I haven't seen you in a coon's age

Discussion in 'English Only' started by audiolaik, Jul 16, 2008.

  1. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Hello,

    I picked this phrase up when watching a 1973 American film:

    'I haven't seen you in a coon's age.'

    The dictionaries I have checked say that the phrase in bold means a long while, an indefinitely long time.

    Is it still in use?

    If so, is it popular in American or British English?

    Thank you!
     
  2. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I don't believe the expression was ever used in BrE, audio.

    When I heard or read it in AmE contexts, it always sounded vaguely unpleasant to me, I think because the primary meaning of 'coon' in BrE was meaning 3 in the WR dictionary definition. I suspect that for AmE speakers, 'in a coon's age' had more to do with meaning 1 or 2.

    I don't think I've come across it in American books/films/TV shows for a long time, but AmE-speaking foreros will be in a better position to advise than I am.

    I haven't heard anyone say 'coon' in BrE for a long time either.
     
  3. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Well, I didin't know the word coon before, so it was a kind of surprise to find out its offensive connotations. However, correct me if I am wrong, the phrase coon's age is deprived of them, isn't it?
     
  4. Thomas1

    Thomas1 Senior Member

    polszczyzna warszawska
    That's about right Loob, here is something I have found on the origin:


    A COON'S AGE - Meaning 'a very long time,' a coon's age is an Americanism recorded in 1843 and probably related to the old English expression 'in a crow's age,' meaning the same. The American term is an improvement, if only because the raccoon usually lives longer -- up to 13 years in the wild - than the crow."
    [...]
    As you may know, the "coon" came to mean a whole different thing unrelated to expression "in a coon's age." Coon was first a term for a white person from the country, then it became an insulting term for a black person. "A coon's age" was recorded in 1843 (but I am sure it was in use decades earlier) but the word "coon" didn't become a racial slur until 20 years later.
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/5/messages/626.html


    Tom
     
  5. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    I've never heard that expression in my life, Audi. (The word coon only has WRF's meaning no.3 for me, so it sounds very:eek:)
     
  6. Nunty

    Nunty Modified

    Jerusalem
    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I have never heard the expression in natural speech, though I suppose I've run across it in films. As well as being old fashioned, it sounds like something a hick would say.
     
  7. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Adelaide
    Australia English
    There was chap called Coon who patented a cheese making process. Not surprisingly he called the product Coon Cheese.

    You can find Coon Cheese in every - and I do mean every - supermarket in Australia. It is Australia's best known brand.

    We know what coon currently means in the US.
     
  8. cyberpedant

    cyberpedant Senior Member

    North Adams, MA
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    In my neck of the woods, the word "coon" is hardly ever used as a racial slur. It's raccoons all the way down.
     
  9. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    "Coon" is a very common contraction of "raccoon", just as "possum" is a common contraction of "Opossum".

    Since there are no raccoons in Europe (Europeans first encountered the creature in the New World, and the name derives from the Algonkian), it is not surprising that the expression is not common in England. On this side of the Atlantic, the expression is still used, but it might be considered a "rural" thing to say.
     
  10. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    Ditto. I last heard this word used as a racial slur by someone from South Carolina, in northern Michigan, in about 1963. He also drank Coke™ for breakfast. I remember it very clearly because it was so stereotypically redneck, and I had never heard the word used that way before (or since, except in films and books).

    Another post I fully agree with. It's rustic, dated, and in no way offensive.
     
  11. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish

    So, can one jump to the conclusion that the dictionaries according to which the word is offensive are not up-to-date?
     
  12. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    New York
    USA - English
    No. What the dictionaries tell you is that the word can have different meanings. One meaning is completely inoffensive, while another is offensive; the word as a word, however, is not offensive in itself.

    Consider the word pig -- is the word offensive?

    If I were using the term to refer to an actual boar or sow, the word would not be remotely offensive. On the other hand, if someone calls you a "pig", then the word becomes offensive. The offensiveness of the word is directly related to what you mean by it. In this case, "a coon's age" means "the lifespan of a raccoon", and there is nothing offensive in that concept at all.
     
  13. cyberpedant

    cyberpedant Senior Member

    North Adams, MA
    English USA, Northeast, NYC
    "So, can one jump to the conclusion that the dictionaries according to which the word is offensive are not up-to-date? "

    That indeed is jumping to a conclusion. If you were to call someone a "coon" today you would still be risking offering considerable offense.
     
  14. audiolaik

    audiolaik Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish

    Thank you, GreenWhiteBlue!

    EDIT: Thank you, cyberpedant, for your warning!:D
     
  15. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    And as ewie and I said earlier, audio, in BrE the only meaning it has is the offensive one.
     
  16. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    While we are on the subject of coon and its derivatives, non-native Lousianans (or whatever natives of Louisiana call themselves) should strenuously avoid calling anyone a coonass or coon-ass. Much on the etymological guesswork about that term here.
     
  17. una madre Senior Member

    Canada
    Western Canada English
    The phrase "I haven't seen you in a coon's age" immediately resonated with me - in a very neutral way. I remember it being used as a way of greeting/addressing someone you hadn't seen recently. I don't hear it these days. AE definitely. As others have indicated, the use of the word "coon" alone or in other combinations or in other phrases changes things immediately.
     
  18. Cuate Senior Member

    USA English
    I have used the phrase but it is rarely ever used, mostly in redneck humor..ie the southern part of the States and it is very colliquial (redneck). They could have used any animal but it seems that the racoon is rumored to live along time hence the expression I haven't seen you in a coon's age. This phrase has no relation in the slightest to the racial slur.
     
  19. rkellytcu New Member

    fort worth, tx
    english
    The less educated inhabitants of the Ozarks and American South have hundreds upon hundreds of colloquialisms that they themselves don't usually fully understand. My step-dad use to use the phrase "Colder than a witch's titty".
    Now I have no idea how cold that is supposed to be, and I'm sure he doesn't either. It's best to just accept the intended meaning and not ask too many questions about a non-sense expression for which a suitable explanation is rarely found.
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2008
  20. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    I agree. In fact, I probably still say it from time to time, depending on the situation. And, yes, it has always meant "raccoon" to me, notwithstanding the other meaning. In fact, as una madre said, I feel no real connection at all to the phrase except that it perfectly describes a long period of time.
     
  21. reniam New Member

    English - New England
    I know this thread is a bit old but, this phrase is still used fairly regularly in northern New England, USA. Especially by English descended Maine residents. Not everything is offensive, despite what many want to believe. People need to calm down about that stuff. I swear some want to be riled up. Coon is Raccoon.
    Someone should write a book we Mainers have so many unique sayings. How about "tougher than boiled Owl!"
     
  22. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    EEUU-inglés
    Welcome reniam,
    Good to see that not everyone is 'from away'. We may have some regional differences.
    I've heard 'in a coon's age' in the deep South (Massachusetts and Connecticut), but never here in Lincoln County.
     
  23. belle reamer New Member

    English
    I grew up in Texas in the 1950s and my family used the phrase "I haven't seen you in a coon's age" to mean you had not seen someone for a very long time and was told that it was a reference to the rings on the racoon's (short version "coon") tail indicating its age. I heard myself use the phrase a few years ago and beginning questioning it since I also knew that in the south after the Civil War when white racists said they were going "coon hunting," they were referring to hunting down blacks and not racoons--and that the similiarity then was that they said that at night you only see the eyes of both. I am living in the midwest now and have asked black friends about this since I do not want to use a phrase with a racist connotation. They are not aware of it, but I have decided that it is best not to use it at the risk of offending someone.
     
  24. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    This has come up in another Thread I was contributing to, today, so I checked the expression and found this older Thread. It sounds to me like the word 'coon' in its racial and racist sense is not always known or understood in the USA, and in many parts of the USA it indeed refers to 'racoon' (hence the expression 'a coon's age' having no racial connotations).

