What's in a name?

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What's in a name? Is not a rose by any other name, not as sweet? This is all about the etymology of racial slurs, and why combatting hate speech with hate speech is worse than the alternative: combatting it with education, tolerance or just learning to ignore it.

I am tired of the over sensitivity our society has to words. There are legitimate reasons to despise the use of words -- but it is not the words themselves that are offensive. This hiding from the problem doesn't fix anything. We can't integrate by pretending we are not different. We can not hide from our history or the history of the words. But we can change the word meanings, we can become desensitized to the words -- and in so doing, we can neuter the power the words of hate have over us.

*Warning* This article contains offensive words to most. It is guaranteed to piss some people off. It is not the intent to offend people, but I don't think that oversensitivity is a justifiable reason to eliminate discussion of issues (in that it is good for society if we CAN discuss these things).

Racial Slurs

Let's look at the history of these words (Racial Slurs).

Many racial slurs are just slang (and not that offensive) that slowly evolve to become offensive -- not because of the words (or what they mean) but by how they are used. Many are just contractions (we like to abbreviate and condense for efficiency).

  • Asian -- from Asia, usually meaning "the Orient". I mean, technically I'm Asian (Iranian), as are Indians and Pakistani's, but it seems to only apply to those with epicanthic folds.
  • Canuck - short for Canadian, I think it is an abbreviation, eh?
  • Chink - I think it is a bastardized abbreviation of Chinese.
  • Hebe - Hebrew/Jewish person.
  • Jap - abbreviations for Japanese
  • Jew / Kike - Jewish.
  • Nigger - short for "Nigerian" (a country in Africa) or Negro (Spanish for Black).
  • Nip - abbreviation for Nipponese (Nipon is the Japanese name for Japan)
  • Oriental -- from the Orient (East Asia).
  • Paki's - short for Pakistani. Heard more in the UK than in the US.
  • Polock - Polish.
  • Spic - short for Hispanic... or Spiggoty (which sounds like, "no speaka-de English").

Some words have funny histories and are based on cultural behaviors;

  • Beaner - Mexicans, because they have a lot of beans in their diet.
  • Black - Obviously those that are usually darker than ourselves (some of us) but not always.
  • Brown - Mexican or Indian (from India).
  • Dago -- comes from Diego (a common name among those of Spanish descent).
  • FOB -- "Fresh-Off-the-Boat" and has been applied to many groups. Italians once, Asians of late, but other cultures at different times -- it just means recent immigrant, back when immigrants came by boat and not plane.
  • Frog - Frenchman. I assume this comes from eating Frog-Legs (which are pretty good, by-the-way), but I hear that it comes from old english where Frechman are Frogge's. Of course, that begs the question, "Why"?
  • Kraut - short for sauerkraut, a popular food to Bavarians. I've also heard "Wienershnitzels".
  • Limey - The British sailors ate a lot of limes to prevent scurvy (18th and 19th centuries). Limey implies lime-eaters.
  • Mic/Mick - A rude term for the Irish.
  • Red - Indian (skin color) or Communist (flag color).
  • Red Neck - usually farmer in the south, who worked in the fields, and got a sunburned neck (red). Of course now it applies to anyone in the south (especially if they like beer, guns, or they live in a trailer).
  • Rice-Eater -- heard that against Asians. Of course I eat a ton of rice, as do most cultures, so I wonder if it applies to me (and them) as well.
  • Slope - in a fit of brilliance, we notice that Orientals have LESS sloped heads than occidentals -- but they may look more sloped because hairlines may be further back. So "slopes" is a derogatory term for Asians.
  • Slant - probably short for "slanty-eyed-devil", or any east-asian/oriental. Especially ironic since most white males I know seem to have a thing for Asian chicks (yellow fever).
  • Sweat-back -- day laborer (who is often in the sun, and gets a sweaty back) -- often Mexicans.
  • Towel-Head - anyone who wears a turban, but usually meant for Arabs.
  • Wet-Back -- again Mexicans (or illegals), who usually have "wet backs" from swimming across the Rio-Grande (to get in illegally).
  • White - can mean either European or anyone who's not Black. Of course, I've also heard White Bread, Cracker, Casper, Whitey, Honkey, among others. The irony is that we have many different names for different kinds of whites already (we sub-classify a lot).
  • WASP - White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Basically a derrogatory term for whites, or church going whites.
  • WOP -- short for "With-Out-Papers". Started when there was a big Italian emigration to the U.S., and many were coming in illegally (with out papers).
  • Yellow - Asian, though I've never understood that coloring reference, as the coloring doesn't look that different to me.

