Cotton Pickin’ Minute
Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 14, 2011
Idiomation is providing the history of the phrase here — along with newspaper articles to illustrate the phrase — for those who are wondering how the phrase came about and whether it is a racist slur.
Back on November 17, 2009 on the NBA website, the following was part of the article published to The Optimist page:
I know this is a basketball column, and I’ll get to the Cavaliers fifth straight win in just a cotton-pickin’ minute. But these anemic performances by the Browns cannot stand! Not if we’re going to win the Lombardi Trophy before stuff starts blowing up. I’m so old, I remember when the Browns used to score touchdowns. Several of them – IN A SINGLE GAME!
Glen McAdoo wrote a piece for the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle Standard on July 25, 2005 that was entitled, “Just A Cotton Pickin’ Minute.” In his piece, he included this bit:
It seems like they are intent on coming up with a new tax, or an increase in an old one, just about every week. Where I was raised folks would be saying, “Now wait just a cotton pickin’ minute. Tell me again why ya’all are doin’ this.”
Back on August 21, 2001 in a Letter to the Editor from Jonathan F Phillips to The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville (TN), Mr. Phillips wrote in part:
Now wait a cotton pickin minute. Tennessee had plenty of tobacco settlement money to fight any and all tobacco ads aimed at children. But where is that tobacco settlement money going?
It would appear that the phrase has been used quite a bit in the past decade alone and in newspapers throughout the southern states no less. But how far back does that phrase go?
The Lawrence Journal World newspaper ran an advertisement on May 15, 1963 written by Lee of Ramsey’s Decorating Service in Lawrence, KS. Entitled, “Take A Color Pickin Minute” it began with:
I do not mean a cotton pickin’ minute, I mean a color pickin’ minute. That’s all it takes to obtain the exact color that is proper for you, your home, and its attractiveness.
And on December 7, 1958 Herbert Jay Vida wrote an article entitled “Notes On My Cuff” for the Los Angeles Times that began:
HOLD IT NOW — Now just hold on for a cotton pickin’ minute.
Back in 1914, The Courier published a story about a 17-year-old teenager named Claude Rice. The newspaper was mighty proud of the young lad for the following reason:
The world’s record cotton picking has been excelled by a boy named Claude RICE, 17 years old, living at Biggers, Randolph county. The boy was picking on a wager of 1,000 pounds of cotton. He picked 1,193 pounds of cotton in 12 hours and 35 minutes. The first three hours he averaged 120 pounds an hour. In 30 minutes from 4:00 to 4:30 o’clock, he picked 56 pounds. RICE is a member of the boy’s corn club of Randolph County, known as the largest corn club in the United States. John R. KIZER, farm adviser, supervised the contest. The boy sold his cotton at ten cents a pound.
As readers can see, there’s no mention as to Claude Rice’s cultural background. What we do know is that the teen surely could pick cotton!
Now, back in the day, picking cotton required considerable labour to clean and separate the fibers from the seeds. The problem with hand picking cotton was that dried bristles off the plant cut and scarred fingers, wrists and arms of those who picked cotton by hand.
The first attempts at building a functional mechanical cotton picker was patented in the U.S. as early as 1850. Samuel S. Rembert and Jedidiah Prescott patented a cotton-harvesting machine in Memphis, Tennessee that included this information in the original patent notes:
Our cotton picking machine can be duplicated and extended to such a width as to embrace several rows of cotton at once.
Over the next 100 years, over 1,800 patents were issued in the U.S. for cotton harvesting machines. With more and more cotton picking machines being bought by landowners, field hands who used to pick cotton found themselves replaced by these new-fangled cotton-picking machines.
While a skilled field hand could pick 20 pounds of cotton in an hour, a mechanical picker could pick 1,000 pounds in that same hour. It didn’t take long for owners to realize that a bale of cotton (a bale of cotton weighed 500 pounds) cost them 8 times more to have them picked by hand than if they had them picked by machine. In other words, a cotton picking minute — on the whole — was definitely more beneficial to owners when done by machine.
By the late 1960s, 96% of cotton crops in the U.S. were done by mechanical cotton picking machines.
But is “cotton picking” an insult?
The phrase “cotton picking” arose in the southern U.S. states sometime during the 1700s and was used to describe something that was unpleasant or troublesome. Back then, cotton was a garden crop tended by white as well as black Southerners and the cotton was turned into cloth for home use in much the same that flax was turned into cloth for home use in the North.
“Cotton-picking” became part of the vernacular in the U.S. and in time, it was the phrase swapped in for unacceptable comments such as “God-damn” or “damn” when in polite society or if women were present.
The verdict: Cotton pickin’ minute is not a racial slur but calling someone a cotton picker could be considered an insult.
Related Entry: “Screw Loose” from March 3, 2011.