    It must be stressed that in the UK, as mentioned by a few contributors, perhaps also because racoons are not native to Europe, the word is always and universally understood to be racist in nature (i.e. a term meant to be offensive when referring to Black people). Nowadays, I would say the word is seldom heard and is definitely taboo in Britain, just as the N-word is. In, say, a work situation, using the word about a Black colleague could land you in court and cost you your job, I would say.

    As a result, in the UK, there is no doubt that any use of the word 'coon' may cause offence; the expression 'in a coon's age' would not be understood in the UK, I believe (unless the person was familiar with the AE usage) and would be best avoided at all times.
     
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2012
  25. panjandrum

    panjandrum PongoMod

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Is this really true?

    I agree that the term "coon" should not be used, in general, but I thought the expression "in a coon's age" was commonplace and without any racist connotations.

    Maybe I'm simply hearing obsolete usage.
     
  26. morzh

    morzh Senior Member

    USA
    Russian
    "Coon's age" is a raccoon age; my only problem with it is that since I don't know how long raccoons live, I have no idea if it is a long time or a short time. :)

    "A crow's age" I'd understand perfectly as crows and ravens live very, very long.
    This is what feeding on carrion does to your health.
     
  27. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I can only say that I have never heard this expression, which does not mean it is not known in British English, since I would not want to generalize on the basis of my own experience. But, if you read the thread, the consensus clearly was, from what I remember (and I did read all of it before posting up my comment) that it was an American English expression. It was also said that it is only common in certain parts of the USA. Some BE speakers commented that they had not heard it in a long time, and that, when they had come across it, it was in relation to American novels, films, etc.

    I can only say that, in London, in my experience, the word 'coon' is never heard and is what I would categorize as a taboo word, and there is no doubt that it is immediately viewed as deeply prejudiced and racist. If only for this reason, I would not use the expression 'in a coon's age': it could be misinterpreted and lead to a major incident, if overheard on the train, on a bus, etc. To put it differently, I feel that, in London and the South-East, it would be asking for trouble, using such an expression.

    Other BE speakers may wish to comment and may disagree with me.

    Are you saying that the expression is known and used in Northern Ireland, in the American sense of 'coon' for 'racoon', i.e. 'for donkey's years'.
     
  28. morzh

    morzh Senior Member

    USA
    Russian
    Here it is not a racial slur; we have our own slur (for just about everyone :D.)
    And in many trading posts you can see "coonskin hats", the sort of Davy Crockett is usually portrayed wearing. Though as they say "no animals were harmed when making these hats" - those are usually synthetics.

    But it's good to know what not to say while riding the Tube.
     
  29. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    I'm quite sure that a comment by me was the cause of the revival of this thread.

    It was intended to be a bit "mock-rustic" but I hadn't considered just how regional this phrase is. I will take it under advisement not to use this in an international forum.

    There are many words and phrases that don't translate well, and can even be offensive in a different culture. I will add this to the list.
     
  30. Beryl from Northallerton Moderator

    British English
    Seeing as you seem to allow the matter to be open to residual doubt - use of the term 'coon' is unambiguously contraindicated in the UK, and could well be construed as a hate crime (wikipedia entry on relevant UK law).

    I find it a little surprising that in the U.S.A., birthplace of political correctness, such parallel usages are tolerated, let alone defended. It's obvious that 'coon' has been used as a racial slur in the States, and I don't suppose that this usage has altogether died out, and yet many AE contributors seem to think it quite acceptable to use this word to point to a raccoon.
    I'm not saying that it's wrong, just that I find it surprising. Has the word really been rehabilitated over there? Is the word's racial dimension really so old that it's been forgotten?
    I mean, it's not that long ago that Bill Clinton was taken to task for using the term 'welshing on a bet'.
    Here in the UK, such nuances tend to attract forensic examination, and parallel usages get thrown out. You could scarcely get away with bowling a 'chinaman' and even the 'scotch-eggs' are a bit off (mind you...).