Some of my favorites (because they are so wrong) are:

  • Gook - Gook is most often used for Vietnamese. The story is that in Korean asking if you are American is pronounced "Mi Guk" Thus during the Korean war, Koreans would come up to GI's and say, "Mi Guk?", basically asking if they were "Americans", and the GI's thought they were saying, "Me Gook!". So the Americans started calling the Korean's "Gooks". Then after the Viet Nam "Police Action" got started, a lot of the military leadership had fought in the Korean war, so they just referred to locals as Gooks (generalizing the term from Koreans to all orientals).
  • Guinea - this is the Italian N-word. There's two origins I've heard both come from the mid 1700's, one is that Guinea Negro which was a person from West Africa, often of mixed race... and later got applied to anyone that was darker or of mixed race (e.g. Italians in the U.S.). The other origin was from coinage from the same time/region (called guineas)... as Italian day-laborers would come into bars, the locals would say, "here comes the guineas".
  • American Indians - while this isn't a huge slur, it's just wrong. Calling a Native American an "Indian" is wrong -- they aren't from India. On the other hand, when you use the term for a few hundred years, it becomes the right term (even if it is wrong).

Some terms didn't have to evolve or contract at all. Sometimes just calling someone what they are is insulting enough. Calling someone Irish, or Polish (Polock) is/was meant to be insulting enough based on how they were treated at that time. Mexican is not usually meant in a flattering way either.

Most people can't even get their nationalities rights -- so calling a Chinese person a "Nip" is probably more insulting because you are calling that person a race that they might not admire (or have left over anger for due to past wars and so on), rather than just being insulting because of all the derogatory connotations of the term "Nip" itself. Most people from India would not want to be called "Paki's" either. And everyone who comes from lands south of the U.S. seems to get annoyed by being called Mexican. Mexicans get annoyed being called Spanish. And so on. To me it is hysterical when people can't even get their hate-labels right.

Long Histories

There are other terms that have long histories, and complex meanings. Like Yankee -- which used to imply American, as a derogatory term given to us from the British around the time of the revolution. It was not a very nicely meant term, but instead of getting annoyed about it, we wore it as a proud badge of honor (being different from them). Now it is often used by southerners (in U.S.) to imply any other non-southern American (usually the northeast) -- originating around the time of the Civil-War. Of course it can also just mean "non-southerner". It was hard to get that upset over being called a Yankee, so the term stuck and has no real insult value. Now it is used as a put down by many around the world to just imply American. Since Americans are often seen as shallow, loudmouthed, arrogant, ignorant people, with lots of money -- so Yank (Yankee) means the same thing. (Of course it is not always meant that derogatorily, but it may be). The funny part of all this is that most Americans just don't get how derogatory the term is (in many cases), and so they make the insult impotent.

The British referred to natives of India as "Abo's". This was short for Aborigines, which just means any indigenous people (though now we usually use the term for "Australian" natives). Anyway, the term was used in a not so nice way, to the point where "Abo" was enough to start a fight if said to the wrong person. The British Military decided to help "fix" the problem. So they made a new term -- "WOG". WOG was short for "White-Oriental Gentleman". One could think of no more polite (benign) sounding term than that -- even though I don't think most Indians are completely White nor are what most people mean when we say "Oriental" -- but close enough. People, being who and what they are, started using the term in a not so flattering way -- to the point where WOG is now a VERY insulting term. This new and improved term is likely to cause a fight, if said to the wrong person. Ironically, using the name "Abo" will likely only get blank stares in India (as most don't remember what it used to mean) -- but I hear it is now an offensive term in Australia (and used with the same form of endearment as was once reserved for Indian natives).

I am not an expert on British/Indian History or India, but this etymology of the term is something I remember hearing about in my childhood. Even if wrong, it did shape my views on how terms evolve. WOG is also supposed to be short for Golliwog, which is a sort of "black face" doll. So the Brit's used "WOG" as derrogatory for any brown-skinned people.

