Friday 27 November 2009


Years ago, at university, a friend of mine asked me what the pejorative of Greek was. I asked him what he meant and he said that the French were Frogs, the Italians Wops, the Germans Krauts, the Spanish Dagos and he wanted to know what the Greeks were. We couldn't work it out but we had fun trying. We had a good sense of hummus.

Just so you know, here are the etymologies of the major European pejoratives:

Frog Short for frog-eater (1798). Previously (1652) the pejorative for Dutchman because Holland is so marshy.

Kraut From the German for cabbage. First recorded in 1841, but popularised during the First World War.

Hun meant destroyer of beauty in 1806, long before it became the pejorative for German. That's because the Huns like the Vandals were a tribe who helped to bring down the Roman Empire (the actual order was Vandal, Goth, Hun pushing each other from Germany through France to Spain and North Africa). Matthew Arnold called art-haters Philistines on the same basis of naming people you don't like after an ancient tribe. It was Kaiser Wilhelm II who first applied it to Germans in 1900 when he urged the army he was sending to China to mimic the behaviour of their supposed Hunnish forbears and "Take no prisoners", a phrase that is usually attributed to him, although someone had doubtless said something like it before ("I'll be back" is similarly attributed to the film Terminator). The word was taken up as a pejorative during the World Wars as, though the Germans imagined their ancestors to be raffish and rugged, we thought them beastly.

Wop (1912) American term, from Neapolitan dialect guappo meaning dandy or gigolo.

Dago (1823) From Diego (obviously). Originally for either Spanish or Portuguese sailors.

Spic (1913) American term for anyone in the slightest bit Hispanic. Derives from "No speak English". Or maybe from spaghetti via spiggoty (1910).

Yank is far more complicated, which is why I'm sticking to Europeans. A rundown can be found here.

I, meanwhile, am a Limey (contra scurvy), Beefsteak (contra cows), Pommy ((?) rhyming slang pomegranate=immigrant or maybe Prisoner Of Her Majesty(?)), Sassenach or Sasnaes (Scots and Welsh terms for Saxon), depending on which of my detractors you ask. I believe in Kenya I may be a mzungu, but that's only because in dictionaries mzungu is always the last word listed under M.

I firmly believe that the pejorative should be a part of speech listed in dictionaries along with the accusative, genetive and so forth. In schools, pupils would conjugate words by chanting, "Child, children, brat."

I may start a campaign.

An early campaign against the use of pejoratives


  1. Why were Germans called Huns? If you are going to include a picture you ought to include an explanation too!

  2. Sorry, stray exclamation mark. I know how you feel about those.

  3. I have added the Hun in. It was rather long, you see, and on the subject of brevity I'm with Polonius.

  4. Polonius? A Polack!

    From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

    Po·lack (pō'lŏk', -lāk') n.
    Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a person of Polish birth or descent.

  5. Hamlet senior "slayed the sledded polacks on the ice". It used to be a non-offensive term. I don't think it's much different from Frenchy even now. There's an obvious comparison that while Hamlet Sr killed polacks gloriously Ham. Jr. only kills Polonius.

  6. Tell that to Houghton Mifflin. Much as I enjoy you blog, you are not The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.