views updated

ETHNIC NAME, also ethnic label and, when pejorative, ethnic slur. A nickname for someone from a particular nationality, race, community, or culture. The spectrum of ethnic names in English ranges from more or less affectionate nicknames (such as Jock for a Scotsman, as used in England) through relatively neutral terms (such as Brit for someone British) through the use in affectionate abuse of terms that can otherwise be offensive (such as Limey and Yank between American and British friends), to highly offensive racial and/or religious slurs used without restraint, such as dago for someone of Spanish, Portuguese, or Latin American background, and Yid/yid for someone Jewish.

Social and etymological categories

Ethnic names in English generally fall into three social categories: (1) For peoples (and their languages) outside the English-speaking world: Frog/Froggie, someone from France or who speaks French; Kraut, a German; Polack, a Pole; Wop/wop, an Italian. (2) For national and regional identities within the English-speaking world: Limey, especially in the US, for someone British; Pom(mie)/pom(mie), in Australasia, for someone from England; Newfie, in Canada, for a Newfoundlander. (3) Groups marked as different by habitat, race, language, and/or religion: Wog/wog for an Arab, South Asian, or black African; Yid/yid a Jew. Such terms also generally fall into four etymological categories: (1) Taken from personal names already common in the group concerned: Jock, a common Scottish pet form of John; dago, from the common man's name Diego in Spanish. (2) Taken from names associated with the entire group: Abo, an abbreviation of Aborigine; Newfie, an abbreviation of Newfoundlander; Yid, a word already meaning ‘Jew’. (3) Referring to something seen as characterizing the group in question, such as complexion (Coloured and Negro/nigger), food (Frog from the eating of frogs' legs in France; Kraut from the eating of sauerkraut in Germany), or an emblem (Kiwi, the name of a flightless New Zealand bird; bogwog, in which the element bog is associated with Ireland: whence ‘an Irish wog’). (4) Formed as plays on words associated with the target group: Pommy, an abbreviation of pomegranate, in turn a play on immigrant (see below).

Once established, however, a name's origin is often lost to its users, with the result that etymologists may have difficulty tracing its provenance. Many ethnic names have uncertain or disputed etymologies, among them folk etymologies that may have been created as jokes: for example, wog has been explained as a pseudo-abbreviation of ‘Westernized Oriental Gentleman’ and, in the plural, as originally an official British acronym for ‘workers on government service’ in the Suez Canal area, who are said to have worn armbands emblazoned WOGS. Probably, however, wog is a clipping of golliwog/gollywog, the name for a soft cloth doll with a black face and fuzzy hair, taken in turn from the name of a doll character in The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls—and a Golliwog (1895), a children's book by the US writer Bertha Upton, and illustrated by her sister Florence.

Generally, ethnic names are restricted to informal and slang usage and ethnic slurs are associated with strong emotion and often unexamined bias on the part of the user. The degree of acceptability or unacceptability of such a name may change over the years, and from group to group. Sometimes, names that cease for a time to be used because of their derogatory associations are later revived with positive associations, as for example Black/black (see entry).