    I must confess to never having heard the term 'a coon's age', and am grateful to pw for having brought it to my attention. :) Although I'm unlikely to be using it around the grandchildren any time soon.
     
  31. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    I have lined it out in my original post, and apologized. I was aware of its parallel, offensive meaning, but felt that the reference to raccoons was so much more well-known that it was acceptable. It isn't, or shouldn't be; even in the US.

    I failed to take into account that, like the phrase, the raccoon is regional.

    My apologies for risking offense to anyone. We may discuss offensive words at WR, but we do not use them.
     
  32. Copyright

    Copyright Senior Member

    Penang
    American English
    We deal with context in language, so I think it is inappropriate to surgically remove "coon" from the set phrase "in a coon's age" and speak of the phrase as being wholly inappropriate, especially if you're from another country that speaks another variety of English.

    From what I can find, "in a coon's age" predates the derogatory use of coon for a black person -- and, indeed, the use of "coon" for a white country person predates that use, as well.

    From The Phrase Finder, a UK website:

    "A COON'S AGE - Meaning 'a very long time,' a coon's age is an Americanism recorded in 1843 and probably related to the old English expression 'in a crow's age,' meaning the same. The American term is an improvement, if only because the raccoon usually lives longer -- up to 13 years in the wild -- than the crow."

    Here's an entry on that: "coon was originally a short form for raccoon in 1741, then by 1832 meant a frontier rustic, and by 1840 a Whig. [Useful sentence cut to stay within 4-sentence limit.] By 1862, however, coon had come to mean a Black and this use was made very common by the popular 1896 song 'All Coons Look Alike to Me,' written by Ernest Hogan, a Black who didn't consider the word derogatory at the time." [Source: I Hear America Talking by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976), Page 54.]

    There's more on The Phrase Finder link.

    In my own experience, people who know both definitions don't even blink at the phrase, because no one thinks you're talking about the age of a black man.

    I don't use the phrase myself because I'm not that rustic but I grew up around people who occasionally did. I wouldn't be surprised at reading it in a book or seeing it in a movie -- and you'll note that the movie mentioned in the first post is nearly 40 years old. Should you use it now? Probably not unless you're a native of Kansas or Arkansas and people around you use it -- and if they do, they're just being friendly and referring to a long time, about the lifespan of a cute little animal.

    Start a lecture on racial implications over the biscuits and gravy and they'll be hoping they don't see you again for a couple of coons' ages.
     
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2012
  33. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    A few points to clarify my earlier posts. Yes, the revival of this Thread is due to the use of the phrase in the other Thread I posted up over the weekend where P W Meek used it. I was not familiar with the phrase, hence checked it and found it on this Forum.

    Should P W Meek apologize and remove it from the other Thread? This is not what I was after, what I would expect, and I think, personally, it is a bit OTT (over the top).

    I mean, if the phrase is used in AE in the sense of 'for donkey's years', and everyone knows it to be just that, and no racial slur is intended: what is wrong with it?

    I have checked a few sources I have and they confirm it is AE. "The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origin" (Robert Hendrickson, New York, 1987) says the 2 words are quite different in origin. 'Coon' for 'racoon' (an American Indian term) is used in 'a coon's age', which the author says dates back to 1843 and would be derived from an old English expression, 'in a crow's age'. It would be an Americanism. 'Coon' as a racial slur would derive from Portuguese 'barracoos', allegedly pronounced 'coons' (presumably the same word as 'barracks', somehow): a term referring to buildings, especially those constructed to hold slaves for sale, according to the author.

    To go back to BE usage, I was quite sure 'coon's age' would be unlikely to be understood or used in the UK. But Panjandrum appeared to disagree, so I thought it fair to let other BE speakers comment. Comments made confirm my impression, i.e. that 'a coon's age' is an AE expression -- and a regional/localized and rustic one at that -- that would most likely be misunderstood in the UK, where the racist meaning of 'coon' is well established. Hate crime indeed it is, to use racist language in public places. Round where I live, apart from the legal ramifications, the more immediate consequence would be that it could get you knifed or thrown off the train/bus.

