Acknowledging the Corn

It’s time to take a breather from rescuing the humanities. So in this week of Thanksgiving, let’s pause a moment to acknowledge the corn.

William Bradford (1590-1657)

Corn—Indian corn—was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts in 1621 along with waterfowl, wild turkeys, and venison, according to William Bradford’s memoir Of Plymouth Plantation. (Bradford didn’t mention the Thanksgiving dinner, but he did name the foods the colony had in abundance.)

And it is significant that this “Indian corn” developed into what we call just plain corn nowadays. The name, that is, though the original Indian corn has developed into today’s splendid hybrids. But corn is an ancient word. Let the Oxford English Dictionary explain:

“As a general term the word includes all the cereals, wheat, rye, barley, oats, maize, rice, etc. … Locally, the word, when not otherwise qualified, is often understood to denote that kind of cereal which is the leading crop of the district; hence in the greater part of England corn is = wheat, in North Britain and Ireland = oats; in the U.S. the word, as short for Indian corn, is restricted to maize.”

In other words, Indian corn came out on top. When we say corn nowadays, that’s what we mean.

It can be a cause of misunderstanding when we encounter other leading corns. When Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale” tells of Ruth who “stood in tears amid the alien corn,” Americans have to resist picturing a crop circle in an Iowa cornfield.

Corn also has a key role in a once popular phrase, “Acknowledge the corn.” In the 19th century, to acknowledge the corn was to admit to a mistake or a misdeed.

How “acknowledge the corn” should have come to this particular meaning is a mystery. A couple of long-winded stories were told to account for it. One tells of a man from “the upper country” who brought two flatboats to New Orleans, one loaded with corn and the other with potatoes. He went gambling and lost his money and both cargoes. What’s more, his flatboat of corn sank. The next morning the man who  won the cargoes came calling, and the countryman said, “Stranger, I acknowledge the corn, take ‘em, but the potatoes you can’t have, by thunder.”

That one doesn’t seem to relate to the meaning of the phrase. The other story is also a little odd. In Congress, supposedly, a legislator said Kentucky was exporting corn to New York. A representative from Kentucky  said that was wrong, Kentucky sent hogs. To which the other legislator said, “you put thirty bushels into the shape of a hog and make it walk off to the Eastern market,” and the Kentuckian said, “I acknowledge the corn.”

Such a fine expression deserves a better story of origin, so if you think of one, by all means let us know.

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