Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 23, 2015
Crawfishing happens when someone breaks a promise or backs out or retreats from a previously stated position or agreement. It’s an expression that isn’t used often but when it is, it’s to great effect.
The Walker County Messenger edition of September 22, 1989 ran a story about Chickamauga entitled, “Chickamauga Is A Cherokee Word Meaning River Of Death.” The article was based on Frank Moore’s book published in 1865, “The Civil War In Song And Story.” The article ended with this paragraph:
The remnant of the tribe was also afterwards called the “Chickamauga tribe.” We hope General Bragg will call his great victory the Battle of Chickamauga, and not “Peavine Creek” or “Crawfish Springs” as suggested in Rosecran’s dispath. He was certainly crawfished out of Georgia, but we prefer “Chickamauga,” or “River of Death.”
On October 14, 1964 the Herald-Journal newspaper run a short news story out of San Antonio about Governor Paul B. Johnson Jr., and GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. The article entitled, “Says Barry Craw-fished On Firm States Rights Issue” also used the word in the second of two paragraphs.
“Some people are dissatisfied to some extent, at his craw-fishing on strong states rights and constitutional government,” Johnson said at a new conference at the Southern Governors Conference.
In the Spokane Daily Chronicle of August 5, 1931 an article was published about the power development project on the Yakima River in the state. The U.S. Commissioner of Reclamations, Dr. Elwood Mead, refused to accept the state’s offer as presented by Washington State Director of Conservation and Development, Erle J. Barnes. There were allegations made that the Federal bureau had diverted $1.5 million USD in appropriation for the Cle Elum dam to the Owyhee and Deadwood dams in Idaho that would serve Idaho and Oregon. To make matters worse, the federal bureau demanded an unconditional power permit which, according to the state, would allow the bureau to engage in the power business in every state in the Union. It was in the second paragraph of this news article that crawfishing was mentioned.
Director Barnes accused Dr. Mead of “crawfishing” and of ignoring the advice of B.E. Stoutemyer, district counsel for the reclamation bureau, who notified Barnes yesterday that Dr. Mead had rejected a compromise agreement on the power question reached at a conference between state and federal reclamation officials at Yakima last week.
It was used in the Masonic Voice in Volume 16 published in 1857 which included the expression in the Editor Review for December 1856. The editor was Cornelius Moore.
You have heard of the duel that did not come off between the Irish patriot Meagher and Lieut. Gov. Raymond, editor of the Times. The general impression is that Raymond crawfished a little in this matter. If he had had the pluck, he might have served his opponent as Cartwright did, especially if he had any religious scruples about fighting.
Crawfishing meaning to break a promise or back out of an agreement doesn’t seem to appear before the 1850s. However, referring to such behavior as crawfishing may be based on the definitions found in reference and resource books during this period. In the “New American Cyclopaedia” edited by George Ripley and Charles A. Dana and published in 1859, the behavior of crawfish is detailed thusly:
Crawfish swim rapidly by means of the tail, whose strokes propel them backward; they crawl well on the bottom, and are sometimes seen at a considerable distance from streams, using holes filled with water, and occasional pools, as places of retreat. from their propensity to eat carrion, Audubon calls them “little aquatic vultures.” They are fond of burrowing in the mud, and from this habit are often great pests, undermining levees and embankments, frequently to the serious loss of the miller and the planter; it is stated that on account of the depredations of these animals, the owners of the great dam in the Little Genesee river have been once compelled to rebuild it.
The entry continues with references to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and the crawfish that are peculiar to that specific region in America.
Idiomation therefore pegs the spirit of crawfishing to the 1850s as the term was used freely in literature from the American Civil War era with the understanding that it would be understood by readers.