Look at all the evolution of words to describe Blacks in America. There were many that were started as a more polite form, because the older term was becoming vulgar -- and then the contract down and time makes them vulgar. So we evolve from Negro to Nigger, which becomes offensive, so we change it to Colored People. Colored People gets abbreviated coloreds, and that term becomes "offensive", so we evolve to Black. Blacks becomes offensive so some want to use "people of color" again, others want "African-Americans". "People of Color" is going to contract down to "coloreds", which most blacks wince at, so that one isn't used much (as it has left over vulgarities from last time) -- or it would get contracted to "POC's" which would probably become offensive as well. But this is nothing compared to the term "African-Americans". Most are not from Africa, and have never been to Africa, so it seems silly (they are Americans first, whether they like it or not). We know the term will contract, and it has already been contracted to Afro-American's -- when it gets shortened to "Afro's" or "Fro's" it is going to cause many people to have fits. (I would think that "Afro" could be something to be proud of, but once again, I'm sure it will be used to denigrate others). Again, the terms are always devolving to become more offensive, and once again, we will look for some "new" politically correct term, to make things better. Yet it never does.

Sticks and stones

Of course I've been the victim of racial slurs as well.

I had someone come up to me once, look at me, and ask me what my "heredity" was. I told them "Italian" (1). They guy then yells at me, "you dirty WOP-bastard..." and so on. I was terribly amused that he had to ask me what I was, and then had to do a mental lookup for the most insulting term he could think of.

(1) Actually, my Grandmother is from Italy, my Grandfather is from Germany, on my mothers side. My hereditary father is from Iran, but I never knew him growing up (and am pretty ignorant about the culture). My step father (and the one who raised me) is from England. So Italian is the "dominant" culture in the extended family (La' Familia) with family reunions and the cooking and pasta and the like. So I generally just say Italian (and I look more Italian than most other races). Yet, I do look persian, and I picked up a lot of British/European mannerisms -- which can confuse some.

On another occasion, some guy leaned enough about me (from others) to know that I was half Persian (Iranian). The guy had something stuck up his butt (wanted to fight), and so he came up to me and started calling me a "dirty-arab-sand-nigger" and "camel jockey". I had never heard the terms before, and fell over laughing -- which was obviously not the effect he was going for. I then explained that Persians don't generally consider themselves "Arabs", so that at least he could get his insults correct. I also quipped wise about knowing almost nothing about Persian culture, and lamented that it would be hard to offend me since I had no bonds to that region/culture -- and went on to explain that he should have gone for "WOP" or "up-tight-British-stick-up-the-ass-limey-bastard" instead. I walked away chuckling at his racial slurs -- while he looked dumbfounded that he couldn't pick a fight with me.

Of course in Asia, I would be known by one of many racial slurs, ranging from Big-Nose to something equivalent to "uncouth barbarian", and those are just the popular terms that can be said in front of me. That isn't even mentioning the more overt racism I've experienced when dealing with Asian cultures and people. This isn't meant to bash Asian culture -- just point out that ALL cultures are ethnocentric and bigoted to some degree.

But by far my worst experiences were when I worked in South-Central L.A. doing construction (summer job) and later had a computer contract in area, or even passing through for various reason. Try to exist as a "white-boy" or "white-bread" in South Central. Fortunately, I'm dark enough that many confuse me with Mexican or Hispanic, so I catch less heat than most (in those areas). But it was tough -- and I have plenty of first hand experience with racism, some went beyond just "names".

I still have some resentment for the "Inner-city culture" today because of my bad experiences. We do not forget those wrongs done to us -- which is sad if we miscategorize and broad brush who did the wrong. I've known plenty of people from South-Central that treated me very well. I've known plenty of black people (including strangers, coworkers, friends, family and roommates) who have been very nice people. So I feel sorry for people who hate based on race/color (especially since both are such meaningless categorizations) -- in reality they should only be pissed at individuals or subcultures based on action. So the trick is to be very cautious about blaming large groups for the actions of small groups or individuals.

Why ask why?

