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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”