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The name for residents of Arkansas has long been a subject of controversy. A fundamental premise of Arkansas culture and lore is the impossibility of defining, categorizing, or otherwise pigeonholing its people as any single type or group. This resistance to uniformity is seen in the question of whether “Arkansas” should be pronounced like “Kansas.” Because that argument was settled in favor of ArkanSAW by the Arkansas legislature in 1881, it follows that the demonym—the name of the inhabitants of a locality—“Arkansans” makes no sense, given that they live in ArkanSAW, not ArKANSAS. Although “Arkansan” has become the standard usage, some of the state’s best-known writers have argued in favor of “Arkansawyer.”
To confuse the issue further, another term, Arkansians, was used even earlier than either Arkansawyer or Arkansan. The Oxford English Dictionary, considered the definitive record of the English language, prints a citation from the St. Louis Reveille, December 29, 1844: “There is more gab in the newspapers on one Arkansian who stabbeth than over ninety and nine New Yorkers or Philadelphians who do just the same thing.” (The sentiment expressed resonates even into the twenty-first century in the way people in Arkansas think they are perceived by the rest of the country.) Walt Whitman and Fay Hempstead are cited as using “Arkansian.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines all three words as meaning a native or inhabitant of Arkansas. Its earliest citation of the name “Arkansan” is from an 1851 article in the Southern Quarterly Review. “Arkansawyer” comes along only in 1874, from J. M. Morphis’s History of Texas. Other standard reference works generally state that “Arkansawyer” is an archaic form preferred by some natives of the state.
Some Arkansas writers have expressed their opinions of the two forms. Generally, the advocates of “Arkansawyer” are advancing an agenda more political or sociological than linguistic. They place themselves in deliberate opposition to the perceived conformity and middle-class striving that they see as destroying the individualism, self-sufficiency, and general orneriness characterizing the early settlers of the state. The Ozark folklore collector and writer Vance Randolph reportedly said that an Arkansan is a person who has to look in a dictionary to know what to call himself. Otto Ernest Rayburn, compiler of the Ozark Folk Encyclopedia, held that the Arkansawyer was the true heir of the old Anglo-Saxon culture he celebrated. John Gould Fletcher, who spent much of his life in Europe and England, defended the use of “Arkansawyers” on the first page of his 1947 history of Arkansas, on the grounds of its consistency with the pronunciation of the name of the state. Half a century later, in the January 3, 1993, issue of USA Weekend, these arguments were combined: “‘Arkansawyer’ reflects the French pronunciation of the state’s name and simply feels more ‘country’ and old-style, like the state itself.”
Paul Greenberg, editorial writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, opined in a column in the July 28, 2003, Jewish World Review that the word “Arkansan” connoted upward mobility, advertising, and the Chamber of Commerce, while “Arkansawyer” meant qualities like “informality, good humor,” and “sense of time as something to be enjoyed, not just a commodity to be used.”
Donald Harington, creator of a large oeuvre of Ozark-based fiction, also favored “Arkansawyer.” In an interview in the Appalachian Journal, he remarked on the difficulty of pigeonholing Arkansas or its people. He claimed that “Arkansawyers” was the designation “bestowed upon us by our greater writers,” including Randolph, Fletcher, and himself. He said that “Arkansans” was used by “wishy-washy do-gooders with inferiority complexes.” Arkansawyers, Harington maintained, are “simply stubborn, earthy, shrewd individualists with a zero tolerance for bullshit.”
For additional information:Arnold, Edwin T. “Interview: Donald Harington.” Appalachian Journal 21 (Summer 1994): 432–445. Online at http://www.donaldharington.com/interview.html (accessed February 26, 2016).
Blevins, Brooks. Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009.
Fletcher, John Gould. Arkansas. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1947.
Greenberg, Paul. “Red State versus Blue.” Jewish World Review, July 28, 2003. Online at http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/greenberg072803.asp (accessed February 26, 2016).
Underwood, Gary N. “How You Sound to an Arkansawyer.” American Speech 49 (Autumn–Winter 1974): 208–215.
Ethel C. SimpsonUniversity of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 2/26/2016
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