Ethnic Epithets: an Introduction

Posted by T on March 31, 2007

There is a scene in Godfather where the chief counsel for the Don goes to meet the “Hollywood bigshot” Woltz, who has cheated godson Johnny. When Tom explains the (somewhat shady) things he could do in exchange for “one small favor,” Woltz hits the ceiling: “I don’t care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come outta the woodwork.”

Tom: “I’m German-Irish.”

“Well let me tell you something, my kraut mick friend. I’m gonna make so much trouble for you, you won’t know what hit you.”

In the future, I wish to discuss the current ethos in regard to the use of ethnic epithets. This post essays only to describe the basic grammar and etymology of this region of linguistic usage. Such usage is broader than ethnic; but the ethnic is the predominating class reference and will be the starting point.

The Tribe

When he was little, Tom Hagen was a street orphan that was taken in by the Corleones. He is therefore an example of an inherent outsider becoming attached to a tribe: Kraut-Mick adopted by Dago-Guineas. This can happen, and it can be good when it happens. But adoption and other synthetic attachments presuppose a normative world that is already given. That world is the world of tribes.

Tribes are common descendents of the same patriarch. The Godfather was a descendent in common with others of the original Andolini patriarch. Looking to the future, he became the patriarch of a large clan or sub-tribe. Looking to the past, these clans in turn are embedded in the Sicilian ethnos, and so forth.

The tribe-member uses a token that references the other individual as member of the other tribe: “my Kraut-Mick friend.” A brief look at origins might clarify how this came about.

Origin of ethnic epithets in America

I restrict myself to the American situation. It would be very interesting to see someone discuss this type of linguistic expansion as it might occur in other lands. But here, the vast majority of ethnic epithets arose from the dynamics of immigration.

In some cases, the situation on entry through Ellis Island is explicitly referenced: WOP (WithOut Papers) was perceived to be a common characteristics of arriving Italians. The word kike, according to one theory, is derived from Yiddish keikl for the “circle” that illiterate Jews would use to sign the papers, eschewing the customary “X” for superstitious or hostile reasons.

Upon entry, and on the principle that “like attracts like” (that opposites attract is only true, if ever, as a variant at the boundary when a great deal of commonality is presupposed), blocks of cities gradually became ethnically homogenous, with large Irish and Italian blocks, and smaller ones containing Poles, Russians, and others.

Jews had another reason for banding together: the rule-of-ten for starting a synagogue. The Orthodox would have the additional motive of avoiding Sabbath travel to get to the synagogue.

In any case, the stage was set to consolidate references to individuals from the other block as instances of their tribal membership.  The otherness of the other, the strangeness of the stranger, needs a linguistic complement. The reason for the slang rather than technical reference is not hard to feel. Italian is continentally ambiguous; Italian-American is cumbersome — seven or eight syllables — and has an antiseptic flavor: like a box to check for the census. Dago captures the needed linguistic token much more satisfactorily. Its vivid concreteness even grants a certain respect that the other might not. Mick was natural for Irish, since so many last names began Mc.

Some ethnic groups faded into the dominant ethnic majority effortlessly, and so there are not many epithets for them. I know of none for the Scottish. Frog for French and Limey for English is more of a European inheritance, and not even recognized by many Americans. The Germans are the second-most predominant ethnic stock of the historic American; Kraut (referring to the ubiquitous food accompaniment, cabbage) was used, but it is rare and a bit gratuitous now. Besides sharing the northern European “look,” it may be that the predominant Protestantism of these tribes (most of the French, for example, were Huguenots) allowed an easy assimilation.

In summary: an us-them division of the world is at the heart of the ethnic epithet; this model was closely coupled to ramifications of tribal assimilation.

Dialectical development

The transition from group membership to group characteristic is an inevitable one. The shift containing both elements is illustrated by Sean Connery in The Untouchables, when he taunts, “just like a Dago to show up to a gunfight with a knife.” Here the shift is being made from bare membership — “hello, my Dago friend” –, to imputing a characteristic quality of the group – ineptness in making correct assumptions before engaging a fight, alleged to be typical of the Dago.

The shift to characteristic does not need to imply negative characterization; nor, when negative, to imply a basic unfriendliness. Even Sean Connery’s statement is not exactly hostile simpliciter. There is an element of light-heartedness in it. There is a reconciled aspect. “Nigger-quick” would be another example where no negative element whatsoever would be present: to make it in pro basketball, one needs to be nigger-quick.

However, negative connotations can crystallize in a particular development of the us-them dialectic. This leads to the next logical step in the grammar: from characteristic, to division of the original group in terms of the characteristic feature that has come to be connoted.

Thus, the Jewess in Gentleman’s Agreement does not want to “take the fall” for the kikey ones. Here we have the formation of an adjective from the noun. At first blush, this seems to be a case of self-reference. However, it is immediately clear that it is not: instead, it is a division of the conglomerate of which she is a part, into the kikey and non-kikey parts. Here then, we see that the I-other, or us-them duality still obtains, but the token normally used to refer to the larger group is narrowed to refer to a subgroup imputed to have a uniform character – the kikey ones, vs us non-kikey ones.

So we have at least three moves that can be made with ethnic referents:

(membership in group) –> (characteristic of group) –> (division of group into the those exemplifying the characteristic and those not)

There is a kind of Hegelian dynamic here. The other is first recognized, then classified; then that classification develops its own antithesis, so that the concept is precised or refined.

It becomes evident that ethnic reference in the us-them mode is not necessarily different in kind from coming to terms with any other other.

That store sells gadgets. At first, the vast array out there is subsumed as “gadgets.” “Daddy, let’s stop.” “We don’t buy gadgets, son.”

Then refinement sets in: “Electronic devices are useful; those other things are just gadgets.”

Next time: “we’re going to stop and buy some electronic equipment — don’t get distracted by all the gadgets they have there, son.”

Some apparent inversions and unexpected directions of the dialectic need to be explored next


4 Comments to Ethnic Epithets: an Introduction

  • Very interesting.I hope this will help me understand what is meant when all my black friends (my posse) call me honky, cracker and boss hog.

  • This analysis of ethnicity-based slurs is very interesting. We in Resisting Defamation take a somewhat different direction by opposing such hate epithets in the multicultural society in Northern California.

    For readers who want ways to combat the use of hate epithets against their children in the classroom, on the schoolbus, and on the sidewalk, check out the online syllabus on the Internet:

  • Bo — I feel your pain, and I’m not setting up to oppose your project, but my own view is that (a) we shd restore the humor and light-heartedness of ethnic epithets, and (b) European-Americans must reassert our right to own our own language. We must not allow others to shake their fingers and say what we can say and how. Jumping on the bandwagon of “we’re victims too” is to concede defeat.

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