Printer Friendly

What's in a word? On etymological slurs.

Michael Moore *

CAN ETYMOLOGY benefit anyone? Philologists, philosophers, and other assorted thinkers have spilt gallons of ink over the value of etymological inquiries throughout the ages. We can learn something about the attitude of the ancients toward this issue from the etymology of etymology: "true meaning." In this age of post-modernist constructivism we view with skepticism such strivings after truth.

Indeed, how does it serve contemporary speakers that his clients boycotted Captain Boycott (Irish land agent, d. 1897), but that nobody lynched William Lynch (American vigilante, d. 1820). Or that nowadays one does not need wooden clogs (sabots in 19th century France) to throw into the machinery in order to commit sabotage? And what about popular etymologies (which we could paraphrase as the wrong true meanings of certain words), whose exposure shows that crayfish have as little to do with fish (from Old French crevice) as Jerusalem artichokes have with Israel's capital (gira-sole, Italian, meaning "turns toward the sun," related to the common sunflower). (For more on popular etymologies see de Saussure, 1915/1966, pp. 173-176; for some ancient examples see Kedar-Kopfstein, 1963.)

Though etymologies may not have much scientific value, looking into the distant past of some words provides, at the least entertainment, and sometimes even insight. I shall demonstrate this with a few examples; interested readers will receive, on request, a far longer list of potential eye-openers [send e-mail to]. In the following, I shall concentrate on a particularly promising category: words derived from the names of countries, nations, or ethnic groups.

Many such words simply refer to the origin of the object mentioned, in a more-or-less adjectival manner; while such pedigrees may lack veracity, they certainly add an exotic touch to our everyday speech. A few examples follow:

Venetian blinds (called persienne in French), Spanish fly, Indian file, Russian roulette, crepe de chine, Irish stew, French kiss, Brazil nuts, African violets (an entire continent, in this case), French fries, Bermuda shorts, English cake, Turkish delight, Dutch door. (1)

In a different construction, the country, nation or region name appears as a noun, rendering the ethnicity of the source more powerful:

Turquoise, arabesque, Java (Indonesian island), jerry can (from Jerry for German), cravat (from Croatian, through French), japonica, ulster, jerseys (hail from Jersey), kashmir, afghan, muslin, bikini (after Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands), panama, indigo (from India), tartar (sauce, from Tatar), holland (a fabric), malacca (cane, from Malaya), danish (a pastry), scotch, port (a wine, from Portugal), serendipity (ultimately from the Sanskrit name of Sri Lanka) (2), allemande (a dance), polonaise, flamenco (from Flemish), and flamingo and many, many more. (3)

All of the above carry neutral information; the nation or ethnic group involved suffers no loss through the association created. Not so in the following list. Each of these terms carries derogatory (or at least not favorable) connotations, with some expressing prejudice toward long forgotten groups and places:

To welsh, to jew down, to gyp (from Gypsy, from Egyptian), to take French leave (cf. French equivalent: partir a l'anglaise), to bugger (from 11th century Bulgarian heretics), indian giver, street arab, cretin (from French chretien, Christian), french letter and english cap (condom names), slave and slavish (from the Slavs), Mussulman (starved inmates in concentration camps), dutch (meaning suicide), double dutch (meaning gibberish), Italian strike, German measles (another name for rubella), provincial, philistine, vandal (after the East Germanic tribe that invaded Western Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries), lesbian (from Lesbos), bigot (perhaps from Visigoth), bohemian (from Bohemia, alleged source of Gypsies), tartar (bad tempered, from Tatar).

I would like to pay special attention to nationality-based names of diseases and disorders. (4) Some of these indicate origin (as in Spanish, or Hong Kong, or Asiatic flu), or some physical characteristic (as in Mongoloid), but in others, the national moniker reveals deep-seated prejudice:

A book by Gibson (1978), entitled The English Vice has the subtitle: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England. Compare this title with Cheyne's 1733 book, The English Malady, which deals with hypochondriasis. Arrizabalaga & al. (1997) wrote a book about the French disease, or syphilis, so called by the Italians of the 16th century. According to the authors, the French called the same affliction the Italian disease or the disease of Naples. (Some modern philosophers recently and mockingly use French disease to refer to structuralism or to Cartesianism.) Other sources identify syphilis as the English disease. (5)

I will further illustrate the ethnocentricity inherent in such name-calling by a slight diversion. In Russian and other Slavic languages, the word for German, nemec, derives from the root for dumb. From Russian this usage traveled into Hungarian. The chauvinist nature of this term becomes even clearer when one notes that the same language that calls another language/ nation dumb, renders the verb to explain by magyarazni (roughly to Hungarianize; in a similar fashion, the German word for meaning, Deutung, derives from the same root as Deutsch, i.e. German). In a further variation on this theme, consider that the Greeks used the Sanskrit root for stammer to describe languages non-Greek or unintelligible: barbarian. The Romans imported this word to mean non-Roman, and attached it to a North-African tribe whose tongue they could not decipher: the Berbers. The latter have nowadays the doubtful honor of carrying a name synonymous with uncivilized, brutal, and inhuman. In other words: we represent civilization, the language we speak has meaning, but the foreigners we encounter speak gibberish and we regard them as nearly subhuman. (6)

Where does this xenophobia originate? Psychology in general, and social psychology in particular, have dealt extensively with the propensity to dichotomize our social environment into us vs. them (for an elaboration of several related processes see Moore, 1993, as well as Moore & Heskin, 1983 and Moore & Tyson, 1990). This basic tendency, often beneficial in that it provides an economical coping mechanism with overwhelming environmental diversity, has some inherent dangers, as well: it encourages ethnocentrism, jingoism, the belittling of the different. Notice that, in keeping with the underlying psychological principles, in most cases we do not target the distant or the exotic, but rather the next-door neighbor and the minority.

