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Festival's name survives scrutiny

Double entendre aside, the City Council is headstrong about naming an upcoming event the "Cooter Festival." Some say the members are being naive.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published July 26, 2004


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INVERNESS - As the City Council talked about property tax rates and a new telephone system for City Hall, there was an elephant in the room Tuesday night, or, more accurately, a turtle.

Finally, council member Marc Wigmore broached the subject.

Was "cooter," to which the town is planning to hitch its identity in a festival, a name for something besides the little freshwater turtles that slide into the area's ponds?

A Times column published the day before had alerted Wigmore to the possibility that it also "refers to a certain part of the female anatomy located south of the Mason-Dixon Line."

"I guess I was unaware with other meanings for this word that I don't know if we'd like associated with our festival," Wigmore told his peers. "To cut right to it: It offends me."

In the end, council members marched on undaunted with their plans, ignoring the off-color side of a word embraced by even a 77-year-old great-grandmother, who coordinates a South Carolina cooter festival.

A few residents say the council is acting as naively as the fabled emperor without clothes. Creating a "Cooter Festival" could cause the city of 7,000 embarrassment, they warned. But others said cooter is as common and inoffensive to the proud South as the word "cracker." Inverness, they said, should not cower to innuendo.

With African roots, a Southern heritage and a college campus reshaping, the word cooter has taken on a few meanings in its time. This isn't the first time controversy over it has crawled out of its shell in Inverness.

coo*ter (noun): Etymology: of African origin; akin to Bambara and Malinke kuta turtle chiefly South & Midland. Any of several turtles or tortoises of the southern and eastern United States; especially the slider turtle (Pseudemys concinna) and certain closely related forms.


- Merriam Webster Unabridged Dictionary

For as long as anyone can remember, the brackish lake filled with lilies, frequented by egrets and lined with weeds sandwiched between the Sheriff's Office and U.S. 41 has been known as Cooter Pond, presumably for the abundance of soft-shell turtles that once filled it.

But in 1988, a mapping corporation stirred up debate when it mysteriously identified the body of water as Sunset Lake on several county maps. Longtime county residents, who said the name was part of their heritage, protested.

In response, the council voted 3-1 to officially name the lake Cooter Pond in a nod to natives, despite quite a bit of snickering.

"I personally would have liked the name Sunset Lake," council member Vincent J. Scheer Sr. said at the time. "These people who were born here and lived here all of their life were concerned that people who had just come in here were taking it away from them, and I don't like to see that happen."

Last year, the city celebrated several improvements to Cooter Pond, including the addition of a wooden boardwalk, a gazebo and benches, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony where one official hailed the pond as the "gateway to the city."

With park renovations under way, council members proposed creating a Cooter Festival that would showcase Cooter Pond, nearby downtown and the city.

In dramatic fashion, the city unveiled its plans to the public earlier this summer when the Inverness Cooter, a smiling, fuzzy, green-suited mascot, trumpeted the coming festival on WYKE-TV. The Inverness Pioneer, in turn, announced a "name the Cooter" contest.

With momentum building for the Cooter Festival planned for October, Citrus Times Editorial Editor Greg Hamilton wrote a column July 19 highlighting the word's double meaning. The column led Wigmore to ask fellow leaders whether the city should head in another direction. The response was overwhelming.

"To me, up to 90 percent don't know this slur is out there," council member Ken Hinkle said. "We live by the majority, not the minority."

"It's a celebration of a known landmark," Mayor Bob Plaisted said, "and the cooter as a turtle."

"I think it's safe to say there are ridiculous analogies all over the place," City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said, "and we shouldn't be riled by it because other people have heads elsewhere."

Council member John Sullivan said he has lived in the South all his life and never heard such an offensive use. Council President Jacqueline Hepfer called people who would think dirty of cooter "morons."

Cooter; coota n. (1650s-1990s) originally from the West African word kuta; or possibly from nkuda (Kongo), meaning a "box turtle," or a hard-backer turtle; terrapin. West African word kuts: a box turtle. - From Juba to Jive, a Dictionary of African-American Slang

The word cooter is common in the South and may have been brought over by slaves, according to some historical references.

People say, "Drunker than Cooter Brown."

Ben Jones played the mechanic "Cooter" on the 1980s television show "Dukes of Hazzard."

Jim Bob Cooter plays quarterback for the University of Tennessee Volunteers.

Landlocked Northerners, however, are not as chummy with the word.

Connie C. Eble, a University of North Carolina professor, is an authority on college slang who has written the book Slang and Sociability. She collects new words or word uses from her students and passes them on to respected modern-day lexicographers for documentation and interpretation.

When asked about the origins of cooter's double nature, Eble discovered she may have been the first to document its seedy deviation in 1986, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. It was first documented in a sentence to describe a turtle in 1832.

But she did not know how it got its vulgar meaning. It may have come from its similarity to the word "cootie," which can describe lice, an old cantankerous person or a woman's genitals, she said.

"Coozie," according to dictionaries, was a similar vulgar reference in the 1920s. But one dictionary may have a definitive explanation for how a word for such a mundane animal became so crass. Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, a primarily British book, describes cooter as "United States dialect, a freshwater turtle but U.S. campus slang: a vagina," Eble said.

She further found that the dictionary defines the snapping turtle as the vagina - a use that goes far back.

"What probably happened is that someone knew that snapping turtle means the vagina and substituted the regional word of cooter for snapping turtle for vagina," Eble said. "That's my guess."

Cooter is still used in South Carolina, Georgia, and the Gulf states to denote the edible freshwater turtle of the genus Chrysemys and, by extension, other turtles and tortoises. - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Regardless of the Mr. Hyde nature of the word cooter and its origin, Marcella White said the Inverness City Council is naive to think it is a definition known by only a "minority." She is the project coordinator of the Spring Cooter Fest of Allendale County, S.C., which hosted its first "cooter race" in 1984.

Since then, the festival has grown to include a Cooter Fest parade, Cooter Bowl and beauty contest.

"The girls that enter the beauty contest don't want to be called Miss Cooter," White said, so they are called Miss Spring Fest.

She said Allendale long accepted cooter's racy definition and even markets it on T-shirts with slogans: "A little cooter never hurt anyone."

"And they sell like hot cakes," said White, 77.

She said Inverness officials should publicize that they unequivocally mean "turtle" before their festival but at the same time subtly acknowledge the word's double meaning in jest to get ahead of the jokes before their festival becomes the butt of one.

Others, however, find the planned festival offensive. Winston Perry, an Inverness businessman, lambasted the council in a Times letter to the editor for considering such a festival title when DiGiovanni and parks director Pati Smith knew cooter could be misconstrued.

"Now to read that the city manager and Pati Smith are spearheading a festival by this name for the downtown area, when they admittedly knew all along about the sexual connotation of the word "cooter,' which is demeaning to all women, well to say the least, I am aghast," Perry wrote.

Vernon Simmons disagreed. The 63-year-old retired city of Inverness streets department supervisor grew up behind Cooter Pond and helped restore the park's sidewalks during 28 years on the job.

Sitting under the canopy of moss-draped oaks that surround Cooter Pond, Simmons recalled catching some of the biggest bass, catfish and blue gill he's seen from the lake. He said its waters are central to Inverness' history.

A history, he said, best celebrated by a Cooter Festival.

"When the word cooter comes to my mind, it don't phase me," he said. "That's what it's been: Cooter Pond. It's appropriate. We ate a lot of cooters in my day.

"In Texas, they have armadillos representing them."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story. Justin George can be reached at 352 860-7309 or at jgeorge@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 26, 2004, 12:03:29]


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