Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org (check out his office staff) has a post about the history of the term “Dixie” that doesn’t contain any surprising new revelations but is far more detailed than anything else I’ve read on the subject (and he says it “may be the most complex bit of research I’ve done for this site”); it begins:

Dixie is, of course, a name for the American South. It is also a famous anthem of the South. But less well known is that Dixey’s Land was the name of children’s game played in early nineteenth-century New York.

Where does Dixie come from? It most likely is a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland and Virginia (now West Virginia), surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in the 1770s. The line traditionally marked the boundary between the North and the South, the free states from the slave states. But the direct evidence connecting the term with the geographical boundary is scant.

The song Dixie is traditionally credited to Daniel Emmett, a member of and chief composer for Bryant’s Minstrels, a blackface minstrel troupe. But the famous song was not Emmett’s first use of Dixie to refer the South. He used it in an earlier song of his, Johnny Roach, which was first performed in March 1859. […] For his part, Emmett never claimed to have coined the word. He said that he learned the term during his travels as an itinerant musician. Dixie was also the name of a character in the minstrel skit United States Mail and Dixie in Difficulties, which was first performed in 1850. The appearance of the personal name in minstrelsy may also have influenced Emmett’s use of the word.

There is much more at the link, including discussion of the children’s game, first attested in 1844; I particularly like this quotation from New York’s The New World of December 28, 1844:

Doesn’t Old Fezziwig figure here like some planets in his system, crossing and recrossing their orbits, playing, “Dixey’s Land,” in the regions of space?


  1. Relevant to current events, as The Dixie Chicks rebrand their band to just “The Chicks”.

  2. Jonathon Green has, as is his wont, the fullest treatment:

    20C+ use is SE. The song ‘Dixie’s Land’ was written and first performed by the ‘blackface minstrel’ Daniel D Emmett (1815–1904) on 4 April 1859. The term ‘Dixie Land’ had appeared two months earlier in another Emmett song, ‘Jonny Roach’. Of the various poss. etys. the preferred choice is an abbr. of the Mason–Dixon line (which divided the North and South in 1763–7). ‘Dixie’s land’ was also a common term in 19C children’s games of tag; note Asbury, Sucker’s Progress (1938): ‘A few years after the Louisiana Purchase one of the New Orleans banks issued ten dollar notes, on one side of which was the French word for ten, dix. To the flatboatmen one of the notes was a dix, and collectively they were dixies, while New Orleans was known as “the town of the dixies,” and, later, simply as Dixie. The word does not appear to have been used to designate the entire South until after 1859, when D. D. Emmett wrote his famous song.’ Schele de Vere, who opts for Mason-Dixon, adds another ref. to a supposed slaveholder, one Dixey, who had allegedly treated his slaves very well, thus leading to the ‘minstrel’ song.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    The popularity of “Dixie” as a given name for American girls peaked in the cohort born in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s (the late actress Dixie Carter was born in ’39) before entering a prolonged decline that led to it appearing in the top 1000 names for newborn girls only intermittently after 1978. The decline is far too early to be explained by the name having been skunked by “Confederate” associations. “Dixie” is the second-person addressee of the great Badfinger lost-love song “Baby Blue,” and this link contains what is alleged to a photo of the songwriter (the late Pete Ham) with a young lady named Dixie Armstrong with whom he allegedly had a brief romance during the band’s 1971 U.S. tour. http://soref.tv/the-true-story-behind-badfingers-baby-blue/

    As female vocal trios go, The Dixie Cups > The formerly-Dixie Chicks.

  4. On American Dialect Society list Jonathan Lighter, who corrected the proposed 1858 newspaper citation (in Dave Wilton’s initial text) to 1863, added the following:

    “Am wondering lazily – with apologies to the millions who are already tired
    of knowing the answer – whether the key to the origin of “Dixie” might be
    sought in the (perhaps lost) contents of Emmett’s show itself.

    The title of his song is, of course, “Dixie’s Land.” I’m wondering whether
    an old assertion that it came from the name of a kind-hearted (sic)
    slaveholder might refer – not to a real person – but to a character in a
    (or the) stage skit.

    In the song, “Dixie” is metonymy or shorthand for “Dixie’s Land.” So I
    wouldn’t expect any antedatings of “Dixie.”