While one can argue that the above quoted ethnic, racial, and national slurs only reflect prevalent sentiments, I suggest that we also consider their harmful consequences. I especially refer to what George Steiner (1975) calls the "manifold reciprocity between grammar and concept, between speech form and cultural pressure" (also "the dialectic of interaction" or "reciprocal 'triggering,'" p.158). Kramer-Moore & Moore (2002) describe an analogous phenomenon when they talk of the circular process in which art imitates life, which in turn imitates art. Thus, the seemingly innocent use of some words and expressions does not only reflect reality but also shapes it; in addition to recording past prejudices, it also legitimizes future ones.


(1.) Naturally, these phenomena appear in other languages, as well. Consider the following: Arabic burtikala (orange) comes from Portugal; in Modern Hebrew Arab work stands for shoddy work; the Arabs use the word frangi (French), to describe anything new fangled, strange, or non-Arab; while in Israel the term Frank indicates North African Jews. However, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the same Frank, in Levantine use, indicates persons of Western nationality! Arabic massari, literally Egyptian, means money; Hungarian angolpark (English park) identifies an amusement park, etc.

(2.) The 18th century author Horace Walpole invented this word, based on a Persian tale: "The Three Princes of Serendip." Also spelled Serendib or Sarandib, this served as the Arabic name of Sri Lanka (Ceylon), itself a corruption of Sanskrit Simhaladvipa or Dwelling Place of Lions Island.

(3.) A few exceptions: chili has no connection to Chile, but rather to the Central American Nahuatl. Polka may sound Polish, yet it remains a Bohemian dance, with a dubious etymology. Scot-free has nothing to do with the Scot, neither does honky with Hungarian (more likely an alteration of hunky). The word jerry -- whether it means chamber pot or shoddy, as in jerry-built, does not come from jerry = German, but rather from Jerobam or Jeremy. Denigrate has a common root with Negro (black, in Latin), yet the former does not derive from the latter.

In January 1999 niggardly caused a mini-scandal in Washington, DC. An aide to the mayor resigned due to the furor caused by his use of this word, regarded by some as a racial slur (it means stingy, miserly, and has a Scandinavian origin, totally unrelated to Negro).

(4.) Not only nations carry the names of diseases. In April 2001 a group of Finnish doctors objected to the use of the names of persons, communities, or regions for diseases, due to their insulting or negative impact. Their ire rose in connection with several disorders named after Finnish towns (such as Salla, Kumlinge, and Pogosta).

(5.) See also Hungarian angolkor (translatable as English Disease), meaning rickets.

(6.) The following expressions further illustrate the relativity of these appellations: "it's all Greek, to me," as well as "it's all double Dutch, to me," cited above, carry a message highly similar to Modern Hebrew's "it's Chinese, to me," and to the German expression "das kommt Ihnen wohl spanisch" = that strikes you, no doubt, as very strange.


Arrizabalaga, Jon, Henderson, John, & French, Roger (1997). The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cheyne, George (1733). The English Malady. London: G. Strahan.

0de Saussure, Ferdinand (1966). Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill. (Originally published 1915.)

Gibson, Ian (1978). The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England. London: Duckworth.

Kedar-Kopfstein, Benjamin (1963). Etimologias Populares. In Enciclopedia de la Biblia, vol. 3, pp.247-251. Barcelona: Ediciones Garriga.

Kramer-Moore, Daniela & Moore, Michael (2002). Life Imitates Art: Encounters Between Family Therapy and Literature. New York: Solomon.

Moore, Michael (1993). "Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night": A Review of Misperceptions and Mirroring in Intergroup Relations. In K. S. Larsen (Ed.), Conflict and Social Psychology, pp.71-80. London: Sage.

Moore, Michael & Heskin, Ken (1983). Distortions in the Perceptions of International Conflict. Journal of Social Psychology, 120, 13-25.

Moore, Michael & Tyson, Graham (1990). Perceptions and Misperceptions: The Middle East and South Africa. Journal of Social Psychology, 130, pp.299-308.

Steiner, George (1975). After Babel -- Aspects of Language and Translation. London: Oxford University Press.

* Dr. Michael Moore, a social psychologist, is an associate professor at the Department of Education in Science and Technology of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Institute of General Semantics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Moore, Michael
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Previous Article:Abstractions.
Next Article:Adventures in the Spin Trade. (The Clone Chronicles Installment Twenty).

Related Articles
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. (nonfiction reviews).
In this issue.
Seeing an end to homophobia.
Just rehab those slurs away!

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters