MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A certain five-letter word has been used repeatedly over the last few days.
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MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: ...The thugs who only want to incite violence...
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GOVERNOR LARRY HOGAN: ...Our city of Baltimore to be taken over by thugs...
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ...And thugs who tore up the place.
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.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: John, I've been looking at the Merriam-Webster definition of thug, and it describes it as a brutal ruffian or assassin. What's the origin of this word?
MCWHORTER: Well, the word originates in India as a word for roughly that. And because the British ran India for a good long time, the word jumped the rails from Indian languages to English, and that's the reason that we in America have used the word for a very long time. And until rather recently, it did mean what you might call a ruffian, but of course, things have changed.
BLOCK: Well, how have they changed?
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.
BLOCK: Although, if you think about it, I mean, in two of the pieces of tape that we played, we heard from an African-American mayor of Baltimore and an African-American president of the United States using that word.
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.
BLOCK: When do you see a turning point in how the word thug is used in our culture?
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.
BLOCK: I'm thinking of Tupac Shakur who had thug life tattooed across his stomach, I think.
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.
BLOCK: The word thug also - I can think of a number of other applications. I mean, folks on the far right might talk about jackbooted government thugs coming to take over our communities
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.
MCWHORTER: (Laughter). Well, to tell you the truth, my interest in all of these events is what made these whatever-you-want-to-call-thems rise up the way they did. And as far as I'm concerned, I feel that although the rioters were not articulate - they were not performing anything that I would call an exactly coherent action, the fact that this has happened is symptomatic of severe problems in Baltimore and similar cities. And the problem is the relationship between the police and young black men. Now, is it justified to tear up your own neighborhood to protest against it? I would say not. But the fact that it's happened is something that I think we can use as a possible turning point because I really believe that if a generation of young black men grew up in this country without thinking of the cops as the enemy, then America would really start turning a corner on race.
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.
BLOCK: John McWhorter, thanks for talking to us.
MCWHORTER: Thank you.
BLOCK: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and music at Columbia University. His latest book is "The Language Hoax."
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