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18 Bigoted Terms From Across The Globe And What They Really Mean

18 Bigoted Terms From Across The Globe And What They Really Mean

July 28, 2015

via Flickr - Soosay
via Flickr – Soosay

There’s tons of these (literally thousands) because human beings never fail to come up with new and inventive ways to insult one another. It’s like a super power. Below I’ve put together eighteen of them alongside a short history of where the word even came from. This isn’t intended to be insulting or ironic, just interesting and, in some cases, illuminating.

If this might offend you then stop reading now. If not, then grit your teeth. We’re going in.

1. Kike

In case you don’t know, this is an insulting word for a person of Jewish descent. It’s more about immigration than ethnicity though. The most accepted origin for the word is that illiterate Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island refused to sign their forms with an X and instead signed with a circle. ‘Kichel’ is the Yiddish word for circle and so immigration officers soon started calling all illiterate Jews, Kikes. At the time this wasn’t racist at all, just shorthand.

This also represented a class division between educated German Jews and Russian Jews who were largely uneducated and poor. Basically it’s the Jewish version of the word “redneck” or “white trash” as used today. German Jews referred to Russian Jews as ‘Kikes’ all the time and then it found it’s way into the nation’s vocabulary. I’ve personally only ever heard this word used in movies.

It first came into usage circa 1900 in the U.S. [Source 1, 2]

2. Wetback

Used to refer disdainfully to Mexicans or Central Americans, the term was likely first brought to the public’s attention via a New York Times article in 1920. It originally referred specifically to Mexicans who swam across the Rio Grande River to get into Texas and who were therefore “wet” upon reaching the shore. [Source]

3. Redlegs

Used mainly by the English who’d attempted genocide against the Irish and sold tens of thousands of them into Carribbean slavery during the 1600s, this now silly sounding word referred to the sunburns that the fair-skinned Irish exhibited. Fun fact, the Irish “redlegs” slaves who worked alongside African slaves in Barbados joined together against their slave masters in 1649. The revolt failed and mass executions were handed out all around.

Barbadans with some Irish descent are still referred to as “redlegs” in Barbados. Rihanna, famously of Irish and Barbadan descent would be considered to be in this group. [Source]

4. Akata

A West African word used to describe Black Americans. While the word allegedly didn’t originally have negative connotations, it does now. Supposedly, Nigerian exchange students came up with this usage after interacting with members of the Black Panther Party in the 60s and 70s. [Source]

5. Dago

An insult for Italian immigrants that’s mostly only heard in gangster movies now, the word ‘Dago’ originally referred to people from Spain because the name “Diego” was common in the 1830s. Americans, not really knowing anything about the rest of the world started referring to Italians as ‘Dagos’ in the 1870s. Spain? Italy? Same country, right? [Source]

6. White Trash

This is really just a capstone insult for an entirely family of insults all based on poverty. It also doubles as a racial slur and was originally used to describe poor White people living in the rural South. Black American slaves get the credit for inventing this one in the 1830s and using it to describe the White servants they came into contact with who were notoriously poor. [Source]

There are a lot of variations on the term. Rednecks is more for rural Southern White people, somewhat poor, who may own or work land for some purpose. It has connotations of ignorance and poverty. Hillbilly refers to Whites living in mountainous areas like Appalachia or the Ozarks and was, you guessed it, coined by another New York publication in 1900, the New York Journal. Hillbilly has connotations of poverty, drunkenness, ignorance, and “freedom.” The term “Okies” refers to poor White migrants who escaped the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the 1920s. The places they moved to were nice enough to stick them with this name which has connotations of filth, disease, and placelessness, somewhat in the way Gypsies are sometimes stereotyped.

7. Kaffir

A South America slur used by White people to describe the nation’s Black majority. The term originates in the Arabic word ‘kafir’ which means unbeliever and refers to Black Africans on the continent’s eastern coast. Portuguese sailors are believed to have picked this up from Arabs they encountered and they soon began applying it to all Black Africans.

In modern day South Africa the comparison between the word ‘Kaffir’ and the word ‘Nigger’ has been made however the word ‘Kaffir’ objectively has far more consequences in South Africa. Even under apartheid, the word could land you in court for insulting the dignity of a person. People in South Africa have been murdered for insulting another person with this word.

