“But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.” — Maya Angelou
While the word “epithet,” by today’s colloquial usage, generally connotes a pejorative term for a group of people, the word’s origin, which stems from the Greeks, was actually assumed to be positive. Throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey, for instance, Homer created epithets, or monikers. Hence, Athena was referred to as the “gray-eyed” one, and the goddess of dawn, Eos, as the “rosy-fingered dawn.”
Merriam-Webster’s second definition of the word, however, is the most used today: “a disparaging or abusive word or phrase.” This article focuses on the latter definition of the word, and more interestingly, the possible — and often heatedly debated — origins of derogatory epithets.
As with most words, it’s not necessarily their origins but rather their usage that later changed the tone. “Gay” still means “joyful.” However, within the past decade, something that is “so gay” became a deprecating catchphrase meaning “absurd.” Like “nigger”’s less-offensive cousin, “niggah,” the word “gay” has gone through a tautological devolution. History, context, and tone have throughout the centuries altered meanings and perceptions.
So why don’t Caucasian-based racial epithets carry the same weight as, say, “spic” or “chink?” It’s safe to say that “Honky” and “cracker” don’t ruffle white people in the same way (even though the latter refers to a whip-cracking slaver). What about “mick,” “dago,” and “wop?” Those slurs today may affect the Irish and Italians less than they used to, but when wielded in New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, they were enough to level a tenement. They were new immigrants, they were minorities, and, unlike today, they were very much oppressed. As these groups became less subjugated in society, and as bigotry toward them waned, the epithets had less effect.
But “words are things,” and they have the power to stop us in our tracks. Yes, even “wop” when spat in anger can still rankle an Italian-American, but the following five salacious sobriquets — even whispered — can stop a party cold.
Put a gaggle of linguists and etymologists in a room and watch them all come up with a different origin of the word, “faggot.”
The initial use of the word is a bundle of twigs, while the citation as a slang term for homosexuals appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, as an Americanism, in 1914. And everywhere in between are stories that lead, mostly, nowhere.
Faggots (by their original definition) were used for fueling public executions, when criminals — specifically heretics — were burned at the stake in the mid-1500s. A myth surrounds this theory that Hitler conjured the term and burned homosexuals with faggots and that’s how the term came about, but this is clearly and quickly disproved.
In the sixteenth century, however, “faggot” became a contemptuous term for a boorish feckless woman; possibly it was metonymy stemming from her use of faggots as a broom. (This would be not unlike calling a presidential administration, the White House or calling military might, a sword.) That may have morphed into calling homosexuals a deprecatory term for a hausfrau.
Among other possibly apocryphal tales, is that the term stems from the Yiddish, feygele, which means “little bird.” And while the word has long been used by Jews as a gay epithet, most etymologists do not believe there is any relation to “faggot.”
The most shocking piece of research assembled for this article came in the form of a three-word definition of “kike” from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary — “usually offensive: Jew.”
Though the dictionary declares the word’s first usage as 1904, the tome states that there is no acknowledge of the word’s origins. Then again, if Merriam-Webster is to be believed, Jews are sometimes cool with one of the harshest-sounding epithets in existence.
The genesis of the word has had many scholars scratching their yarmulkes for decades. Yet while there is a paucity of facts, there are many stories, What we do know is that the 1912 “Report of the National Conference of Jewish Charities in the United States,” notes that:
“There is no charity organization of any kind here [Pennsylvania] and, what is sadder to relate, the Jews in this city will not form one; that is, if the present temper of the people can be used as a criterion, the German Jews are bitterly opposed to the ‘Kikes,’ as they persist in calling the Russian Jews.”
Three theories, out of many, rise to the top. German Jews taunting the newly arrived Eastern European Jews poked fun at the new immigrants’ names, many of which ended in “sky” and “ski.” This rolled into “kike” over time. Another story claims the word stems from the German “kieken,” which means “to peep.”
But the most probable explanation may have begun at Ellis Island. The Joys of Yiddish, and The American Hebrew both settle on the story that when Jewish immigrants, unfamiliar with the Roman-English lettering, had to sign their name they were told to write an “x” rather than signing their name in their native language. But to the new arrivals the “x” was a mark of a cross, which represented Christianity, so the Jews made a circle — or, in Yiddish, a “kikel” —instead. And the immigration officers referred to the circle-makers, as kikels, and later, “kikes.”
