Monday, May 04, 2015

So, finally India exports to the US ... a bad word?

A few years ago, in a column for the local newspaper, I wrote about how the British colonization of India and the US made it possible for both countries to use the English language and how, therefore, words like pundit and bungalow are also used here.

I recall mentioning the word thug too.

The BBC notes that "In the US, "thug" is a loaded term."  "So why is thug so charged?" asked NPR's Melissa Block the other day as I was driving back home.

"Thug" as a loaded word?  Who woulda thunk that!  What's going on?

First, from the BBC:
Activists and cultural critics have pointed out the term is often used to refer to black Americans, and white Americans doing similar things would not be labelled the same way.
Aha, it is a word used to describe only a certain group of people.  It is a race-conscious usage.  But, that's not how the word was used a long time ago in the old country:
"As far as I can tell, thug goes back to the 14th Century," says Megan Garber, who traced the word's origin for a story in The Atlantic. "There was a gang of criminals known as the thuggee."
Garber says the Thugs were a huge criminal network that operated all around India's main roads.
"They would basically befriend travellers along the roads, gain the travellers' trust," she says. "And then they would murder them, usually by strangulation, and steal their valuables. It was all very violent."
From India, the word went to England, and then came to the US too.  "Mark Twain was one of the first Americans to report on the group."  Now Twain is in double-trouble, after his usage of the "N-word" in Huckleberry Finn!
And then the transformation happened. Quite recently:
Then hip-hop took the word. Tupac had it tattooed onto his body, and Cleveland's Bone Thugs-N-Harmony sent the word into cars and living rooms across the country.
In this conception of the word, Garber writes, thugs "are both victims and agents of injustice, they are both the products and producers of violence, and mayhem, and outrage".
Such a complete transformation from that old meaning:
Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn't need to. It's most certainly is.
"Thug" is the new "N-word."  Who woulda thunk that!
Thug in the black community, for about the past 25 to 30 years, has also meant ruffian, but there is a tinge of affection. A thug in black people's speech is somebody who is a ruffian but in being a ruffian is displaying a healthy sort of countercultural initiative, displaying a kind of resilience in the face of racism etc. Of course nobody puts it that way, but that's the feeling. And so when black people say it, they don't mean what white people mean, and that's why I think Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Barack Obama saying it means something different from the white housewife wherever who says it.
Language and the words we use are not static by any means.  The meanings and implications can change over time.
One of the things that Americans have a whole lot of trouble with - actually, that people in developed societies with written languages have trouble with - is that words never keep their meanings over time. A word is a thing on the move. A word is a process. And that's what's so confusing about the N-word. And that's what's so confusing now about this word, thug. Any discussion where we pretend that it only means one thing is just going to lead to dissension and confusion.
To borrow from the NRA, words don't kill people--we people kill people by using words.  As long as we are race-conscious in our language, then we will always find ways in which we dog-whistle words.  Stupid is as stupid does!

The dream of a post-racial world?  Still a dream, for the most part :(

4 comments:

  1. Where will you lot go in your attempt to murder the Queen's English. Please do not steal our word and transform it into a completely different meaning. We have a monopoly on thuggery - literally and etymologically :)

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  2. Go complain to "your" queen, dude, for taking that word from India and spreading it around the world.
    But then, she too can't be bothered about your "thuggery"--she is busy with having a mulligatawny soup, followed by a mildly spicy chicken tikka masala, and lifting her pinkie for a drop more milk in her Indian tea.

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  3. I heard the same story on NPR and the opposing emails sent decrying the change in meaning. Even a Black woman said thug means hoodlum. No one I know uses thug to mean anything other than violent hooligan.

    I think I'll join the Queen in her dinner. Sounds delicious, though my mulligatawny will be better than hers.

    ReplyDelete
  4. But, it is not a question anymore of how the three of us or our friends or anybody else uses the word "thug." If it has taken on a certain meaning then whether or not we meant that versus the original meaning becomes irrelevant.

    ReplyDelete

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