8. Lekgoa

Literally meaning “lice” or “tick,” this word is used by some Black Africans to describe White people. It’s equivalent to being called “Whitey” in the U.S. It might have a different origin though. I’ve found sources that say ‘lekgoa’ literally means “the spit of the ocean.” Not a friendly term either way. [Source 1, 2]

9. Makwerekwere

A derogatory term for immigrants of any stripe in South Africa but especially illegal immigrants who supposedly take South Africa jobs. This word was in high usage in 2008 when anti-immigrant sentiment in South Africa was particularly high. Black South Africans are apparently known for being a bit xenophobic and this term was used both for Blacks and Whites from anywhere outside South Africa. [Source]

10. Spic

Arising around 1900 in Central America among English speakers there, this word refers to to the way non-English speaking Hispanics pronounced the word “speak.” It’s derived from the derogatory term “spiggoty,” literally a shortening of “no speaka de English.” [Source]

11. Gringo

This one arose in Spain, not Central or South America, and referred to foreigners who didn’t speak Spanish as their first language. It arose in the late-1700s in Spain and in the mid-1800s in the U.S., specially during the Mexican-American War. The term is also used among some Central and South American nations to describe people from outside one’s home country so it doesn’t just mean “white people.” [Source]

12. Gaijin

While lots of American movies make out like ‘gaijin’ is always an insult this isn’t really true. It literally just means foreigner or non-Japanese and as such it can be a simple descriptive term like saying “non-citizen” or something although it does refer often to foreigners from outside of Asia. It’s also been aimed against people Japan was in conflict with and in those instances the circumstances of the term’s use defined it’s tone and meaning. [Source]

13. Gook

While reserved primarily for use against Asians, the term ‘gook’ has also been applied to Italians, Nicaraguans, Turks, and Arabs. Even the Oxford English dictionary doesn’t know where it came from although there are a number of theories out there. One theory is that American soldiers misunderstood Koreans during the Korean War and that when Koreans pointed at U.S. soldiers and said the word “miguk” the soldiers thought they were describing themselves as in “me gook,” as in “I am a gook.” The problem is that ‘miguk’ actually means ‘American’ and the Koreans were describing the soldiers, not themselves.

American troops used this term so much during the Korean War that General Douglas MacArthur actually had it banned. Later, during the Vietnam War it was used to describe North Vietnamese soldiers. [Source 1, 2, 3]

14. Barbarian

This is oldest one on the list and is derived from 5th century Greek ‘barbaros’ meaning foreigner. It definitely had a negative connotation at the time and referred to people who didn’t speak Greek or spoke it badly which, presumably, would include foreigners. The Romans later used the term ‘barbarian’ in much the same way to describe people like German tribesmen who didn’t speak Latin and weren’t educated. The name Barbara actually stems from the same root that barbarian does but has a more positive connotation meaning strange, foreign, or exotic woman.

Today, barbarian is still used in basically the same way it was by the Greeks or Romans, an uneducated person with little culture or manners. [Source]

15. Nigger

More than any other term on this list, this one is the most well known and loaded in the United States. It also has an extremely long history going back to the 1700s. Not uniformly an insulting term until 1900, it’s derived from two sources. The first is the word ‘negro’ from the Spanish and Portuguese simply meaning black or dark and the second is the Latin word ‘niger’ meaning the same thing.

While I say that it wasn’t “uniformly insulting” that’s not to say that the word wasn’t used in an insulting way prior to the 20th century. However, American culture was such that the word wasn’t always a pejorative term. Previous to the 20th century, the term was commonly applied to any ethnic group that had darker skin and while it always could have negative implications and often did, it could also be simply descriptive. After 1900, the preferred non-pejorative way to refer to Black Americans was to use the term “colored” or “negro.” The later was adopted by the Black community en masse during the Civil Rights era.

The term has also been used to describe people in the lower class to include some Whites however, even in those cases, the power of the term derives from the reminder of chattel slavery and an entire population of people who were considered beneath society.

Additionally, the word ‘nigger’ is the mostbuilt upon ethnic slur in the U.S. See here for a complete listing. [Source 1, 2, 3]

16. Wop

An insult reserved for Italian Americans and originating in 1908, ‘wop’ is derived from the Italian word ‘guappo’ meaning thug or braggart. It also has connotations of being a kind of handsome pimp or criminal. In Spanish, ‘guapo’ literally means handsome. While ‘wop’ is distinctly American, the stereotype on which it’s based is Italian. [Source 1, 2]

17. Pietro

Basically equivalent to the word ‘nigger’ in English, the Spanish word ‘prieto’ is an insulting way to refer to someone who is either of African descent or who is simply dark-skinned. This word is used in a derogative way in Central American and doesn’t seem to be used in Spain. [Source]

18. Hymie

An African American derogatory word for Jews this word came into common usage as recently as the 1980s. It’s a play on the Hebrew name ‘Hyman’. It’s most known for having originated in Brooklyn and Jesse Jackson once famously referred to New York City as “Hymietown”. [Source 1, 2]

So there you go. One thing I noticed in putting all of these together is that most of these words are extremely boring on their own. They’re either about “they ain’t from here!” or they’re a description of how someone is particularly different ie skin color. Most of them don’t have to do explicitly with someone’s character with the exception of “wop” and the African slurs which are particularly creative. It’s always the context in which these words are said, the tone, and the history that matter. I also noticed that other cultures have words that are more explicitly xenophobic than most Americans are used to. We don’t even have a blanket word that refers to all foreigners in a negative way.

But, I imagine it’s just a matter of time. TC mark


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