There’s been a lot written on the protests that erupted in Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray after his arrest by the Baltimore Police Department (three examples here, here and here). One of the many things that was interesting to note was the public reaction to the use of the word “thug” to describe the protesters who were involved in the more violent aspects of the protests.
Many black people felt that the use of the word was a not-so-sly way to denigrate the protesters as “niggers”. So I was particularly fascinated to catch this NPR segment wherein Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter, who often writes about language and race, dove into the dual–and racially charged–meanings of the word. Where, for a long time, the word held its Merriam-Webster definition (a violent criminal), today things have changed. McWhorter says:
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 blonde 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.
Whereas, in the black community, there’s a different understanding of the word.
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 finally, he wraps it all up by making this point about the mutability of language:
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.
All this makes sense. If culture evolves, then so, too, must language. As cultural actors, we stretch and reshape words and their meanings depending on the context we’re in. And there’s an alchemy in it all: Whether or not a new meaning “sticks” probably has a lot to do with who’s saying it, how it’s transmitted, and a certain je ne sais quois in the zeitgeist.
You can listen to the entire conversation here: