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10 Etymological Controversies Over Well-Known Names

David Tormsen


Names are important, and yet there are many controversies over the etymology behind certain group names. This can be due to racism, politics, or simply the lack of good information about word origins. The following group names get people riled up at the pub.

10 Korea Or Corea

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The word “Korea” was derived from the Koryo dynasty, which was called “Gaoli” in Chinese and “Korai” in Japanese. The first Western reference to the country was from the 13th-century Franciscan friar William of Rubruck, who called it “Caule.” Over the centuries, Westerners used various forms, “Corea” appearing in the 16th century and “Korea” in the 18th. By the 20th century, “Korea” was accepted in English, while variations of “Corea” were used in Romance languages. But some say that the English spelling was actually a nefarious Japanese plot.

This theory is based on the notion that while old English maps from the 19th century spelled the country as “Corea,” it was renamed “Korea” by the imperial Japanese so Japan would appear first in English-language dictionaries. Chung Yong Wook, an historian from Seoul National University, believes that the Japanese pushed the change for the 1908 Olympics, so Japanese athletes would appear first. The only real evidence he presents is a 1912 memoir by a Japanese official complaining of rebellious Koreans spelling their country name with a “C,” though he’s sure there is more evidence hidden in archives. Proponents of the theory claim that “Korea” is spelled with a “K” only in English-speaking countries, although this would be a surprise to anyone with an atlas in Berlin or Helsinki.

In 2003, a group of scholars from both the North and the South met in Seoul to push for a national name change. Historically, the North has taken the issue more seriously, with North Korean news agency KCNA calling it “a never-to-be-condoned, state-sponsored crime.” This eventually spilled into the political world as 22 legislators tried to push a bill renaming the country the Republic of Corea, which failed. Proponents of the “Corea” spelling point to other examples of non-European names that are rendered with a “C”: Congo, Cambodia, and Comanche. They also claim that a “K” spelling suggests childishness and a lack of sophistication, as in “skool” or “kitty kat.”

9 Inuit Or Eskimo

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Many believe the word “Eskimo” is an unacceptable word to describe Inuit people, and in Canada and Greenland that is broadly correct. “Eskimo” has been used as a derogatory slur against the native Inuit and Inuk peoples. Despite decades of political correctness education, cultural attitudes around the word even affect people like Canadian soldier Corporal Esther Wolki, who contemplated suicide after a decade of being told by superior officers to “Just quit and go back home and be a drunk like the rest of the Eskimos.” But while its a slur there, things are not so clear elsewhere.

In Alaska, “Eskimo” is preferred, because it is inclusive of both the Inuit and Yupik peoples. The Yupik are a related non-Inuit group with a similar culture; they don’t even have the word “Inuit” in their languages. While Yupik resembles Inuit in grammatical structures, the language groups are quite different in their vocabulary and are generally mutually unintelligible. Interestingly, the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska includes the Yupik in its bailiwick, but refers to both groups as “Inuit.”

Part of the rejection of “Eskimo” is the belief it is a corruption of the Cree word askamiciw, meaning “eater of raw meat,” which has always been a racial slur used by the Cree against their northern neighbors. But etymologists suspect this may, in fact, be folk theory based only on a linguistic coincidence. Some say it’s just as likely that “Eskimo” came from a word meaning “he ties snowshoes.” Others dispute this based on the fact that the Cree would also have worn snowshoes. (Then again, consumption of cheeseburgers and nachos didn’t stop Americans from referring to the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” either.)

There is even an old school theory that the word was invented by Jesuit missionaries, who referred to pagan Inuits as “the excommunicated ones,” which also isn’t particularly nice. Regardless, etymology notwithstanding, it’s always better to avoid the word “Eskimo” in Canada or Greenland. (People in the latter prefer to be referred to as Greenlanders or Kalaallit.) It’s apparently acceptable in Alaska, but you might as well ask if the person you’re talking to is Inuit or Yupik and clear it up from the start. Maybe ask their name first so you’re not a complete weirdo.

8 Slav

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Photo credit: Semik

The Slavic-speaking peoples of Eurasia (including Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, and many others) are collectively known as Slavs based on their language family. But there is confusion over exactly where “Slav” came from and how it relates to the English word “slave.”

