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Around Ethnic Slurs
Part 1: Squaw

By Anatoly Liberman

Few words are more offensive than ethnic slurs. The origin of some of them is “neutral” (for instance, a proper name typical of a group), but the sting is in their application, not in their etymology. The story of squaw is well-known, but it bears repetition. It is also a sad story because it should not have happened.

In 1992 Suzan Harjo said to Oprah Winfrey that the word squaw means “vagina” and added: “That’ll give you an idea what the French and British fur trappers were calling all Indian women, and I hope no one ever uses that term again.” Countless TV viewers believed her and joined the ranks of protesters. Fight against the s-word began. On June 6, 1994 Saint Paul Pioneer Press carried an article titled “Students Seek to Expunge Place Name ‘Squaw’.” This is its beginning: “Squaw Lake. Minn. ASSOCIATED PRESS. Two high school students have launched a campaign to change the names of a small city, a reservation community, a half-dozen lakes and a pond, all of which contain the word ‘squaw’. The word, the students say, is offensive. Their teacher [I deleted the name] agrees. He referred to works by Saxon Gouge, an instructor in American literature at Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and a book Literature of the American Indian, which said the word probably is a French corruption of the Iroquois word “otsiskwa,” which means “female sexual parts.” The initiative met with near universal approval. The students were also encouraged by Indian elders and tribal authorities, who until they were enlightened by the two teenagers (or the TV show) had had no idea how bad the word squaw is. But “[b]oth students knew that the word went beyond its definition as ‘Indian woman’, found in some dictionaries, and they wrote letters to several newspapers advocating changes” (emphasis added).

The moral of this episode is that etymology is a science and in serious situations should be left to specialists. Neither an instructor in American literature nor Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peck, the authors of Literature of the American Indian, could have an informed opinion about word origins and should not have been cited as authorities. It is now an open secret that squaw has never meant “vagina, vulva,” but lots of people, including some Native Americans, decided that they had either done wrong or been wronged, and the fib triumphed, for any word means what speakers believe it means. This is how misspent political zeal turned squaw into an ethnic slur. Place names have been changed in Minnesota and Arizona, Utah did not stay away from the campaign, and there is little doubt that the stone will keep rolling. An ingenious author even mentioned the horrors of sound symbolism and explained that no one would want to be called a name beginning with the sounds one hears in squint, squat, squalid, and the like. I wonder whether he is equally squeamish when it comes to eating squash, crossing a square, or looking at squirrels playing in front of his house

Mohawk  ojiskwa (such is its usual spelling) does mean “vagina,” but squaw was borrowed by Europeans from Massachusett, the language of an Algonquian people, which is not related to Mohawk or any other Iroquoian language. Nor were there any cultural ties between the two communities, separated by half of North America (a reminder: Massachusetts is not in the Midwest, and the action of The Song of Hiawatha is not set in Massachusetts). By contrast, cognates of squaw exist in many Algonquian languages and mean “woman” in all of them. Present day Mohawk speakers do not identify the English word squaw with any word in their language. The similarity between -sqwa and squaw is accidental. One can as well compare squaw with the last syllable of Moskva.

The motto of every political initiative should be: “Do no harm” (as in medicine). Looking before leaping is also useful. Although language is easy to politicize, historical linguistics rarely falls prey to this kind of maneuvering. Rabble rousers occasionally use borrowed words for boosting the national pride of their group, but in retrospect such campaigns fill the victims of fraud with shame and surprise at their gullibility. Words for “woman” have a tendency to deteriorate: from “the loved one” to “whore,” from “maid(en)” to “a pert, saucy girl,” and so forth. The causes of such changes reflect the societal attitudes that are known only too well. But the recent history of squaw is a unique case: ignorant people explained to native speakers that the word of their mother tongue is an ethnic slur. Some evidence exists that in English (but not in Mohawk!) squaw was used in a disparaging way. This happened because some people chose to treat the Indians as unworthy of respect. Compare nigger (which, like Negro) means simply “black”), pickaninny (perhaps from Portuguese; the original meaning is approximately “a small one”), and zhid (a slur for a Russian Jew, probably from Italian giudeo, from Latin judaeus “belonging or pertaining to Judea”). All of them are racist terms despite their innocuous etymology. Depending on the mores of a given society, squaw had the potential of becoming offensive. Compare madam “a woman who manages a brothel” or villager acquiring in the Middle Ages the connotations of villain, whereas things urban, naturally, became urbane. If squaw had to be ostracized, it should not have happened for etymological reasons.

