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Brief History of Derogatory Words

No matter how old, all of these words have one thing in common: hate and their effect on society

Published: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010

Nigger. Faggot. Wetback. Macaca. Kike. In our culture words such as these bring about fear, hate, even violence. The list of derogatory words for people of any religion, race, ethnicity, you name it, is growing as people find new words to classify a group to persecute. Some of these words have their roots far back in history, while others are fairly recent. But no matter how old, all of these words have one thing in common: hate and their affect on society.

Demetrius Semien, a professor of sociology here at UNCG, says that the use of derogatory terms has two main affects on society. The first is the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If a group starts to hear things about them in these terms then they may start believing it and/or go into a depressive state.”

The second affect is the stigma one has to face. “People who are called derogatory names will perceive their options in life to be less than they actually are which will lead to social disorder,” says Semian. These effects show the results derogatory terms can have on a group and a society as whole. The hate causes chaos.

Recently the media has shown how prevalent hate still is in modern America. From Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic outbursts to Michael Richards’ shocking racist comments, the use of derogatory terms and phrases and the people who say them have hit national headlines, which in the end shows that one must be responsible for what one says. Former Virginia Sen. George Allen in particular learned this the hard way during last year’s election race when he was caught pointing at a camera man and calling him a “Macaca,” a derogatory term for people of Indian descent.

What is it that inspires people to say these words? The consequences are there for the rich and/or famous, but what about the average person. To this day it’s not too unusual to hear people in rural areas use the word “nigger,” or in school settings to hear a guy say “Hey what up faggot.” We have been taught that these words are bad in society’s view and are not tolerated, yet many still go about using these “forbidden words.” What is important is to not only educate not only what these words are, but why they are considered offensive.

Take the word “faggot.” It’s widely known for being a homophobic remark and has even made headlines such as when Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington used it in reference to costar T.R. Knight. However it is still acceptable, to some extent, for the average person to say it without worrying about drastic consequences.

Now for the why. The reason why “faggot” is such a hateful word is in its origin. According to – an online etymology dictionary that pulls from more than 40 dictionary and academic sources, including the Oxford English Dictionary – the word is derived from an earlier word for an old unpleasant woman. Although Etymology Online says it’s an “etymology urban legend,” it should be noted that many have connected the term “faggot” with its other definition “a bundle of sticks.” In the sixteenth century homosexuality was a crime punishable by death. There are some that argue that there were homosexuals who were burned at the steak with “a bundle of sticks,” thus making reference to homosexuals and other derogatory comments towards them such as calling a gay person a “flamer.”

The origin of other derogatory words come from a variety of places, according to Etymonline. “Nigger” came from a mixture of dialect and a term to express “the rejection whites had put on blacks.” Since its origin it has developed into an unmentionable racial slur.

“Kike,” a derogatory term for someone who is Jewish or of Jewish descent, possibly came from the fact that Jewish immigrants coming to America who were not accustomed to the alphabet, signed in the Jewish circle “kikel” instead of the “X” as often wrote by others who didn’t know the alphabet as well. This is only noted as a possible origin as the word “kike,” like other derogatory terms, doesn’t have a fully known origin but rather a few theories. Nonetheless it is still important to know the theories.

Professor Semien believes that part of the solution to the problem derogatory words cause is to “see that they do hurt.” He also comments that “we need to be mindful people are more than labels.” When asked why people use these words in the first place Semien says that these people are “trying to create scapegoats and be morally superior.” This has drastic affects on the targeted individual and the society as a whole.

Luckily enough here at UNCG hate speech that gives rise to hate crimes is low. The UNCG police are only called in extreme cases of hate speech such as vandalism, threats, and “any crime motivated by hate” as described by Captain Paul Lester of the UNCG Police.

From 2004 to 2006 there were only 12 verified reports of hate crimes here on campus. Capt. Lester says, “This is very little compared to other crimes on campus.” Other crimes, such as theft, are at least in the triple digits.

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