Thursday, February 16, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

Ann Coulter is in hot water -- again -- for calling Arabs "ragheads," among other things.

Instapundit notes:

The lefties seem mostly upset about her use of the term "raghead," which is racist and offensive, but more or less akin to the term "cracker," which doesn't seem to bother a lot of lefties. So pardon me if I'm largely unmoved by their mock outrage on this account.

Let's dredge up all the racial insults! Let's insult everybody. If I inadvertently leave you out, then please let me know and I'll be sure to insult you as soon as I can.

Raghead, as an insulting term for "South Asian or Middle Eastern person," is first attested in 1921. Unlike many other derogatory ethnic and racial terms, it never had another purpose but to put down a class of people. But it's a description of their dress, not their appearance, which perhaps makes it less harsh than some other terms.

Cracker is a different case. It still used, sometimes with an element of pride, by the people to whom it is applied (no one in the Middle East, so far as I know, proudly calls himself a "raghead"). The term began as a way to describe what later generations called "poor, white trash." The first record of it is in a letter written in 1766:

"I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode."

The origin, then, is not the cracker you eat, but the obscure verb crack meaning "to boast," which goes back to the 15th century but was more common in Scottish than in English, which makes sense because the original crackers essentially were Scots-Irish immigrants. About the only other place you encounter the verb today is in the phrase not all it's cracked up to be.

So, yes, it is essentially an ethnic term. It was being used especially of Georgians by 1808, and it still retains that geographical focus, though it often is extended to residents of northern Florida, too.

If redskin "American Indian" (attested from 1699) is racist, is redneck "cracker" as well?

A British equivalent of raghead might be wog, attested from
c.1920 for "a lower-class babu shipping clerk," later extended in World War II British armed forces slang to "native of India" (especially as a servant or laborer), and generalized to Pakistanis, Arabs, etc.

Its popular derivation from an acronym for "Westernized Oriental gentleman" is not taken seriously by linguists. More likely, it is a shortened form of golliwog, the name of a kind of grotesque blackface doll that once was popular, coined by English children's book author and illustrator Florence K. Upton (1873-1922). It's not the kind of thing you see much anymore, needless to say, but, like "Little Black Sambo" it reflects to a degree the Anglo-American tendency toward unwillingness to distinguish between the darker races, and to insult the lighter-skinned ones by identifying them with Africans.

Like guinea as a derogatory term for "Italian," which first turns up about 1896. It's from Guinea Negro which meant simply "black person," Guinea being a region in West Africa. It was applied to Italians probably because of their dark complexions relative to northern Europeans, and after 1911 it occasionally was applied to Hispanics and Pacific Islanders as well.

These ethnic slurs have slippery identities, and can be applied to really unrelated ethnic groups simply felt as somehow "other." Gook sprang to life in 1899 as U.S. military slang for "Filipino" during the insurrection there, probably from a native word, or imitative of the babbling sound of their language to American ears. The term goo-goo eyes "soft, seductive eyes" was in vogue c.1900 and it may have contributed to this word somehow, too. But gook was extended over time to "Nicaraguan," "any Pacific Islander" (World War II), "Korean" (1950s), "Vietnamese" and "any Asian" (1960s).

For a similar extended use outside English, consider gringo, a general Spanish contemptuous word for "foreigner," which is perhaps ultimately from griego "Greek." The "Diccionario Castellano" (1787) says gringo was used in Malaga for "anyone who spoke Spanish badly," and in Madrid for "the Irish."

Paul Beale, editor of "Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English" [1989] notes that in late 20th century the term wog, "although patronizing, is not always used with rabid xenophobia -- it's often a matter of 'Well, what else can you call them?' "

Indeed, as Beale notes, sometimes the line between a derogatory name and a simple way of refering to a nationality is not so easy to trace. Is Canuck an insult? It's a cross between Canada and Chinook, the name of a native people in the Columbia River region. In the U.S., it's often derogatory, but in Canada it seems never to be -- there's a Vancouver Canucks hockey team in the NHL.

A parallel case would be Yankee, often hurled as an insult abroad but the name of a sports team at home. Of course, don't go applying it to crackers.

The trouble with trying to peg some people for insulting speech is there's a broad gray area in these words. Many terms now felt as derogatory began innocently enough. Polack meaning "Polish immigrant, person of Polish descent" was in use in North America from 1879 with derisive, anti-immigrant overtones, and in that context it is considered offensive. But before that, it was the basic word in English for "Polish person" since Shakespeare's day. Pole makes a poor replacement. And in fact, it is the Polish word for "Polish person."

Another derogatory term in North America for lower-class Eastern European immigrants during the decades when they flooded Ellis Island was Bohunk, probably from a merger of Bohemian and a distortion of Hungarian. By the 1940s, the related honky was being used in the sense of "factory hand," which is how many Central European laborers made their livings. This, in turn, seems to have yielded honky, the black English slang word for "white person."

Wop, derogatory for "Italian," has been in American English since at least 1912, but it apparently comes from southern Italian dialect guappo "dandy, dude, stud," which was a greeting among male Neapolitans. So, it was a case of a word "they" used in reference to one another, picked up and used derisively. The Italian word is said to be from Spanish guapo "bold, dandy," which is from Latin vappa "sour wine," also "worthless fellow," related to vapidus (source of vapid).

Some derogatory names for ethnic groups derives from proper names considered common among them. Mick for "Irishman" (1856) is one example. Dago is another. It first was used around 1823 in reference to Spanish and Portuguese sailors on English or American ships, and it's a form of Spanish Diego "James." By 1900 it had broadened to include non-sailors and shifted to mean chiefly "Italian."

Kike, derogatory slang for "Jew," is attested from 1904. One theory is that it originated among German-American Jews in reference to newcomers from Eastern Europe, whose names ended in -ki or -ky.

Spic, derogatory for "Latino person" (1913) is said to be from the cliche protestation "No spick English." But there was an earlier word spiggoty which is said to have originated in Panama during the canal construction. But since it also was applied from an early date to Italians, some have suggested it is an alteration of spaghetti.

Chink, the derogatory slang word for "a Chinaman" is first recorded in America around 1901, but chinkie in the same sense was in use in Australia about 20 years earlier. It's either a corruption of Chinaman or a reference to slit eyes.

Frog as a derogatory term for "Frenchman" dates from 1778 (short for frog-eater), but before that it meant "Dutch person," in reference to the marshy land where they lived.

Spook in the derogatory racial sense of "black person" is a bit of a puzzle: ghosts generally are perceived as being pale. Perhaps the notion is of dark skin being difficult to see at night. [Black pilots training at Tuskegee Institute during World War II called themselves the Spookwaffe].