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Johnny Daniels
Johnny Daniels

Thug [UPDATED]



BLOCK: Thugs, the word chosen by President Obama, Maryland's governor, Baltimore's mayor and others to describe those who looted and burned stores in Baltimore and in some cases that were later retracted with an apology. So why is thug so charged? John McWhorter has been thinking about this. He teaches linguistics at Columbia University and often writes about language and race. Welcome back to the program.




Thug


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MCWHORTER: Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn't need to. It's most certainly is.


MCWHORTER: Yep, and that is because just like the N-word, we have another one of these strangely bifurcated words. Thug in the black community, for about the past 25 to 30 years, has also meant ruffian, but there is a tinge of affection. A thug in black people's speech is somebody who is a ruffian but in being a ruffian is displaying a healthy sort of countercultural initiative, displaying a kind of resilience in the face of racism etc. Of course nobody puts it that way, but that's the feeling. And so when black people say it, they don't mean what white people mean, and that's why I think Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Barack Obama saying it means something different from the white housewife wherever who says it.


BLOCK: You're saying that African-American, in this case, politicians, who use the word thug should be given a pass because they understand it in a different way? I mean, the mayor certainly walked back her use of the word. She didn't want to be associated with it. She said, you know, I spoke out of frustration. They're really misguided young people.


MCWHORTER: No because I think that if an African-American woman uses the word thug today, we're not always conscious of all of these overtones in the words that we use. But I think that when she said that, she didn't mean it the same way as her white equivalent would. The word means two things, just like the N-word. And I think all of us are sophisticated enough to wrap our heads around that.


MCWHORTER: Well, it seems to have made a major change with the rise in popularity and cultural influence of rap music and the iconography connected with that. I would say that the word thug in the black community had a very different meaning by 1990 than it had had in 1980. But that thug image has never been a purely negative model. It's always been part ruffian and part hero.


MCWHORTER: Exactly, and Tupac Shakur is thought of as a god by many people. If he was a thug, then clearly if a black person says thugs were messing up the neighborhood, then they mean something other than reprehensible, shall we say, N-word. We have different races in this country, and different races have different ways of using language. Thug ends up straddling different subcultures.


MCWHORTER: That was the original meaning. It changed though. One of the things that Americans have a whole lot of trouble with - actually, that people in developed societies with written languages have trouble with - is that words never keep their meanings over time. A word is a thing on the move. A word is a process. And that's what's so confusing about the N-word. And that's what's so confusing now about this word, thug. Any discussion where we pretend that it only means one thing is just going to lead to dissension and confusion.


BLOCK: There are a lot of people now, John, who are saying, you know, why - and probably listening to this conversation saying, why are you talking about the meaning of this word, thug? That is really the wrong question to be asking and the wrong thing to be focusing on right now.


But nevertheless, thug is an interesting word, and to the extent that we need to be able to hear it as more than some antique, static, dictionary definition, then I think that that's part of the process of healing as well. Black people saying thug is not like white people saying thug.


The word's original and ongoing use to refer to criminals is still very much present in the culture at large, however, and use of thug by a white person to refer to a Black person is generally understood to lack the nuance the word carries when used by a Black person, and to instead be an offensive insinuation that a Black person can be assumed to be engaged in criminal behavior.


Thuggee was an Indian network of secret fraternities who were engaged in murdering and robbing travellers and known for strangling their victims, operating from the 17th century (possibly as early as 13th century) to the 19th century. During British Imperial rule of India, many Indian words passed into common English, and in 1810 thug referred to members of these Indian gangs. The sense was adopted more generally as "ruffian, cutthroat" by 1839. See also English thatch, deck.


Since then, thug has come to have a more general meaning similar to its more old-fashioned synonym ruffian. The act of behaving as a thug is known as thuggery. The adjective form of thug is thuggish. In this sense, thug often refers to someone who acts as a bully or is a professional and violent criminal, as in The mafia sent hired thugs to intimidate store owners.


However, in the U.S., the word thug has a history of being used by racist white people who specifically apply it to African American men to portray them as violent criminals. When used in this way, it is often thought to function as a substitute for a racist slur.


The word thug itself, however, entered the popular imagination and eventually came to be used in a general way to refer to bullies and violent criminals. Gangsters and armed robbers are often described as thugs. The word almost always implies a tendency for violence.


The reclaimed use of the word thug by Black people is intended to highlight and counter these stereotypes. This use of the term was popularized in hip-hop by 1990s rapper Tupac Shakur, who characterized thug life as a struggle against racism and injustice.


Slim, whose real name is Stayve Thomas, said he gained the first part of his rap moniker because he was beanpole skinny as a teenager. He added "thug" to it because of his braids and gold teeth, he previously told TODAY.


After stunning his players in a film session Wednesday with a verbal suggestion that they were no longer playing "like a bunch of thugs," Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein later reached out to players individually to insist he instead meant to use the word "slugs."


Delivering the term thugs to a group of largely young African American men carries obvious racial connotations, and Beilein acknowledged to ESPN in a telephone conversation Wednesday night that he understood that.


"I didn't realize that I had said the word 'thugs,' but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it," Beilein told ESPN on Wednesday night. "I meant to say slugs, as in slow-moving. We weren't playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That's what I was trying to say. I've already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand." 041b061a72


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