    It is typical of PC thinking that one would want to hunt down any 'parallel meanings' and excise them from the language, hence 'scotch egg' would be offensive to Scots (why, pray?). This is bordering on the ridiculous in my humble view, but no doubt many in the UK would endorse what is, in my opinion, an over-zealous over-reaction to matters of language and discrimination. G Orwell's '1984' springs to mind, but that is another debate.
     
  34. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    Someone ought to tell this to the editor of The Cassell Dictionary of Slang [Jonathon Green], London, 1999. He gives an etymology / word history which tallies more or less exactly with that given by Mr Right in post #32:
    (This strikes me as nonsense, to be honest.)
     
  35. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Ewie,

    I was quoting an American reference book. The origin of words is often controversial/hotly debated. Other than that, I do not have a view, here: I wouldn't say it worried me personally. :D
     
  36. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I'm an American. I know the derogatory meaning of "coon" very well, and I actually think of it first as a racial slur and second as a word for raccoon. (The phrase "in a coon's age" is also not used in my part of the US, although I think I've encountered it before in books.) I would never use "coon" for "raccoon"; I don't find this to be a PC thing either, it's more a question of "coon" not existing in my dialect. I would say "coonskin hat," but not "the coons were messing with the trash cans again last night."
     
  37. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Just in case anyone thought that post 3/5's reference to 'WR English dictionary definition 3' meant that ewie and I were suffering from a collective hallucination and/or inability to count ~ at the time the posts were written, the WR English dictionary was WordNet. Since November 2010, the WR English dictionary has been the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which gives only two definitions for "coon".

    I too am sad that pwmeek felt impelled to strike out his "in a coon's age" in another thread as a result of the revival of this thread:(.

    James Brandon, just out of interest - why did you re-open this thread? Was it to reinforce the view that in BrE the only meaning of "coon" is offensive?
     
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2012
  38. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    Ditto ~ I forgot to say that earlier.

    I also forgot to say earlier that, after racking my brains for a good while over it, I can honestly say I don't think I've heard the word coon [the racist insult] used in the UK for at least 30 years.
     
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2012
  39. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I can remember exactly when I last heard it - it was 1976. It was said by the father of my then boyfriend, in the context of a joke. He thought I was awfully stuck up when I didn't laugh.
     
  40. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    To answer the question, I re-opened the Thread to make clear that the word 'coon' is only understood as a racist term in the UK, hence ought to be avoided (including in the AE phrase referred to), because I felt this had perhaps not been made crystal clear in the earlier contributions. I did not expect the discussion to follow and grow in the way it has, in fact.

    I was also intrigued by the AE phrase and wanted confirmation as to when/how it was used, but did not think it would attract such interest and an act of contrition on the part of P W Meek.
     
  41. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    Aw, c'mon guys. I did say that, while sincere, the main purpose of the apologies (and the strikeout) was to alert future English-learners and word researchers that the phrase was subject to misunderstanding in some cultures.

    I am sorry if I offended anyone - who wouldn't be?
    I know the phrase could have remained in the original post.
    plus
    I'm happy to see the background and current impressions of this phrase explored.
     
  42. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I don't think you have successfully offended anyone, pwmeek! I don't have the phrase "in a coon's age" in my idiolect. And although I do unfortunately have to deal with raccoons, I wouldn't shorten them to coons anyway. I don't think this is because of the racial overtones of "coon," although I am aware of those overtones; I think it has more to do with the fact that "coon" has fallen out of use by younger people in (sub)urban areas. (To say "coon" for raccoon sounds kindof 1950's to me.) So perhaps we're more sensitive about the racial angle, since it's a rarer word in general?
     
  43. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2012

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