‘Tar Heels’ just aren’t what they used to be

Generations of historians have labored to nail down the origin of “Tar Heel.” Less attention has been paid the alteration — shrinkage? corruption? —  of the term’s perceived meaning.

Most North Carolinians seem to have accepted the nickname, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, until mid-20th century — somewhere between the University of North Carolina’s redefining itself as a multicampus institution (1931) and Castleman D. Chesley’s introducing TV coverage of ACC basketball (1957).

Today the question “Are you a Tar Heel?” is likely to be met not by, say, “Born in Smithfield, live in Raleigh” but by “No, I went to State” or “I pull for the Deacons” or “Like hell, I’m a Duke fan.”

Have I got this right? And does anybody else see it as a loss to the vernacular?



2 thoughts on “‘Tar Heels’ just aren’t what they used to be”

  1. A little background for my comment….I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but my parents moved us to North Carolina when I was four—-and I’ve been here ever since (except for one horrible year in the lesser Carolina).

    As a child, I would always spend about one week with my grandparents in Knoxville. When my maternal grandfather would drive us around town, he would always start sniffing the air and asking us if we “smelled those Tar Heels.” My brother and I would put our nose up in the air to sniff around, but we never caught a whiff of what he was smelling. He would also introduce us to his friends (and pretty much anyone that would pay attention to him) as his “Tar Heel grandsons….can’t you smell the tar on them?”

    I know he loved us, but I could never tell (and I still can’t) whether he saw this as a derisive term or not. I, however, have adopted it with pride, though it doesn’t hurt that I’m a UNC grad as well!

  2. I’m as proud a native North Carolinian as anyone, but because of UNC, I never call myself a Tar Heel. To me, the term is far more associated with the teams than the state.

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