Etymologists seem to believe that the term could have developed from the old English CROW’S AGE. A more immediate influence or possibly a term that developed in parallel is DOG’S AGE (1836), which appeared in print just 7 years earlier than COON’S AGE.
The origin of the term COON’S AGE is uncertain, but there are several theories:
1) From the mistaken belief that raccoons are long-lived.
2) From the belief that something like the life of a raccoon is a relatively long time (perhaps compared to other animals which live in the same habitat), just as the life of a dog in the term A DOG’S AGE is used to refer to a long period of time.
3) From the raccoon’s habit of disappearing for long periods of sleep during the winter months when it would not be seen out for what seemed ‘ages.’
It should be noted that I couldn’t find any evidence that COON’S AGE is being or has been used as a racist term except for what appears to be one isolated instance. And it seems clear that some folks are afraid to use it nowadays because they think it might have the appearance of not being PC. — Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang comments that “the phrase is inevitably seen as linked to COON [a highly derogatory term for a Black person].” Well, yes, perhaps by some — I, for one, never made that link. The one example I did unearth of its use in a derogatory sense (but as a pun on the usual term) was from H. L Mencken (1880–1956, famed U.S. writer, editor, and critic) who some considered to be a racist (a still controversial point), partly based on his free use of racially incorrect terms (e.g. He often referred to blacks as COONS).<1836 “That blamed line gale has kept me in bilboes such a DOG’S AGE.”—‘Knickerbocker Magazine,’ Vol. VII, page 17> [[?? 1) gale: strong wind; rent payment. 2) bilboes: a long iron bar or bolt with sliding shackles and a lock, formerly attached to the ankles of prisoners, and if used here, probably used figuratively]]
<1843 “We had not seen the amount of cash mentioned as lost, in A COON’S AGE.”—‘Spirit of the Times,’ 8 September, page 326>
<1844 “The way she's mad at cousin Pete won't wear off in a COON’S AGE.”—“Major Jones’ Courtship” (edition 2) by W. T. Thompson, page 145>
<1845 “Kicked so far I would hardly get back in A COON’S AGE.”—‘Tarheel Talk’ by Eliason, page 266>
<1853 “Hello, old hoss, whar hev you been this COON’S AGE?”–‘Tarheel Talk’ by Eliason, page 266>
<circa 1860 “This child haint had much money in A COON’S AGE.”—‘Southern Sketches’ by Barteltt>
<1897 “Hit ud take A COON’s AGE, I reckon, to tell ye.”—‘Hell-for-Sartain’ by Fox, page 65>
<1922 “Lord, I got to get a front one of these days . . . I ain’t had a suit in A COON’S AGE.”—‘Emmett Lawler’ by Tully, page 138>
<1939 “Time expressions heard include ‘since Hec was a pup,’ ‘since the woods burned,’ ‘in A COON’S AGE,’ ‘since the year One, ‘as slow as molasses in January,’ ‘as slow as the seven-year itch,’ ‘in two shakes of a dead lamb’s tail,’ and ‘better than.’—Folk Saying from Indiana, in ‘American Speech,’ Vol. 14, No. 4, December, page 264>
<1958 “‘A COON’S AGE’: Is an expression used by people when they mean a long, long time. However, so far has been determined raccoons have about the same life expectancy as that of dogs.”—‘The Hayward Review’ (California), 25 January, page 17>
<1977 “For the stay-at-home housewife this has to be one of the best ideas [[allow homemakers to create their own retirement plans (similar to an IRA) even though they have no earnings]]) that anyone has had in Congress in A COON’S AGE.”—‘News Journal’ (Mansfield, Ohio), 19 June, page 42>
<1998 “The groups followers could have been forgiven for thinking that it no longer existed as a band, except in the case of Steely Dan. Yet here is Pearl Jam on its first full-scale tour in A COON’S AGE.”—‘Syracuse Herald Journal,’ 11 July, page 60>
<2007 “No, she's [[writer, comic, actress Sarah Silverman]] not really racist, she's actually commenting on racism, and even white people seem to get it. In fact, in sneakily subverting biases in between trumpeting some of her own progressive thoughts (‘Nazis are a-holes,’ she grins, bravely), Silverman probably is politically correct—and that's the scariest thing this fudgepacking wop has heard in A COON’S AGE”—‘Village Voice,’ 23 January>
(Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, and archived sources).<1983 “In 1927 H. L. Mencken, in an editorial, in The American Mercury, in outrage wrote: ‘Can it be that the Republic . . . comes into A COON AGE? The colored brother, once so slowly, now bursts into the sunlight all along the line. In New York City he has made such astounding progress, all within a few years, that he now ranks, socially, next after English actors . . .’”—‘The Journal of Negro Education,’ Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, page 181-182>
Ken G – April 11, 2007