Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to explore strange old quotes, to seek out new sayings, and new ways of stating them in a galaxy not so far away. [Listen to our podcast at thequotablespodcast.libsyn.com ]

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ed-ymology: The Origin

In this week's mini episode [listen now] we introduce one of our most fun segments, "Ed-ymology." In this segment, I (the one with a socially unacceptably large vocabulary and an atypical interest in word origins) choose a word and Ed offers his own self-generated insights on the possible original meaning of the word. Since he hasn't read a dictionary like I have--what can I say, it was a lonely childhood--his take offers quite a lot of amusement, whereas mine would be quite boring (if you don't believe me, just keep reading). And, the selected word gives us a new perspective on related quotations that we can explore.

An Assassin at work.
The topic this time is "assassin," which everyone understands is someone who kills a politically prominent person. It originates from a European/Christian mispronunciation of the name of a Middle Eastern/Muslim sect that was active during the Middle Ages, when Christian Crusaders were actively battling to gain control of the lands that both religions hold sacred. For me, then, the word is fascinating because it is an example of how language can be used for propaganda purposes. To call someone "assassin" in Europe had far greater ramifications early on because it would have alluded that you were truly an "enemy" or perhaps even a "heathen."

This politicization of an ethnic group's identity as a derogatory term reminds me of another commonly used word: "barbarian," which means savage or uncivilized. The term was coined by the Ancient "civilized" Greeks who were constantly beset by allegedly less sophisticated peoples. The Greeks would ridicule some of these neighbors by making fun of the way their languages sounded, "bar bar bar," in the same way a racially insensitive person today might say, "ching ching chong," to simulate a Chinese language.

Of course, the most offensive of these types of words today is so heinous most people will only refer to it as "the n-word," which is derived from the French word "negre" and Spanish word "negro," both of which simply mean "black." And although you'll find very few people with skin that is actually black in color, (for that matter, I would say that I am much closer to pink than white, but I digress), Europeans used this term generally to refer to people from Sub-Saharan African as well as other places where skin tones were darker than their own. Once the transatlantic slave trade was started, the reference became increasingly derogatory, and by the mid-20th century, when racial intolerance was no longer the accepted norm, most people of African descent protested against its use. Even the use of the words "negro" and "black" are offensive to some, but these terms are still considered to be much milder than the infamous "n" word.

Barack Obama and his mother.
In the United States, this has left us referring to people with African ancestry as "African American." But, even this more accurate description is less than satisfactory for some. After all, due to centuries of race mixing, a large number of U.S.-born individuals with African ancestry also have European, Asian, or Native American ancestry. President Obama, Tiger Woods and Halle Berry are just a few examples. They could just as easily check "white/caucasian" on their census forms, which is why an increasing number of those kinds of forms now include "mixed race" as an option. The other issue with using "African American" is that people who immigrate to the United States from other countries don't consider that term to refer to them. For them, "African American" is more an ethnic subset of the larger racial group.

(And that, my friends, is why Ed is in charge of entertaining you and I am in charge of boring you...)


  1. Hi, you've chosen a great topic that you can blog about for YEARS! I love to play with words and love to find out about/talk about their origins. Here's my 'African American' story. I knew two ministers-one was from Cameroon, Africa but now lives in the United States permanently as a citizen. His friend who was also a minister liked to say 'Joseph is truly an African American', and I think he said this because he also thought the term African American doesn't quite fit many folks. Personally, I think we ought to be able to call ourselves what we want. My son learned the term 'black' from somewhere else. I've never liked the term because I haven't really met a person with that hue of skin tone. So, we talked about skin tones and names for people, and decided he should call that person 'Connor' because that is actually his name. At some point maybe we need to come up with names for groups of people, but who knows what it will be? I am a mixed race-I know that my great grand dad was a full blooded Seminole, and my mom's family were so poor that they hardly have records of ancestry, so I'm a mutt--too many breeds, bloods, heritage to really know. Is it okay just to say we're people and leave it at that? I think MLK, Jr. talked about in his famous speech not judging someone by the color of their skin, when kids could just play together as kids. It would be great to get to that point. And some of us, perhaps, are closer than others.

    And a related and unrelated note. I always feel the need to talk about the origin of 'manning the table' when I volunteer somewhere. I want people to know it isn't about a male person doing it, but about having willing and available hands. ;-)

    Great podcast! Looking forward to the next one.

  2. Thanks for the great comment! We are very excited about this blog and podcast.

    It is interesting that we seem compelled to put people into categories, even if those categories don't always make sense. I'm always amazed how the first descriptive word people provide is usually related to their skin color. At least it seems that way to me here in the Southern United States. Indeed, MLK said, "I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

    "Manning" is another troubling word to me, too. I use "staffing" instead.

    Hope you'll keep listening and share us with your friends!

  3. Yes, Cheryl. And thanks for the suggesting of 'staffing'. I am sure every future person who now doesn't have to have a Latin lesson about 'manus' thanks you as well.