MAXWELL:  The list of ugly names for blacks is long

4/11/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Although words and names are the tools of my trade, I am awed by their power to incite and excite. Most recently, I was reminded of the power of words when I used the term “peckerwood” in a column. Its use brought a hue and cry from many white males.

I first learned to appreciate the power of words, especially the extraordinary power of names, on my first trip to Africa in the 1970s. While collecting oral tales of the Hausa people, I noticed that certain groups were described by long lists of derogatory names. I realized that these groups were the most despised _ the lowest on the totem pole. A village elder told me that in all nations, you can tell instantly who, or which region, is the “lowest of the low by the number of nasty names attached to them.”

This was a good lesson. In the United States, we have more derogatory names for the South than for any other region. And think about Southerners themselves. Our list of names for them, especially males, is long: peckerwoods, rednecks, Bubbas, Crackers, poor white trash.

In terms of gender and sexuality, the list of disparaging names for women is much longer than that for men. Some of the names for women are so foul that even the likes of Andrew Dice Clay avoids them. And think of the terms applied to gay men and the violence they encounter.

Worldwide, blacks, Jews and Arabs face the longest lists of derogations. The ones for blacks outnumber all others (boot, boogie, blue gum, coon, sooty, shine, smoke, jigaboo, jungle bunny, zigabo, jit, spade, spook, spilb, pork chop). Interestingly, groups that are marginalized by the name-calling of outsiders also tend to adopt self-loathing terms among themselves.

The world’s most offensive and most inflammatory ethnic slur is “nigger.” White Southerners used to get around it by using the derivatives “nigra” or “nigrah.” If you want to really insult a white person, you can do what Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., recently did on Fox News Sunday. He used the term “white nigger.” This former Klansman’s explanation: “My old mom told me, “Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anybody.’ We practice that. There are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time. . . .”

Two other active derivations of nigger are “nig” and “nig-nog.”

Below is a primer on some of the offensive and derogatory names that are used today or were used to describe blacks in the United States and other nations. My main reference is John Ayto’s Oxford Dictionary of Slang.

darky, darkie (1775). Originally, this term was neutral and colloquial. Today, it is highly offensive.

black velvet (1899). Australian and New Zealand. It is used to describe a black or “coloured,” especially the sexual partner of a white man.

Sambo (1704). Originally, this was a simple nickname. Later, it became a term for all blacks. Some linguists believe that it came from Spanish and may have applied to the mix-raced. Others think it may have come from an African language.

kink (1865), kinky (1926). In the United States, the terms allude to blacks’ tightly curled hair.

dinge (1838), dingy (1895). These are American inventions and refer to a jazz style developed by black musicians. According to Ayto, dinge is a back-formation from the adjective dingy dark. Ernest Hemingway (1933): “That big dinge took him by surprise. . . .”

jazzbo, jasbo (1923). This name was first used in a vaudeville act. Jack Kerouac used it thusly in 1957: “He dodged a mule wagon; in it sat an old Negro plodding along. . . . He slowed down the car for all of us to turn and look at the old jazzbo moaning along.”

schvartze, schwartze (1961). This ugly Yiddish expression is used mainly in the United States primarily for a black maid. As a teenager, I overheard my mother’s boss use the term to describe my mother. She cleaned the woman’s house twice weekly.

pongo (1968). This is a highly derogatory word, likening blacks to the anthropoid ape. Len Deighton used it in 1968: “You wouldn’t want no breech block blowing back and crippling some poor pongo, no matter what country he’s in.”

As I mentioned, marginalized people turn on themselves and invent self-hating names that are just as vicious as those of outsiders. We blacks have a long list of inside nasty names: Uncle Tom, Peola (applied to a light-skinned person, especially a girl), oreo, handkerchief head. Unfortunately, with the powerful influence of hip-hop culture on black youth, the list of self-derogations will continue to increase exponentially.