a collection of vaguely mean words with pretty mean origins

We all know racial slurs – chink, Frenchie/Frog, wog, the N-word, and such. And we know they’re unacceptable in pretty much any kind of communication, because they’re offensive and rude. But strangely there are a number of English words that have passed into acceptable usage, but have similar origins in ethno-national stereotypes. Below are a few, some are vaguely negative but most of them pretty harmless, yet they all conjure some less-than-flattering imagery:

1) Barbarian – these days barbarian is used to describe people or places that are crude, unrefined or otherwise lacking in manners or class. Back in ancient times it generally meant anyone who wasn’t ‘civilised’ – though interestingly it was mainly ‘civilised’ people who came up with these disparaging terms! The word’s origins are a bit hard to pinpoint (similar words are found in Mycenaean and Sanskrit writings), but by the time the classical Greeks popularised the word (barbaroi), it referred to people who didn’t speak Greek, whose speech sounded like so much gibberish (barbarbarbarbar). By the late 5th century BC barbaroi referred specifically to the Persians, who ironically probably regarded the Greeks as barbarians (in the modern sense of the word anyway).

2) Philistine – this one isn’t as widely-used these days (it was probably in more common use about 20 years ago). The meaning is similar to barbarian, that is unrefined or class-less, and the way the term evolved (from referring to a specific ancient people to its modern usage) is similarly hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s due to the negative press the Philistines got in the Old Testament; the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language however traces the origins of the modern meaning to an incident in the German town of Jena during the 17th century. A quarrel between the townspeople and the resident students turned ugly and one student was killed, and after a memorial sermon preached on the story of Samson’s betrayal by Delilah, the students of Jena used philistine to refer to non-students, or basically unrefined, stupid people. So I guess it’s not so much a comment on the ancient Philistines as it is on townspeople caught up in a snobbish society exerting its superiority through religious language!

3) Pagan/Heathen – these days pagan is a fairly neutral term, and is used mostly in academia to describe the various Greco-Roman religions and their followers in the Classical and Late Antique worlds (as well as a number of minor religions in the ancient and early medieval worlds). Heathen is a slightly less neutral term, and like philistine is a little outdated now, but evokes similar feelings of being unrefined. Both pagan and heathen have similar origins, and were used by early Christians to describe non-Christians. Both terms were also less than flattering; pagan comes from pagus, the Latin word for a small-town-ish locale, while heathen comes from the same root as heath (those cold, wet places of despair). Both hinge on the fact that early Christianity was a mainly urban religion, and the fact that people who didn’t follow it were generally either far from positions of power (pagan), or were from the countryside (where the old religions held out for quite a while) – either way the implication was that they were obstinate and slightly thick (which is probably where heathen picks up its negative connotations).

4) Vandal – these days vandalism refers to senseless acts of defacing public property; the term was probably coined by Bishop Henri Gregoire in 1794, to describe the French revolutionaries’ destruction of prized artwork. The word is a pretty direct reference to the Vandals, one of many Germanic tribes which fought their way into the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century AD. Though the Vandals did their fair share of looting and pillaging it’s probably a bit unfair that they’re known best for it, since they were just one of many looting, pillaging tribes at the time! I’m guessing their special infamy comes from the fact that shortly after they occupied North Africa they began persecuting its Catholic Christians, which was unique among the Germanic tribes. Writers such as Victor of Vita, author of the History of the Vandal Persecution, probably contributed to the Vandals’ reputation for wanton, senseless destruction.

5) Slave – the modern word is pretty self-explanatory, referring to humans owned as property by other humans, an institution about as old as history itself. These days slavery arguably still exists in the form of human trafficking, the sex trade and indentured workers in developing countries; but in some cases slavish can refer to people or behaviour that is submissive, unoriginal or undignified – in that sense it is once again a term of superiority. The origins of the word are pretty hard to pinpoint as well; slave is derived from the Medieval Latin sclavus, itself derived from the Byzantine Greek word sklabos, the same word the Byzantines used to refer to the Slavs. A common theory runs that as Slavic people were captured and enslaved in greater numbers the nasty connotation stuck, leading them to unfortunately give their name to such a horrible institution (at least in the West; the Greeks still called their slaves douloi).

6) Byzantine – there are two definitions of this word: the first refers to anything pertaining to the Medieval Greek empire, while the second definition exists mostly as an adjective; though you won’t see it used in everyday speech you’ll hear it now and again in discussions on politics or maybe finance. When politics are byzantine (as opposed to Byzantine) they are needlessly complicated, with connotations of underhanded conduct. Interestingly byzantine is just one of the later additions to a long, cherished tradition in the Latin West of distrusting the Greek-speaking East. In the ancient Roman world there is the Latin phrase Graeculus esuriens (‘hungry little Greek’), while emperor Hadrian’s Grecophilia earned him the nickname Graeculus (‘Greekling’). The negative connotations of byzantine itself are not hard to imagine given the Catholic West’s long-running distrust of the Orthodox East (fuelled by tales of murderous intrigues and devious eunuchs in the Byzantine court). And even the proper term Byzantine was a bit of a snub by the West; the Byzantines in fact called themselves Romans (Rhomaioi – as they were descended from the Eastern Roman Empire), which of course ran squarely against the pretensions of the German-speaking Holy Roman Empire. The Byzantines’ civilisation however faded into history while the Latin West waxed, so Western writers could give whatever names they wanted to the Rhomaioi. Residual connotations of distrust can also be seen in the modern phrase it’s all Greek to me (I don’t understand); interestingly enough the Spanish-speaking world seems to have taken some of this feeling onboard as well, as the slang word for foreigner, gringo, may well be derived from the Spanish griego – ‘Greek’.

7) Vulgar – these days vulgar means unrefined, crude, manner-less, class-less and generally uncivilised – much like heathen, philistine and barbarian. And like those words it was a way for people to exercise a smug sense of superiority. Vulgar is derived from the Latin word vulgus, referring to the common people, or the mob. Quite a lot of this class-based sense of superiority actually survives to this day: even ‘mob’ itself, referring to a bunch of unguided, unpredictable people, is derived from the Latin mobilus vulgus (‘the changeable/inconsistent masses’); while these days to describe someone as a pleb (working-class, probably not very well-educated, etc) is to harken back to ancient Roman class systems. The word villain is another example; while today it refers to someone of bad character, the word is actually derived from the Latin word villanus, or farmhand. Class-based, cultural superiority at its best (or rather worst)!

8) Ghetto – this word, like byzantine, exists in two definitions: on the one hand a proper term describing a densely-populated area dominated by a particular ethnicity (usually a minority, and usually against their will); the other definition is slang for anything that is unrefined or low-quality (again much like vulgar, barbarian, etc). The term itself is derived from a Venetian word, ghet, meaning slag (the waste product in metalworking). The reason why slag was associated with ethnic minorities is because the Jewish residents of 16th century-Venice were forced to live right next to the city foundry, away from everyone else. The history of Western distrust for Jews is a long and gruelling thing which I’m not even going to attempt; suffice it to say it’s pretty unfortunate that the negative connotations of this term have survived to this day!

Funny how so many of these words were invented by Romans and Greeks – shining beacons of civilisation, as it turns out, also have a habit of turning their noses up at anything different to them. Today’s racial slurs may well one day pass into acceptable English, as the above words have, but that may well be because we’ve found new ways to describe people we don’t like!


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