Tar Heel

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a native or inhabitant of North Carolina (used as a nickname).
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Origin of Tar Heel

An Americanism dating back to 1860–65
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is a Tar Heel?

A Tar Heel is a nickname for a resident of North Carolina. It’s also the name of the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) athletic teams, students, alums, etc.

How is Tar Heel pronounced?

[ tahr heel ]

Where does Tar Heel come from?

Historically, tar has been one of the major products of the state of North Carolina. The nickname Tar Heel is said to have begun as a derogatory term for poor people in North Carolina who worked with waterproofing-materials, such as rosin and tar, and ended up with tar on their heels.

During the Civil War, the term was used by some soldiers to deride soldiers from North Carolina. It was also during the war that North Carolinians began to embrace the term, referring to one another as Tar Heels as a point of pride. North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance visited the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on March 28, 1864, and notably addressed fellow North Carolinians as Tar Heels. The term was adopted by other North Carolinians, and their state is now nicknamed the Tar Heel State.

Tar Heel was later adopted by the University of North Carolina for its athletic teams. UNC changed its team name from the White Phantoms to the Tar Heels in the 1920s. Tar Heels are represented by an icon of a foot, with a black spot at the heel. It’s not to be confused with the mascot of the University of North Carolina, Ramses the ram.

One of the most famous UNC Tar Heels is basketball legend Michael Jordan.

How is Tar Heel used in real life?

While natives and residents of North Carolina are referred to as Tar Heels, Tar Heels especially refer to UNC athletics and academics.


The hashtags  #UNCTarheels, #Tarheels, #TarHeelNation, and #GoHeels are all common ways to refer to—and root for—UNC Tar Heels online.


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use Tar Heel in a sentence