Way back in the 1860s, there were Southerners who rather disliked the notion of lopping half the country off and calling it something new. They were of the thoroughly unpopular opinion that certain things which Northerners supported (such as ending slavery) were not such a bad idea after all. Unsurprisingly, this view did not go down well with the majority of southern citizens (a category which, prior to the abolition of slavery, did not include the huge number of slaves in the south).
While white Southerners had never particularly fancied their above-the-Mason-Dixon-line neighbors, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that they started to consider themselves better. Rather than accept the changing tides of racial equality, many Southern whites developed an attitude of cultural supremacy in addition to racial. They coined the term “carpetbaggers” to refer to Northern whites who moved to the south (often carrying baggage made of disused carpeting). Their dislike was not without reason—the whites, who were accustomed to living without the servitude of slaves, were often better able to adapt to a slavery-free environment and capitalize on the prospects of reconstruction.
Worse than the carpetbaggers, though, were the scalawags (SKAL’uh’wag)—also known as scallywags. A scalawag was an original White southerner who “defected”, so to speak, and collaborated with Northerners and freed southern blacks. Seizing the opportunity to be on the prospering side of Reconstruction, some scalwags found considerable personal gain in their cooperation with Northerners—whom most Southerners still considered an unwelcome, occupying force throughout Reconstruction and, in many cases, for decades after.
Throughout the decades, the term “scalawag” has been used pejoratively, to refer to someone who causes trouble or goes against the majority opinion. More than a century after losing its racial overtones and historical context, the word maintained (and maintains) its slightly negative connotation.
Today, a scalawag is anyone who causes mischief. The term is often taken more lightly than it may have been in the past, referring almost jokingly to an unscrupulous, rascally low-life. An only moderately offensive jibe, scalawag has come a long way for a word which—two centuries ago—referred to lower-grade farm animals.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs. Mark is a volunteer assistant editor for Jet Fuel Review. He is double-majoring in Physics and Air Traffic Control Management at Lewis, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer. Mark is a junior and works as a ramp traffic controller at O’Hare and at Panera Bread, from which he does not steal dozens of bagels every day. He is also a tutor in Lewis’ Writing Center.