To the American ear it’s one of the most cringe-worthy curses, yet to other English speakers throughout the world it’s a harmless jocular term that’s fun for the whole family. But the tide is turning for “cunt” in the United States; What was once only uttered as “the c-word” by even the most sailor-mouthed Americans is growing less and less offensive as it appears in pop culture from Marianne Faithfull’s vitriolic slash “Why D’Ya Do It?”, to Liz Phair’s pseudo-paean to “cunt,” to Barbadian singer Rihanna wearing a “cunt” necklace to church and thinking nothing of it..
The derivation is rather straightforward, it’s slang for vagina: in Latin it’s cunnus, Middle English it’s cunte, and Old Norse it’s kunta. The word first appears in English as a name of a street in Oxford in 1230 where prostitutes plied their trade. The name of the passageway, which lasted until the fourteenth century, was — read it closely — Gropecuntlane. By the seventeenth century the word was no longer spoken in polite company.
There’s not a street hawker in Bangkok who doesn’t have a sidewalk table piled high with “No Money! No Honey!” t-shirts. But the maxim’s much older than you might think. One theory is that the Dutch word for rabbit “coney” (as in Coney Island — click here for the Dutch You Didn’t Know You Knew), which was a precursor to “cunt” made this dirty ditty rhyme: “No money, no coney.”
The United States has long been a Petri dish for conjuring some of the vilest of slurs and this one is courtesy of U.S. military men.
“Gook” first appears 1893 Slang and its Analogues as an American term for prostitutes, and was not documented as a racial epithet until U.S. Marines used it derogatorily to describe Filipinos; And from port to port thereafter American servicemen slung it at Nicaraguans, Haitians, Pacific Islanders, Koreans, and the VietNamese.
But how did the word come to connote a race of people? “Gook” is an example of possible folk etymology, meaning that the word’s original connotation morphed homophonically, possibly because it was misunderstood.
There are several folk etymological theories surrounding the word; however the most plausible stems from the Korean word “gook,” which means “place” or “country.” For example, Koreans — or Hans — are “Han-gooks.” American servicemen were referred to as “Mi-gooks,” or simply translated, “people from America.” When Koreans called Americans, “Mi-gook,” GIs believed the natives were announcing, in Pidgin English*, that they themselves were “gooks” (*”Pidgin English” is a linguistic form of communication created by two people who do not share a common language. It is believed to come from the Chinese pronunciation of the English word “business.”)
The word “gook” reached its xenophobic zenith in the United States during the VietNam War (which tangentially, and technically, was not a war and in VietNam is of course known as the “American War”). As the body count rose in former Indochina, so too did the use of racial epithets against the VietNamese. It is as impossible to watch a film set within 500 miles of the Mekong River without hearing “gook” lobbed like a linguistic grenade.
In 2000, Senator John McCain, looking back on his time as a prisoner of war in VietNam said, “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live… I was referring to my prison guards and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend.”
If the senator’s belligerent defense of the racial epithet sounded familiar you may have heard the similar racist argument before: “I don’t mind black folks, I just hate niggers.” No matter what argument one uses, the aforementioned statements are steeped in an obtuse disregard for an entire race — or group — of people.
Sans doute, this is the granddaddy of all racial epithets. It is the hardest word for most civilized Anglophones to hear — especially when spoken with malice — or to see in print without asterisks. And castrating it to “n-word” is only appropriate after first having allowed its sting to wear off.
It is the most controversial word in the English language, and yet its etymology is one of the least offensive of the rest in this article. The word simply means “black” — nègre in French, negro in Spanish, and in Scottish: neger. This is a case of: it’s not how it was born, but rather how it was historically wielded.
It’s been said that a child today is African-American, her mother is black, her grandmother was colored, her great-grandmother was a Negro, and her great-great grandmother was a nigra in a parlor and a nigger in the field.
For most, the whips of the world’s most slashing pejorative carries the same sting as it did when it arrived in slave ships to the new world. The aforementioned breakdown of terminology is apocryphal to a degree. While the term “nigger” was not necessarily used in anger or to humiliate — initially — the anger with which it was used cast the word in a negative light. Even by the early 1700s, most sensitive writers at times used “black” or “Negro.”
Margaret Mitchell, when writing just a generation past slavery, has Scarlett in Gone with the Wind furiously addressing one of her slaves as “nigger,” though she immediately corrects herself: “I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.”
Mitchell, by way of Scarlett, knew then what Angelou knows now. “Nigger” is the one deprecatory word in the English language that has grown to monolithic proportions over the past 400 years. It carried the barrels of molasses off the armadas and it bound bales of cotton and it still lingers in the throats of bigots. But for those among us who eschew the slur, it’s the most bitter linguistic pill to swallow.
Words, after all, are things.