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Daily Factoid: Etymological Origins Of Ethnic Slurs.

April 20, 2019

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While rummaging through the internet I came across the following article regarding the origins of ethnic slurs. Out of the many that appear in the article, I have chosen to include below only the ethnic slur that refers to Southern Italians specifically. I did so because I am of Sicilian heritage and have experienced the de-humanizing impact of that specific ethnic slur. I expect many of those who read the article have had a similar reaction to the slurs that were applied to their ethnic background as I have had to mine.

Etymological Origins Of Ethnic Slurs
David Tormsen November 27, 2015

Human beings like to divide themselves into different categories, a process that began with family units and tribes and eventually worked its way up to nationalities, races, ethnicities, and vaguely defined civilization groups. Another aspect of humanity is its natural tendency toward creativity. It was perhaps unavoidable that we’d spend so much time and effort coming up with nasty words to call each other.

Here Tomsen discusses the derivation of common several ethnic slurs including the following:

‘Wop’
This term, used chiefly in the United States to refer to people of Italian descent, has a number of false etymologies being bandied about on the Internet claiming that it derives from “Without Papers” or “Without Passport.” Supposedly, immigration officials at Ellis Island used stamps, chalk, or placards to designate those arrivals lacking sufficient documents as “WOP.” However, the association with immigration documents makes little sense, as the term has been recorded since 1908, while immigration papers weren’t required until 1918.

“Wop” actually derived from the Sicilian and Neapolitan slang term guappo, which means “thug” or “gangster.” Guappo may have come from the Spanish adjective guapo (“bold”) during the period of Spanish rule over Southern Italy. The Spanish term was itself derived from the Latin vappa, meaning “sour wine,” which the Romans used to describe a worthless person or loser. Southern Italian immigrants to the US used guappo among themselves, and it only acquired an offensive meaning when it was picked up by other Americans and mutated into “wop.”

By the 1890s, it was being applied to Italians in general as well as restaurants (“wop-house”), spaghetti (“wop-special”), and Italy (“Wopland”). It may have been popularized throughout the English-speaking world by early talkie films and was in wide use in English-language newspapers during World War II.

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