Posts Tagged ‘Definition of Thug’

Is the word ‘thug’ a racial slur?

June 11, 2020

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.”