  5. Though one linguist wrote that the Mason-Dixon Line (also maybe occasionally Dixon and Mason’s line, according to an old note) “…may have been too little known to the average person to give rise to a word as informal as Dixie.”
    But, very many newspaper references suggest otherwise. And the Line was re-surveyed in 1849. Possibly the game-namers knew about it.
    Possibly it (eventually?) combined a real and a mythical, imagined place.
    Some evidently viewed it favorably; others not.
    Relevant or not, I note Dorothea Dix’s 1854 Land Bill, and a January 26, 1861 northern anecdote:
    “Miss Dix’s Land/

  6. About the proposed move from “Dixon’s Line” to “Dixie’s Land,” two related collocations may be of interest.
    “Dixon’s Land” appears in June 15, 1835 (Monday) Evening Star [New York, NY] p.2, col. 2 [AmHistN] :
    Query—What would be the punishment of a negro flogging an alderman, south of Mason and Dixon’s land?
    And “Dixon’s land” also appears in many July, 1861 accounts about politician John Bell of Tennessee.
    “Dixey’s line” appears in the Feb. 10, 1861 Sunday Dispatch [Philadelphia], p.1 col.7 [AmHistN]:
    …for two months, there hasn’t been a paragraph in any paper north or south of Mason & Dixon’s line, or on Dixon’s, or Dixey’s line itself that hasn’t been as reeking with blood ….

  7. That’s interesting indeed, and makes the derivation seem more likely — thanks!

  8. Dixie Land: a Provisional, Incomplete, Annotated Chronology

    [Details are in American Dialect Society –list archive, J. Lighter’s Historical Dic. American Slang, and J. Green’s Dic. Of Slang; additions and corrections welcome.]

    [Variant Dix+-spellings, some informalisms and/or (black or white) slang or maybe kid-speech (Dickie) for Dixon, he of the exceedingly well-known Line, and eventually, land. Searches for a kind-hearted NY D. slaveholder or a particular D. minstrel role or individual–other than Dixon–may have been over-rated. Old-timers who recalled such related pre-1859 games, perhaps similar to Tag and, maybe, to Red Rover, vindicated.]

    1763-7 the Mason and Dixon Line survey

    1835 US South [apparently imo called] Mason and Dixon’s *Land*

    1844 a (fiction?) dance, with playing “Dixey’s Land”; also 1844, same author, play at Dixie’s land on newly-washed pavement

    1849 Mason & Dixon Line re-surveyed and largely confirmed

    1852 kids in NY play games “I Spy,” and “Tag,” and “Dicky’s land”

    [1854 Dorothea Dix’s Land Bill, not enacted—in 1861 belittled in NY publication]

    1855 …this game…the game cannot be played without the State…those who go to Dixey’s land must be Dixey’s men

    1856 boys on skates [in Buffalo] played “Dickie’s Land” and “Tag”

    1859 D.D. Emmett [who spent time in NY] songs Jonny Roach and Dixie’s Land make Dixie (land) famous [On Emmett see Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the rise of Negro minstrelsy, second edition, 1977]

    1861 H. Hotze writes Dixie is an abbreviation for Mason and Dixon’s Line and claims he previously heard northern negroes use it as such

    1861 John Bell of TN, from Dixie’s Land

    1861 WH Russell [160 or 60?—river vs crow-fly?)] miles north of Memphis reports Dixie’s Land is a synonym for heaven

    1861 Old Game of Dixie’s Land, sport, in NY, decades past, with lines, boundaries North and South

    1861 Mason and Dixon line, or on Dixon’s, or Dixey’s Line itself [PA newspaper]

    1863 Artemis Ward crosses Dixie’s line [several newspapers]

    1869 “sout’ in Tixey” [see Green]

    1872 Dixie’s land, a recalled game NY boys played, also “Tag”

    1872 Emmett, whose story changed later, claimed northern negroes said “I wish I was in Dixie’s land” when he was about to travel south

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    The google books n-gram viewer indicates a dramatic increase in the rate of antebellum usage of “Mason and Dixon” from a fairly low base in the 1820’s to a peak in 1858. Can’t be sure without digging further into the details, but presumably a lot of that reflects a shift from using their Line as a reference to the literal boundary between the former Penn territories and former Calvert territories to the broader semi-metaphorical use of indicating the boundary between free states and slave states. (My native Delaware remained a slave state until the ratification of the 13th Amendment, despite being largely located *east* of the Mason-Dixon line — or actually entirely north if you want to be precise.)

  10. the late actress Dixie Carter

    I have wondered about the naming motivation of the video game character Dixie Kong; the di- is clearly inspired by monkey mate Diddy Kong, but there’s nothing American Southern about her and protagonists in the franchise are mostly named by adjectives in -y instead (“Cranky”, “Funky”, “Lanky”, etc.; even “Donkey” is in origin Engrish for donky). I never ran into it as a prominent personal name before though. So maybe it’s simply a sort of a parallel to Zelda (the princess famously named after Fitzgerald but today surely the best-known carrier of the name)?

