commentary, June 14, 2005
The Washington DC Court of Appeals will be ruling soon on a case involving a petition brought to cancel the trademark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that the trademark law forbids the registration of marks that are disparaging. As it happens, I served pro bono as the linguistics expert for the seven Indians who brought the petition, and wrote a report documenting the word's long history as an epithet, often a very nasty one.
One thing you won't find in that report, though, is a story that you often hear nowadays about where redskin comes from. As a lot of people tell it, the word originally referred not to skin color, but to the bloody Indian scalps that whites paid bounties for. It's true that there's no way to tell for sure, since the origins of the word are lost in the late 17th century. But as best I can tell there's no historical record that connects redskin to the bounties for scalps, and in fact nobody seems to have mentioned the connection until about a dozen years ago. So it's almost certain that the word was originally a reference to skin color -- after all, people refer to Indians as the red man, too, and that couldn't have anything to do with scalps. Not that Indians are really red, any more than people of other races are really white or black or yellow. But that Crayola theory of racial groupings runs very deep in our culture, and when kindergartners sit down at the play table those are the crayons they reach for.
In a way, that story about redskin seems no different from the other tall tales that people pass around about word origins, what the linguist Larry Horn calls "etymythologies." There's the story that posh began as an acronym for "Port Out Starboard Home," the one about how hooker comes from the name of a Civil War general, or the one about how son of a gun originally referred to children born on the gun deck of a ship -- all plausible-sounding, and all wrong.
You can find a whole collection of these tales in a very entertaining book by the etymologist Dave Wilton called Word Myths. Of course most of these stories aren't really myths in the narrow sense of the term -- they're more on the order of little scraps of lexical romance that make a nice filler for the "Did You Know?" column of the Sunday newspaper. But the story about the origin of redskin is a myth in the deeper sense of the word. It's a story that's meant to illuminate a social truth, as if to say that the history of violence toward Indians is buried in the very words people use to talk about them.
You see a lot of stories like that one nowadays, which attribute obscure and malignant origins to words relating to ethnic groups or sexual orientations. Look on the Web and you'll find hundreds of pages relating how faggot is derived from the bundle of sticks that the medievals used when they burned homosexuals at the stake along with witches. But in fact faggot comes from an early 19th century word for a shrewish woman, which might derive from the image of something dry and brittle. And it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that people started to use the word for male homosexuals.
Or take the story that dyke was derived from the name of the British queen Boudicca, who led a revolt against the Romans in the first century, and whose name became a synonym for a threatening woman. Actually the word only appeared in the 1930's, and most likely comes from a version of hermaphrodite. And there's no truth either to the story that handicap refers to the idea that the disabled had to go begging, cap in hand. The word derives from a way of leveling the stakes for an uneven wager, where people put a certain amount of forfeit money in a hat. And it has been used of horse races since the mid-18th century, whereas it's only in the past century or so that people have referred to disabled people as "the handicapped."
For that matter, the phrase rule of thumb didn't originate with a law that said a man couldn't beat his wife with a stick that was any thicker than his thumb. And there's no more truth to the stories you hear that attribute racist origins to picnic, crowbar, and the jig is up.
I can understand why people find stories like these believable. Word histories can often be picaresque, and some words really did originate with ethnic or sexual slurs that are lost to memory now. Gyp comes from Gypsy, and mollycoddle comes from an old use of molly to mean a homosexual. Even the ordinary word bad probably originated with an Anglo-Saxon disparagement for an effeminate man.
But it doesn't really matter where any of these words came from. Since Plato's time, people have thought of words as carrying around their origins like original sin, as if some long-forgotten sense could still have the power to infect their meanings. But if redskin and the rest are ugly words today, it's not because they bear some hidden historical taint -- it's because they conjure up ugly ideas that are still with us.
 In fact this comes from an old use of jig to mean "game" or "prank," and appeared in the language 150 years before anyone used jig to refer to black people.
Copyright Â© 2005 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.