Anyone with an interest in this problem will find abundant material in the Internet, in the magazine Native Peoples, and other sources. The article “The Sociolinguistics of the ‘S-Word’: Squaw in American Placenames [sic]” by William Bright was published in the periodical Names (vol. 48, 2000, 207-216) but is also available online, and so is the passionate defense of the word by Marge Bruchac.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. [...] defense of the use of the word “squaw” by the Oxford Etymologist Anatoly Liberman (here). We could be wrong, but this article seems to be a classic case of an academic wearing blinders, [...]

  2. J P Maher

    “Dynamite words”. Use with care, even intelligence. Are Negress, Jewess (Judith, Esther) derogatory?… How about lioness, tigress, princess, empress? I’m 100% mick. Dear me, I just dissolve in tears when some WASP calls me that. No word is intrinsically one or the other. PCretins (etymologically “christian”) don’t understand what the French call “mots affectifs”. Affect can go either way, positive or negative…. An insult can become a boast. “Square” was intended as complimentary in 1900, as an insult in 1950. In either epoch the word could be turned about, in defiance of the other’s intent. Take “Protestant” e.g. intended by the Vatican once as derogatory, but taken up as badge of pride by the target population. For the reverse, names like Bright, Albright, Fulbright are often the butt of jokes. (PCitizens: remember jokes?) Hooray for Prof. Liberman.

  3. J P Maher

    Zhid ‘Jew’. In the 1930s-1940s I grew up in south-central New York State, next-door so to speak, to the Anthracite zone of Pennsylvania. We lived “diversity” and didn’t blather about it all the time. We liked each other. Ethnicity was taken for granted and it was something we kidded each other about in good humor. Coming home after a beer with buddies one Sunday after afternoon, my dad told how he set off a chain reaction. Looking at the bar clock one of the bunch said he had to get home to his wife, calling her his ball-and-chain. An Irish buddy picked up on this, saying he had to get home to his shillelagh (Irish blackthorn stick, named for a place in County Wicklow). A Ruthenian buddy said he was heading home to his hammer-and-sickle. Old-country hatreds were left back in the old country. The haters among us were usually the “Yankees” (WASPs since the 1950s): they called all the rest of us “foreigners”, not just the neighbors with non-English language, but the Irish, too.—On the website indicated below “Zheedo” is discussed. It came to NY & Pennsylvania by way of Hungarian zsidó (zsido with long O).
    http://users.erols.com/sfpayer/CoalR/commcoalr.htm
    “Zhido, Zheedo: A Jew. His name was Adler. The hucksters, (see page 2, ‘Region and the Mines’), came to the patch towns [ethnic settlements] to hawk vegetables and groceries. Similarly, the zhido came in a little ‘40s style panel truck to sell women’s and kids’ clothing. This name was not applied as a term of contempt … not at all. In a way there were connotations of respect and a more than a little envy in its use. Here was a self employed man with a clean and safe job, a truck of his own, independent of the coal operators, whose wife never had to worry about a rock fall in the mines. It was not until I was much older that I learned its true derivation.”

  4. [...] alteration of Zhid, a Russian-Polish offensive name for a Jew (I mentioned it in my recent post on squaw): their sounds are too dissimilar. It is true that Jew dog and other gentle phrases of the same [...]

  5. bob fulford

    I remember from my childhood someone with a small,scrunched up mouth and the way of speaking engendered by that configuration (or habit) was refered to as “squirrel mouthed”.

    I can find no reference to that meaning in a cursory look at the web. Do you have something?

    I do find references that suggest “squirrel mouthed” suggests a large, commodius mouth. Perhaps I misremember my early observation.

  6. [...] My post on squaw produced some ripples. Three lawyers from Michigan gave me the lashing of their tongue(s). (I am [...]

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