on 'em' the devil's work, I tell ye. I've tried 'em all, and been jest as crazy as a ’coon with a slug in his ear, 'pon every one on 'em, from streaked ale up e'enamost t' akyfortus."

In this longer version of the expression, "a slug in his ear" refers to a slug of lead from a gun—so the image is of a raccoon that has been shot in the head and is reacting wildly to the pain. Sargent actually wrote this story almost a decade before its appearance in Temperance Tales, however, as it appears in the Alexandria [Virginia] Gazette (November 25, 1839).

The phrase turns up again in "A Word List from Western New York," in Dialect Notes, volume 3, part 6 (1910):

crazy as a coon, adj. phr. Violently insane.

And again in M.L.C. Pickthall, "Dead Loss" in The Windsor Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly for Men and Women (1920):

He felt suddenly isolated ; this man, whom he knew like a brother, was, after all, a stranger to him, governed by emotions of which he knew nothing. He couldn't express this even to himself.

"Crazy as a coon," he muttered resentfully. There was a slight lull in the storm.

J.E. Lighter, Random House Dictionary of Historical Slang(1994) traces coon as a racial epithet for "Black person" to a popular minstrel song from circa 1829–1834:

coon n. ... 2. a black person.—used contemptuously. {Undoubtedly popularized—and perhaps introduced—by the minstrel song quoted in 1834 quot[ation]; orig. pub. date may have been as early as 1829.} [First cited occurrence:] 1834 in Damon Old Amer[ican] Songs (No. 20) {sheet music}: O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler. ...

Interestingly, Lighter notes an earlier meaning of coon (dating to at least 1821 in the South Midlands of the United States): "a man, a fellow, esp. a sly or otherwise remarkable fellow." This sense of the term had no racial overtones and clearly referred to the cleverness of the North American raccoon.


A side note on 'coon' as a U.S. political slang term for 'Whig'

John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases, Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States (1848) offers the following striking (and strikingly limited) entries for coon and coonery:

COON. A popular contraction of the word raccoon. A nick-name applied to those who belong to the Whig party.

COONERY. Whiggery. See preceding article [on COON].

Democrats of the old Bay State, one charge more and the work is thoroughly done. "Once more to the breach," and you will hear the shouts of Democratic [party] victory, and the lamentations of the vanquished. We must achieve a victory—the people must be free—'coonery must fall with all its corruptions and abominations, never more to rise. Democrats—freemen!—keep your council-fires burning brightly. Let no one remain listless, or doubt, or hesitate ; "push on your columns," rout the 'coons, bet them, overwhelm them, and let the welkin ring with the soul-stirring tidings that Massachusetts is safe—is free from the curse of whiggery.—Boston Post

This party-specific sense of coon may explain the underlying sense of a couple of contemporaneous uses of coon in reference to human beings that I encountered in my research and was unsure what to make of.

From comments made to the House of Representatives on February 14, 1843, by Representative Henry Beeson of Pennsylvania, reported in the Congressional Globe (143):

Yes, we have been brought back to the age of "iron money and black broth," as it was foretold we should be; but not by the Democratic hard-money policy, as a Coon prophet, in 1840, falsely asserted. The journals of this Congress would show what party it was who, in the name of paper money and high wages, go for no money and almost no wages; who, on the question of resumption of payment by the banks of this District, decided, substantially, that resumption here should depend on resumption nowhere.

Beeson, not surprisingly, was a Democrat.

And from "Tenth District," in the [Indianapolis] Indiana State Sentinel (June 6, 1843):

We learn verbally that Dr. Thompson of Fort Wayne takes the place of Judge Kilgore as a coon nominee for Congress. If he makes as poor a Congressman as he was legislator, his district could n't gain much, either in credit or character by electing him.

When the U.S. Whig party disintegrated prior to the Civil War, this slang sense of coon evidently vanished. The modern association of elephants with Republicans and donkeys with Democrats seems largely to have been the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast, although the association of donkeys with Democrats may be older.


Conclusion

Inevitably, two centuries of malevolent persistence as a malicious racial epithet has tainted offhand use of coon in similes, regardless of the speaker's or writer's actual intention; but in light of the examples given above, I think it is highly likely that early use of "crazy as a coon" had no racial element. I would read the instance in Procol Harum's song as likewise race-neutral in intention.

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    Procol Harum was a British band. Raccoons are American animals, and the phrase crazy as a coon is an American idiom. Who knows what Procol Harum thought it referred to. Sep 23, 2023 at 11:18
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    As a child growing up in the 60s and 70s I can assume you that "coon" was widely used as a racist slur. Sep 23, 2023 at 13:32
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    @Greybeard: Although your comment seems quite reasonable in its overall assessment of the lyrics in question, it bears noting that the person who wrote the lyrics for Procol Harum for most of its existence was Keith Reid, not Gary Brooker. Brooker wrote the music for most of the band's sons. According to his Wikipedia article, Reid "wrote the lyrics of every original song released by Procol Harum, with the exception of the songs on their 2017 album, Novum." "Lime Street Blues" was evidently the flip side of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," released in 1967.
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 23, 2023 at 19:32
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    As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, I can assure you that "coon" continued to be widely used as a racist slur (U.K). Indeed, even as an adult, I've been subjected to the slur.
    – QHarr
    Sep 24, 2023 at 4:23
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    @tchrist - sorry for not clarifying. I was responding to a claim that "coon" was not applied as a racist epithet in Britain where I grew up. The slur was widespread in England at least in my childhood (70's and 80s). There's no need to more precisely locate it than that. Sep 24, 2023 at 14:13
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The short answer is that, whatever the origin, the usage tracks into racist stereotypes about Black people and for that reason should be used with great care if not avoided entirely.

"Crazy" Is Connected to Racist Uses of "Coon"

Scholars on race have identified the connection between the coon stereotype and being "crazy." Tia Tyree in "African American Stereotypes in Reality Television" (The Howard Journal of Communications, vol. 22, 2011; link to paywalled version) lists out common combinations of stereotypes via Donald Bogle's earlier work on film and TV stereotypes:

Bogle (2002) is known for his research identifying longstanding stereotypical representations of male stereotypes, including the generous, selfless, and kind Tom; unreliable, crazy, and lazy Coon; and the big, over- sexed, savage, and frenzied Buck. (p.398-9)

Indeed, Bogle in 1994 had listed out these qualities in a quote given in full via the Jim Crow Museum article on "The Coon Caricature." The full quote on the page includes the n-word, which I omit here:

Before its death, the coon developed into the most blatantly degrading of all black stereotypes. The pure coons emerged as no-account [n-words], those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap, or butchering the English language. (p. 8)

The article at large connects the depiction of a wild "coon" to minstrel shows and film in the early 20th century and to subsequent usage.

If we look at earlier newspapers and other excerpts, we can see that connection in examples. For instance, in the Albequerque Evening Citizen, 23 April 1907, page 3, a story "For Woman and Her Realm in the Home" subtitled "How a Little Negro Nurse Showed Her Appreciation of Adornment" gave the following description of the nurse as part of a joke:

Our next door neighbors are Southern people with a capital S, and the man in particular being a typical Col. Carter of Cartersville, with a noticeable Book T. Washington affiliations, I can tell you. They have a crazy little 'coon' for a nursemaid, a veritable Topsy, who just growed, but a jewel of purest ray serene in looking after the young hopefuls. (Chronicling America)

The joke ends up poking fun at the nursemaid.

Then in the news for Williston Graphic, 27 August 1903, is this simple description under North Dakota news:

A crazy coon escaped from the Grand Forks jail. (Chronicling America)

And this short excerpt in The Commercial, 29 December 1905, depicts a particularly animalistic depiction of a Black man:

Crazy Coon. A crazy negro was brought up from Obion last Wednesday by Marshal Pardue and lodged in jail. The negro bit Palmer on the hand in a very savage manner on the road. (Chronicling America)

And lest you think the usage is just old and citing more modern scholars wasn't enough, the usage also crops up now in a couple of ways. It is still used as a racist attack against Black people. For instance, actress Leslie Jones was attacked with the epithet (via Chicago Defender):

The Ghostbusters star retweeted some of the messages that flooded her timeline from numerous people, which included calling her an “ape,” a “big lipped coon,” and “the source of AIDS,” the Defender recently reported.

The term is also now used by Black people to attack other Black people who are seen pandering to White people, in a manner akin to Uncle Tom. Here is Tyler Perry objecting to being called coonish by Spike Lee in 2011 (Hollywood Reporter). Urban Dictionary corroborates this usage as well as the more traditionally racist meaning.

So there is certainly enough of a history with the usage of the words crazy and coon to see the connection to race. Even if the word originally or at times has compared people to an animal, it's hard to avoid that Black people have also been referred to as animals in sickening, racist, and inflammatory terms, and that the term also circulates today as an insult within the Black community.

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    "And lest you think the usage is just old and citing more modern scholars wasn't enough, the usage also crops up in newer texts" - this only shows that certain modern authors are familiar with older usages and might cite them for the sake of periodicity. I suppose there's a line in Pink Floyd's Waiting for the Worms that could be cited here, that at least shows that people in the 70s and 80s wouldn't consider the term a relic. But even then, when I first heard that line I could only guess the word to be a slur from context, and didn't know who was slurred. And I was already an adult. Sep 23, 2023 at 4:34
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    (It should be noted that the work you cite is historical Western fiction, explicitly invoking a time period in which such usage was common. So you don't refute the "the usage is just old" point at all this way.) "That taints the comparison, no matter the intention of the person using it." - I disagree fundamentally and in principle with this notion. I don't accept that words can be "tainted" by this process no matter what the history is. (Especially because this idea is continually pushed on me by "academics" whose own coined jargon makes associations I find politically distasteful.) Sep 23, 2023 at 4:42
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    The question was about the origin of a particular phrase, and I think the other answer persuasively argues that it originally made reference to the animal, raccoons. Your answer also persuasively argues that a word that, via separate linguistic evolution, resembled an abbreviated form of "raccoon" was also a racial slur connected to perceived insanity, and it points out (correctly, I think) that there is little reason to use the phrase in modern times, but it does not actually answer the question.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 23, 2023 at 5:04
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    This doesn't actually answer the question about the origin of the phrase, or about whether Procol Harum intended it as a racist slur. Sep 23, 2023 at 11:15
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    @PeterShor Technically true... it doesn't directly answer the question, since the question was only about usage in one specific instance. It's a narrowly-scoped question that happens to intersect with a much broader topic. Sven Yargs' answer covered the origin and historical usage aspects, whereas this answer leans more toward covering usage in media. Both answers offer points that are important to consider, although they approach the topic from different angles. To put it another way, I bet virtually nobody who will find this Q&A from a web search will care about the song Lime Street.
    – Mentalist
    Sep 23, 2023 at 21:15

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