They’re Only Words
by Rob Cottignies
I consider myself to be unoffendable, especially when it comes to my geographical background. Call me this, call me that- I don't care. For those wondering, I am 1/2 Spanish, 1/4 Irish, and 1/4 Belgian- spic, dago, mick, waffle-lover (people don't really make fun of Belgians). They're all fine with me, and you know why? To give the obvious quote by the wonderful George Carlin, "They're only words." I appreciate a good insult if it's done cleverly, no matter who the recipient is. But if it's something stupid meant in a hurtful way, I just kind of feel bad for the insulter, who probably has no idea what he or she is actually saying. And that's why we're here today- to explain some common slurs and why they're actually not very harmful.
To start with myself, spic wouldn't even be accurate. It's a shortened form of 'Hispanic' and for some reason is generally reserved for Central and South Americans. My relatives came from Spain. So yeah, don't call me that, if only because it's inaccurate. Dago is an odd word the British used to describe Spaniards, Italians, and/or the Portuguese. It's often used "against" Spaniards as a shortened form of the name Diego. Phew, a nickname- harsh stuff. I'll get to mick in a little bit and, honestly, nobody makes fun of Belgians. They make waffles and their beer is amazing and many people cannot find their country on a map. However, they are sometimes referred to as Phlegms, a homophone of Flems, meaning the Flemish, who make up only one part of Belgium. Flemish is also one of Belgium's official languages and is really just a strange mix of Dutch, French, and German. So go ahead, make fun of a cultured place.
I said I'd get to mick, and here it is: People try to insult the Irish by calling them micks. It should be noted that people also fail at insulting the Irish by calling them drunks. Mick is the verbalization of the 'Mc' found at the beginning of many Irish last names. It means 'son of'. If your last name is McDonald, at one point in your lineage someone was Donald's son. The "slur" for Scottish people, Mac, follows the same idea. In fact, many last names implore this method. Leif Ericson was the son of Eric The Red. Faroese musician Eivør Pálsdóttir's ancestor was the daughter of someone named Pál. Unless you're saying McBitch or Scumsdóttir, there is no harm. As a lovely sidenote, my mother once called me a son of a bitch without realizing she was actually insulting herself. Irony. See how much fun words can be!?
For an unfun word, let’s go to nigger. The word nigger has gone through many forms since its initial ‘niger’ word from the Latin. It meant ‘color black’. ‘Niger’ means ‘black’ in many languages, as does negro, another “derogatory” word. Niger was even the name of an African country for a while. The word nigger was originally not derogatory, and at one time could be compared with today’s ‘dude’ or ‘guy’. Dude Jim. After the slaves in America were freed, many took low-earning jobs in entertainment by portraying clumsy, unsophisticated characters. This correlation gave the word its common negative tone. The moral is, the word itself just means black. That’s your skin color, and that’s OK with me.
While we’re on skin color, gringo refers to white foreigners, mainly according to Mexicans. It means your skin color is white, and that’s also OK with me. White Americans are also sometimes “pejoratively” referred to as crackers. Crackers are delicious, and we all know that being associated with delicious food is not a bad thing. Black people and fried chicken, the Chinese and rice, Belgians and waffles. Great! Anyway, crackers were the primary food source of lower-class people in 16th-century England. Some of those folks were sent to the penal colony now known as the state of Georgia and the term came with them. Do you know who initially called these people crackers? White folks!
All I can say about gook is that, like the rest of these words, it is harmless. First of all, this word has been used “against” Asians, various Europeans, and the English. How can one word offend several nationalities? It doesn’t make sense. The origins of gook as we know it likely trace back to Korea, whose original name was Hanguk [han-gook]. Or, during the Korean War, Koreans often asked the question “Mi Guk?”, which somewhat-loosely translates to “Are you American?” Americans thought Koreans were saying “Me gook!” and began calling them gooks, which was actually their word for Americans! Isn’t this just crazy!?
Two words which should be thrown into this cornucopia of controversy are faggot and dyke. The origins of faggot are hazy, but the word initially meant ‘bundle of sticks’. This created the idea that the word’s etymology derives from the days of witch-burning. When a witch was tied to a stake, he or she was surrounded by ‘bundles of sticks’. Theorized but unproven, it is said that homosexuals were burned on the lain faggots because they were “not good enough” to be burned at the stake. Another theory suggests that old women who gathered bundles of sticks were called faggots. This somehow got transferred to effeminate and/or gay men. And in Robin Hood: Men In Tights, when Rabbi Tuckman asks Robin if his “merry men” are faygeles, he’s *literally* asking if they are little birds. So there- this got nowhere. If any or all of this is true, I wonder why people say God is so against sticks and birds.
If nothing else, derogatory words are fair in that there’s at least one for every group or type of people. Gay men had their turn, so now come gay women. Dyke is a shortened form of the word bulldyker, which was coined in the 1920s by- gasp!- a black man. He was wondering why women were bulldyking, which meant getting women into bed with them. At the time, that was a man’s term for a man’s job! Like faggots were originally women, dykes were originally men. What is going on with these words!?
For one last little History lesson, when the (unfortunate) influx of Italians hit this country, many of them did not have proper documentation. Instead of sending them away, the immigration workers simply wrote 'without papers' on the immigrants' entry forms. This was so frequent that 'without papers' was shortened to WOP. Similarly, when Jewish people entered America after some distasteful incidents throughout Europe, many of them could not write their names in English on the entry forms. Instead, they drew a circle. The Yiddish word for 'circle' is 'keikl' [kike-uhl]. So Italians forget their IDs and Jews enjoy round shapes. I don't see the problem.
Actually, I do. The problem is with people who throw these words around to make others feel bad. The emphasis, rather than the meaning, is what makes a slur so hurtful. So, to quote myself from my first ‘literally’ blog post, stop using words whose meanings you do not know. And stop being offended by words that really aren’t so bad. Just be nice. How does the old saying go? ‘You can punch a jackrabbit in the face but horses drink water when the bush makes waste.’ Heavy stuff…