Is the word ‘thug’ a racial slur?

In a group discussion the other night, I was surprised to be told that the word “thug” is a racial slur.

To me, “thug” meant a brutal, violent person, regardless of race.  I think of police who beat handcuffed prisoners as thugs.

My dictionary backs me up.  Its definition of thug is: (a) a violent person, usually a criminal; (b) a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India.

The rapper Young Thug

But when I did a Google Image search on the world “thug,” nine out of the first 10 hits were images of black people, including a rapper known as Young Thug.

The linguist John McWhorter also said that “thug” is a racially-charged word.  It once was a race-neutral term, he said, but its meaning has changed.

I see I need to be careful about how I use the word.  I don’t think I am bowing to “political correctness.”  I just want to be sure to avoid language that causes people to misunderstand my meaning.

Sometime back, I had conversations with teachers who loved the book, “Little Black Sambo,” as children and felt put upon because they could not teach it.

They had good intentions.  But students and teachers who heard the word “Sambo” would not have understood their good intentions..

I worked for 40 years on newspapers, and one thing I learned was that it is the responsibility of writers to make themselves understood, not the reader’s to guess my meaning.

If a reader misunderstood what I wrote, that showed that I failed to make myself clear.  Saying the reader should have understood was not an option.

What I need now is a substitute race-neutral term that means brutal, violent person.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, liberals and progressives said the words “law and order” were code words for racism.  No doubt many white people who complained about crime were prejudiced against black people.

But violent crime and property crime in that era were increasing rapidly.  In this case, the policing of language shut down conversation about a serious problem.

I understand the argument that street crime, if it is committed by a poor black person, is a lesser crime than financial crime typically committed by a rich white person.

I agree that a looter who steals the stock of a small business does less harm than a financial speculator who destroys a thousand small businesses.

If you think that this is an excuse for the looter, go ahead and make that argument.  But don’t shut down discussion by objecting to my language.

It is one thing to object to the assumption that young black men as a group are brutal and violent.  It is another to excuse brutality and violence by forbidding language that refers to it.

George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four wrote about a world in which language was manipulated in such a way that certain ideas could not be expressed.

I worry about this.  But I will no longer use of the word “thug.”

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7 Responses to “Is the word ‘thug’ a racial slur?”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    Yeah, well, remember when “gay” meant “happy”?


  2. Vincent Says:

    Phil, I feel exactly the same way.

    There is no choice but to capitulate, as did the Spastic Society in the UK. This was its name from 1951 to 1994, but it had become a general playground insult. It changed its name to Scope.

    These days, every few months, it seems, a masked mob of narrow-minded language activists declare that a word cannot be used because someone somewhere has used it to upset someone else.

    I suggest that what those of us with long memories object to, but feel obliged to give way to—for the purpose of not being misunderstood—needs a snappy new name. “Political correctness” doesn’t cover it any more.

    What about “language thuggery”?


  3. philebersole Says:

    Vincent, whenever I write about a complicated topic, I always think the day after that I wrote too much about this aspect, too little about that aspect and entirely forgot to mention the other thing.

    I want to use language in a way that communicates my thought. I don’t want to use language that conveys a meaning I did not intend. I do not feel put-upon if someone informs me that a word I use is perceived as being racist. That is good information to have.

    At the same time, there is an Orwellian Newspeak aspect to all this. Policing of language can be used as a way to shut down conversation on important topics.

    I grew up in the 1940s in a small town just south of the Mason-Dixon line at the foothills of the Appalachians. Racism was an acceptable point of view. Schools were segregated.

    My parents, especially my mother, taught me to reject racism. They taught me to treat everyone with courtesy and respect, unless or until they gave me reason to do otherwise.

    I was taught to carefully pronounce the word “Negro” as a way of differentially myself as a liberal, educated person from the vulgar, racist boys who used the word “nigger.”

    Later on in life I met people who said that word “nigger” was not racist. They said that when they used the word, they only meant certain low-class black individuals, not black people in general. I guess this is what is meant by having a private language.

    Back then, the word “black” was considered semi-offensive. Now, o course, Black is Beautiful and the word “Negro” evokes a past of patronizing white people.

    There are certain expressions I used back then—”free, white and twenty-one” and “he called me everything but a white man”—that sometimes spring to my lips.

    But I have a well-functioning internal censor and don’t use them. I have a good vocabulary and have other ways of expressing these thoughts.

    Long story short: Good manners means avoiding language you know is insulting. I don’t feel I am “capitulating” to anything by avoiding the use of the word “thug” for now on.

    At the same time, I hope people don’t take offense where offense is not intended. President Obama used the word “thug” to describe the rioters on Baltimore following the Freddie Gray killing. I’m not to blame for being slow to get the bulletin that the word’s meaning has change.

    Also, as I say, there is an Orwellian aspect to this. Some say that acceptance of the status quo is a form of violence, but that actual violence in certain contexts is not really violence. I read an article by a writer on Counterpunch, whose name I forget, that objected to the “criminalization of looting.”

    Also, there is strange paradox in that, in many cases, you can get into more trouble for breaking a language taboo than you would for committing an actual crime.

    Trying to strike a balance on questions like this is difficult. It is simpler (not necessarily easier) just to pick a side and fight for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Vincent Says:

    Sorry, “capitulate” was an ill-chosen word. I tend to be casual about these things. My wife is black, from Jamaica. Living together in England is easy. When I refer to “your lot” it means black Caribbean. When she says “your lot” it could mean white, English or Australian, subject to context. Among ourselves, if we say “them” it means Muslim or ethnic Pakistani. In our local neighbourhood these descriptions are almost synonymous. Couples like us are common: we refer to them as “zebras”. We also distinguish Africans, of whom there are also plenty. Then there are the numerous white immigrants from eastern Europe who speak foreign. It’s an interesting part of town, not many English speakers.

    Most important is what you say: good manners, which I’m learning includes not even speaking ill of others when out of earshot. Exceptions include 45th president.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. ddamico361 Says:

    Phil, as I wrote in a private email to you, I had the same exact definition to the word “thug: as you did. However, your in-dept writing about the word and your efforts to communicate have left some lasting effects on me, particularly… “I just want to be sure to avoid language that causes people to misunderstand my meaning.” That is so simple yet profound. I cannot assume my meaning and speech will be taken as intended if I use the wrong words.

    I feel compelled to speak out when I see something has been said which is egregiously misinformed, primarily on FaceBook. However, rarely do I have any affect because each participant has their own meaning and identical words do not have the same meaning. There is no communication as long as meanings of words are not agreed upon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Shelley Adams Says:

    Hello Phil,
    Wanted to say thanks for your ending comment at the discussion. It is what l wanted to say and was going for. No blame, no shaming, no guilt…just open honest discussion of the subject.
    That conversation or discussion, brought up a number of different issues for different people l have heard from this week. I found it interesting that the first reply on your blog, used the example of the word gay and how it has changed, as l used the same example in a past discussion on words and their meanings.
    I agree with everything you said, and often don’t like it when a word is taken over and used to mean something different from its original intent. I do like to hear different sayings and words, have often used some myself, and find they can make conversation more interesting.
    However, there is always someone now to find fault with something.
    I totally agree with you that it is often the character of a person and what they are trying to convey that is important.
    I think l started a little side conversation when l used “tiger by the tail” in one of my samples. Oh well, we all just try to do the best we can, and at least get people thinking!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    “Policing of language can be used as a way to shut down conversation on important topics.”

    As J.K. Rowling found out.


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