There continues to be a great amount of debate over the origins of the word "Dixie" in connection with the American South. At least three major theories exist, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. A few facts concerning Dixie are not in dispute, including the use of the minstrel song Dixie as the informal anthem of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The song was indeed performed at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's first and only president. Few (if any) references to Dixie as a region have been dated before 1860.
One theory concerning the American South and "Dixie" is also one of the first to be debunked by many historians. Some sources claim that in the days of the state banking system, certain banks in Louisiana produced currency bearing both English and French denominations. The ten dollar notes were informally called "Dixs" or "Dixies", based on the French word for "ten." As these notes began to circulate throughout the South, the holders became known collectively as "Dixies." While these "dixie bills" did exist, there is little evidence that their nickname actually became associated with an entire region.
Another popular theory connecting Dixie with the Southern United States concerns a very real border called the Mason-Dixon line. Originally ordered by the British colonial government, the Mason-Dixon line delineated the border between Pennsylvania, Maryland and parts of Delaware and western Virginia. Eventually this line would also mark the division between free and slave states.
Some sources claim that "Dixie" is an informal corruption of surveyor Jeremiah Dixon's last name, and was adopted by the Confederacy to represent the entire region south of that Pennsylvania/Maryland border.
Although this theory appears to have the most historical basis, many historians and mapmakers now discount the Dixon/Dixie connection. The Mason-Dixon line was in existence for many years before the first known references to the South as Dixie. While many residents of the region may have used the Mason-Dixon line as an unofficial political or philosophical boundary, there have been no documented uses of Dixie in contemporary newspapers or literature until the publication of the songs Johnny Roach and Dixie's Land in 1859.
The third popular theory actually has its origins in the North, not the South. An Ohioan named Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote songs for minstrel shows performed primarily in New York City. These minstrel songs were often written in a crude form of black patois, mimicking the language of slaves. In 1858, Emmett composed a minstrel song called Dixie's Land, or Dixie. In the song, Emmett describes a slave's longing for an idyllic plantation. Some sources say the song was inspired by a real slaveowner named Johan Dixy, who was noted for his benevolent treatment of slaves on his Manhattan plantation called Dixy's Land.
The problem with this theory is that no records of such a kind Northern slaveowner on Manhattan Island actually exist. Emmett himself told a biographer that the song was inspired by Northern-based circus troupes who looked forward to performing in the warmer Southern climate during winter months. These performers often referred to the South as "Dixie's Land", for reasons of their own. There are records indicating several black or white minstrel performers using the name Dixie before Emmett wrote the song in 1858.
Popularity of the Dixie nickname has waned in recent years. Many modern Southerners have distanced themselves from various Civil War era references, especially the display of the Confederate flag and the perceived racist undertones of the unofficial Dixie moniker.