The problem is that society and individuals are always going to choose words (terms) to separate and differentiate groups. They always have, and always will. We don't do it only for races, but cultures, class and so on.

We use hundreds of terms for people inside our borders to define location -- New Yorker, Californians, Southerners, Northerners, Midwesterners. Urban-Dwellers, hillbillies, kinfolk, farmer-ted's, and so on. Not to mention class -- street urchins, Blue-Bloods, Tea Toters, rich-bastards, silver-spooners, Trailer-Trash, West-enders, uptowners, downtowners, classless-heathens and so on. There are terms for looks, behavior, speech, attitude, religion, education, and so on. All are meant to denote differences so that we can conveniently stereotype and catalog those individuals (and in so doing reflect on our cultural biases and castes).

Most of the time these words are used as a form of exclusion. We are not "X", you are "X" -- whatever X is. This is why groups can use a term and others can't. Blacks can use "nigger" and that isn't racist. But a white saying the same thing, in the same context, will be seen as racist. Why? Because society (or subcultures) likes to exclude. A black calling another black a "nigger" is a (vulgar) way to say "one of us" -- but a white saying it to a black is almost always seen as saying "you're one of them". Not only that, but it is a way for Blacks to exclude others from the "clique" (by not allowing them to use the term). Obviously, these "rules" don't just apply to that one word -- I've heard dozens of other words that are as exclusionary, with the same sorts of things applied to other races. This is all societies way of protecting and marking turf -- of differentiating and setting a pecking order.

I use white-black a lot, because that is a big issue in the U.S. -- our press loves to differentiate and polarize, and so everyone seems hyperaware about the Black/White issues. Yet, few will actually openly discuss the issues, because that might diffuse things and lower ratings. Whatever we do, we are not supposed to talk about it and understand each other -- just feel threatened by the other groups.



So the whole point of this article (if there is one), is that the word (name) is irrelevant. Most of them are benign and are not hateful or harmful. What is hateful is how they have been misused in the past (or present), our or history of how we've treated others that we should be ashamed of. Even the kindest words can be perverted to bad. So we need to stop fearing words, and stop making them more than they are. We can't change them to cure the problems -- the new words will become as bad as the old ones were. What we can do is change the meanings of the word to include pride, or at least acceptance for what we are. People can't hurt me with words that just mean I belong to a group, or am of a particular race. Lets face it, we all belong to one or more of these groups. We are all minorities -- just some are treated less badly in some small areas, than others.

People get angry over words, not because of the words themselves, but because of the actions and hate behind the words. So why hate the words -- why not just hate the actions? Eventually society matures, and the hate and oppression lessens. But it can't happen until the subculture decides they want to belong, and stop separating themselves and fearing the differences. It is how a subculture sees itself that matters. Today, you can call a Brit a "Limey", or a German a "Kraut", and many will chuckle -- some will even puff up with pride. You are just stating what they are (despite all the hate and vitriol of the past) . The words lost their power as these people have become a part of society, or are secure in what they are. As soon as our society matures more, and other subcultures feel they belong, and are proud of what they are and what they've done, I believe that many of the other words will loose their power as well. Of course this is just my view, but then what did you expect from a geeky, brainy-sporto, nerdy, WOP, Sand-Nigger, Limey... like myself? 

This article is not meant to demean the hurt and malice behind the use of some words. We need to stop hiding from the problems, and stop hiding from each other. Most people I talk to about this stuff are not offended -- partly because they know me -- and mostly because they know that being overt is also likely being honest. So some people will get mad that I am bringing up words that "hurt" or for talking about issues they'd rather hide from. I've been called a racist for discussing these issues in the past. Oh well... at least people don't need to worry about me saying things behind their backs that I wouldn't say to their faces. I'd much rather see open racism, name calling and addressing of issues, than more hiding behind polite terms, while doing things that are far more offensive. We can make our own reality, and for the past couple generations we've been trying to drive groups further apart by hiding from the issues, and being more "politically correct" -- instead of allowing groups to come together by accepting differences. All of us have reasons to feel oppressed, or to feel hate-labeled, some more than others, but we've all been attacked verbally (and even physically). The solution is not to censor the language, or hide the hate behind a camouflage of pretty words. I'd rather have it in the open, than hiding in the shadows.

Written 1989.12.31