A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Where did the name "Dixie" come from?

June 10, 1988

Dear Cecil:

Where did the name "Dixie" come from? And exactly what states comprise Dixie?

Cecil replies:

Dixie is usually thought to include the states of the Confederacy, but where the term comes from nobody knows for sure. Here are the three leading theories:

(1) Before the Civil War, the Citizens Bank of Louisiana, located in New Orleans, issued ten-dollar notes that bore the Creole/French word dix, ten, on one side. These notes were known as "dixies" and the south came to be known as the "land of dixies."

(2) The term comes from the Dixon in "Mason-Dixon line," the famous pre-Revolutionary War surveyors' line that separated Maryland and Pennsylvania.

(3) It comes from "Dixy's land," Dixy supposedly being a kindly slave owner on Manhattan island, of all places. Dixy's regime was supposedly so enlightened that for slaves his plantation came to symbolize earthly paradise. Sounds ridiculous, but the story was widely told in the years just after the Civil War.

The trouble with all these explanations is that there are no published citations of the word prior to the appearance of Daniel Emmett's song "Dixie" in 1859. One etymologist notes that a minstrel named Dixey performed in Philadelphia in 1856, but that's not much help. For what it's worth, the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary, normally reliable in these matters, come down foursquare on the side of explanation #1, on the basis of what evidence I do not know.

Then you get a few characters like the guy in the journal American Speech who speculates that it comes from dixi, Latin for "I have said [it]." This is allegedly emblematic of the take-no-guff attitude characteristic of the antebellum south. Forgive me if I decline to take sides.

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