A Texan By Any Other Name
We always call them TEXANS.
The Editors of the New-York Commercial Advertiser
We Texans have toted around many a moniker throughout our history. In the earliest days, when Texas was a state in northern Mexico (then called Tejas) native Hispanics were known as Tejanos and Anglo settlers called themselves Texians (sometimes Texicans—a compound word derived from the first three letters of the anglicized Caddo Indian word for “friend,” tajas, spelled with an “x” as in Texas, and the last five letters of Mexicans, as citizens of Mexico were dubbed.1) After the war of independence and for the duration of the roughly ten years of the Republic (1836–1846),2 and into the present, Hispanics, by and large, have retained the distinctive linguistic title Tejanos, while all others have simply become Texans.
In general, however, whenever referring to anyone from Texas the designation Texan suffices. It’s the term most often used by writers throughout our history, as well as the name most often recognized by outsiders, including those around the globe. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but in Norway, “Texas” means “wild” or “crazy,” as in det var helt texas, which is roughly translated as, “it was totally/absolutely/completely wild/crazy/bonkers.” The etymology goes something like this: “Texas/Texans = “cowboys” = “Wild West” = “an unpredictable, exciting, sometimes scary atmosphere.”3 So, a Texan is (and not just in Norway, if we’re honest) a crazy person.
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The first settlers in Texas, especially those who lived on the frontier, had to be a little crazy since Comanche raids were not uncommon. Novelists Alan Le May picks up on the lunatic nature of frontier Texans in his novel The Searchers, crafting one of the best descriptions of what it means to bear the name Texan: “It so happens we be Texans. . . A Texan is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year, and next year, and maybe a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country will be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”4
If Le May’s Texan is a little on what wild side, but heroic, sacrificial, and forward thinking nonetheless, then Mary Lasswell’s is as earthy as the West Texas desert and as stodgy as an East Texas plantation. “The West Texan,” she wrote, “inured to hardship, tough as a boot, his hide cured to the color and texture of jerked beef, and his heart as big as Brewster County. The East Texan, an easygoing old Plantation person inhabiting the replica of the Old South he has created, can afford to let nature take its course with fifty inches or more of annual rainfall. He can lie under a tree, move his chaw of terbaccer from one cheek to the other, grin up at you and say: ‘I’m too lazy to hit a lick at a snake!’”5
But the best description of a Texan I’ve run across came from the pen of Alexander Sweet. He and his publishing partner, John Armoy Knox, issued a book in the early 1880s of truths, half-truths, and whole lies about Texas and Texans culled from their weekly journal Texas Siftings. In an article titled “That Typical Texan,” Sweet wrote:
The typical Texan is a large-sized Jabberwock, a hairy kind of gorilla, who is supposed to ride on a horse. He is a half alligator, half human, who eats raw buffalo, and sleeps out on the prairie. He is expected to carry four or five revolvers at his belt, as if he were a sort of perambulating gun-rack. He also carries a large assortment of cutlery in his boot. It is believed that a failure to invite him to drink is more dangerous than to kick a can of dynamite. The only time the typical Texan is supposed to be peaceable is after he has killed all his friends, and can find no fresh material to practice on. It is also the belief in the North that all the Texans are typical Texans, it being utterly impossible for a Texan to be anything except a desperado.6
With all these different designations and descriptions—Tajanos, Texians, Texans, wild men, tough-as-boot-leather desert rats, lazy good-for-nothings, large-sized Jabberwocks, hairy gorillas, and desperados—no wonder a certain Mr. “M” was confused about the appropriate appelation for those haling from the great Lone Star.
In January 1836, Mr. “M” wrote a letter to the editors at the New-York Commercial Advertiser, a daily paper published under various names from 1831 to 1904. During its time, the Commercial Advertiser was one of the most prosperous of the half dozen or so mercantile dailies in New York that dominated in the 1820s and 30s—before the rise of penny papers such as the New York Sun.
The Commercial Advertiser was aimed at the political and business elites of the city. At six cents a copy, subscriptions were fairly steep. The paper’s content focused on financial and market information, as well as political coverage, including foreign news, like what was happening at the time in Mexico’s northern state of Tejas.
Something in the paper—the reference or article having since been lost to time (at least unfound by me)—or perhaps the word on the street prompted Mr. “M” to send a missive to the Commercial Advertiser’s editors, asking for the correct adjective to describe “the people of Texas.” Clearly, he had read or heard many alternatives—some of which are inventive, to say the least.
To the Editors of the Commercial Advertiser.
Messrs. Editors.—Can you tell me the adjective by which the people of Texas, supposing they shall drub out Mr. [Antonio López de] Santa Anna, and not themselves be extirpated, are to be, can or may be positively known? At present they are called, sometimes Texanians, Texonians, Texans, Texanese, Texasese, Texarians, Texorians, Texasians, Texasonians, Texavians, Texians, Texicans, Texish, Texarish, and Texaruvians. It would give me pleasure to hear your opinion, as I’ve an idea, being one of your old readers, that you’ll call things by their right names.
M. Cannot be one of our old readers, or else a very heedless one, not to have perceived that we always call them TEXANS.
I’m grateful the good editors at the Commercial Advertiser set Mr. “M” straight, calling the good folks of Texas what they truly were (and are): Texans.
The legend on how Texas got its name comes from Spanish friar Damián Massanet, who, while visiting an East Texas village of Caddo Indians, was addressed as teycha—“friend” or “ally”—which Massanet recorded in his correspondence as tejas. Later, Spanish orthographers changed the “j” to an “x,” transforming Tejas into Texas. This theory has been challenged by historian Jorge Luis García Ruiz in Texas: The False Origin of the Name, trans. Antonio Gragera (n.p.: Jorge Luis García Ruiz, 2016).
The dates for the Republic of Texas are often listed as 1836–1845, when, on December 27 of that year, the annexation bill was signed into law by United States President James K. Polk, making Texas the twenty-eighth state in the Union. Nevertheless, official authority wasn’t turned over to the U.S. Congress until February 19, 1846, when Republic of Texas President Anson Jones ordered the Lone Star Flag lowered for the last time, declaring, “The Republic is no more.”
See Dan Solomon, “Y’all, Norwegians Use the Word ‘Texas’ as Slang to Mean ‘Crazy,” Texas Monthly, October 20, 2015, https://www.texasmonthly.com/the-daily-post/yall-norwegians-use-the-word-texas-as-slang-to-mean-crazy/.
Alan Le May, The Searchers, in The Western: Four Classic Novels from the 1940s & 50s (New York: The Library of America, 2020), 373–4.
Mary Lasswell, “Coloraturas in the Canyon,” in God’s Country or Devil’s Playground: The Best Nature Writing from the Big Bend of Texas, ed. Barney Nelson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 54–55.
Alexander Sweet, “That Typical Texan,” in Alexander E. Sweet and John A. Knox, Sketches from “Texas Siftings” (New York: Texas Sifting Publishing Company, 1882), 105–106.