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    JP: even if you’re willing to scrap the /k/ in Donkey as was done for Diddy, if you want a female parallel to Diddy with both an initial /d/ and a final ɪ, you don’t necessarily have all that many choices that have both at least in the usual American stock of girls names. For my year of birth, Dixie had tumbled down to 680th-most-popular name for newborn U.S. girls, down over 80% in absolute numbers since Dixie Carter had been born a bit over a quarter-century previously, but the only higher-ranking girls’ name with that combination was Debbi/Debbie/Debby. Even at its 1940’s peak, Dottie was less popular than Dixie. Dottie actually seems like it would pair well with Diddy but was maybe sounded even more than an obscure-old-lady name than Dixie by the time the naming in question took place?

  12. My mother (b. 1915) was a Dorothy known to her friends as Dottie. My father (b. 1915) was a Joseph known as Joe — the two nicknames have had very different fates! (But are girls still named Dorothy? If so, do they have nicknames?)

  13. My mother is a Dorothy, known as Dot, and was born in 1939, right around the peak of Wolfram Alpha’s estimate of the current age distribution of Dorothys in the US (also coincidentally the year of release of the MGM movie of “The Wizard of Oz”). There’s been no Dorothy revival.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    After a long continuous decline from its Roaring Twenties peak, Dorothy has recently experienced a very modest revival – twice as many new Dorothys born in 2018 as 2006. But whether this is the beginning of a long-term rise back toward former levels of glory or just a dead-cat bounce (to use a lovely Americanism) remains to be seen.

  15. David Marjanović says

    I had no idea there were people named Dixie. Or Zelda even.

    But are girls still named Dorothy? If so, do they have nicknames?

    Well, here’s “a webcomic about college freshmen in the girls wing within a co-ed dorm at Indiana University”. It features a Dorothy whose name doesn’t cause any surprise. Over here, in contrast, a Dorothea (or, in northern Germany, a vowel-leveled Dörte) that young would leave a trail of “huh” in her wake. That said, the only person who refers to her as Dotty believes she has a rivalry with her (long story) and generally puts nicknames on everyone unasked.

    How young exactly? The comic “is not set in any particular year.  I only say this because every time some pop culture reference shows up, someone is all ‘OH HEY HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE AREN’T WE STILL IN 2010???’  Nope, sorry, but we ain’t!  The comic moves slow, but it operates on comic book time [a TV Tropes link I haven’t followed].  This webcomic is not gradually going to become a period piece.  Just assume the strip is always set in whatever year it is right now.”

    Two other main characters have nicknames derived from their last names, probably because their (never used) first names are too common.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    The “comic book time” angle is interesting, because apparently the webcomic David M. references started up in 2010 but reused at least some characters (and the college setting) of a comic the same guy had done starting in 1997 when he was in college himself. Dorothy was a materially more common name for an American college freshman in 1997 than in 2010, and likewise in 2010 as compared to 2019. Looking at the other characters’s names, Joyce has followed a similar trajectory of decline, but some others I thought might have been on a comparable declining curve (e.g. Leslie) had held up longer than I might have guessed.

  17. Man, the changing popularity of names is a fascinating thing.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Ah, that explains a few things.

    Yes, this is the fifth comic the same author has been making with (largely) the same characters. While some have ended, at least one of the others is still ongoing, too…

  19. Among my mistakes: in “Dixie…Chronology” “1861 John Bell of TN, from Dixie’s Land” should read “1860 John Bell of TN, from Dixon’s Land.” Another “Dixon’s Land” appeared in a letter to the editor in 1861, Providence Evening Press, Feb. 26, p. 1 col. 7.
    The eastern NY kid’s game is noted in Dialect Notes, vol. 1 p. 398 as a local NY name for the game also known as king or king calico. In Dialect Notes v. 2, p. 139 “Dickie’s Land” game (this time, Cattaraugus Co., the words gathered at Cornell U. from 1896 to 1900), is described with Dixie noted and “Note rime:
    “I’m on Dickie’s Land
    Dickie don’t know it,
    He’s got a sore toe
    An’ he can’t go it.”
    “This is sung by the players leading out. In the South the verses begin “I’m on Dixie’s land.”
    The 1854 Dorothea Dix Land Bill almost passed. It would have provided land for mental hospitals. The 1855 text (as well as one from 1861) may also belittle it, aware of “Dixey’s land.”
    Though D. D. Emmett surely popularized Dixie, it, apparently, did not spring from his head fully-formed like Athena from Zeus. But, apparently, came from Dixon’s Line then to Dixie and Dickey Land games then to Dixie song.

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