The first theory is that “Slav” derives from slovo, meaning “word,” with the ancient Slavs dividing the world into those who spoke language they found comprehensible and those that did not. This ties in nicely with the fact that the word for “German” in most Slavic languages derives from nemec, an Old Slavic word meaning “mute.” The second major theory is that “Slav” derives from slava, or “glory,” which is an understandably popular hypothesis among Russian nationalists and Polish humanists. One piece of evidence for this theory is that many Slavic kings had names ending in “-slaus,” but that seems a bit contrived.

The third theory is that the Slavs derived their name from the Latin word sclavus, meaning “slave,” in turn derived from the Greek sklavos. But this appears to be putting the cart before the horse. The ancient Romans traditionally used servus to describe slaves, while the Greeks used doulos. Sklavini first appeared in sixth-century Byzantine texts, referring to the migrating Slavic groups entering Eastern Roman territory, and it appears to have been taken by the Greeks from the Slavs, not the other way around. As the Byzantines captured Slavs in warfare and sold them into the Mediterranean slave market, sklavos became a synonym for “slave,” but it originally referred to the ethnic groups. This became the basis of the Medieval Latin word sclavus, the Old French esclave, and finally the English word “slave.”

Going back to the origins of “Slav,” scholar B. Philip Lozinski claimed in 1964 that it has its origins in the root word “slav-” meaning “worshiper,” which would imply the early Slavs had religious unity. Whatever the explanation, Slavic people have had etymological difficulties more recently, during 19th-century immigration to the US. Until the 1920s, Slovak-Americans were referred to in a variety of ways, including “Slovac,” “Slavack,” “Slovish,” and “Slavish.”

7 Bulgar

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Photo credit: Evgord

The ultimate origin of the word “Bulgar,” which led to “Bulgaria,” is still unknown, but many have attempted to get to the bottom of it. Twelfth-century Granadian traveler al-Gharnati believed “Bulgar” derived from balar, a scholar, but he was likely mistaken. One popular early modern theory said it comes from the Turkic word bulgha, meaning “to mix,” a reference to the supposed ethnic heterogeneity of the early Bulgars. This theory is now considered derogatory, and some say bulgha actually meant “mixing,” not “mixed.”

Another supposed origin is the name of the Volga River, which derives from the Turkic and Slavic words for moisture, but the Bulgars are mentioned by name before literate civilization reached the Volga basin, so that seems unlikely. Another claims the origin is bel plus gar, meaning “five tribes.” Yet another claims the word comes from burgaroi, a word for mercenaries stationed on the Roman border.

Some have drawn a link between the Bulgars and a Turkish tribe from northern China known as the Buluoji, suggested by an early Arab reference to the Bulgars using Chinese script and the traditional Bulgar calendar using an animal cycle much like the Chinese. But that just raises a chicken-and-egg problem for the name. It is understandable that Bulgars would be sensitive about their name origins, considering the rude derivatives of their ethnic name. The English word “bugger,” meaning “to sodomize,” came from Bulgarian, a reference to the Bogomil heretics and medieval charges of sodomy against them. In the early 20th century, “Bulgarian” was used as a code word for gay men and lesbians in New York theater, and an attempt to reclaim the term for a queer social network in the early 1990s led to Usenet flamewars with enraged Bulgarian nationalists.

6 Hispanic Or Latino/a

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The words “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t have precisely the same meaning. “Latino/a” is a shortened form of “Latinoamericano,” referring to a person whose roots come from parts of the Americas colonized by people speaking languages derived from Latin. Taken literally, this would not only include Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Central and South America, but conceivably also Quebec. “Hispanic,” on the other hand, means “pertaining to Spain” and is derived from the Latin term for the Iberian Peninsula, said to come from an even earlier Phoenician word meaning “land of rabbits.” It gained prominence during the Nixon administration after a push by bureaucrat Grace Flores-Hughes, and it would later make it into the official US Census.

Some resisted the nomenclature, insisting that “Latino” and “Latina” simply sound better in Spanish, while “Hispanic” discriminates against those with shared Native American or African descent. Some claim that those who insist upon “Latino/a” are taking a strong political stance, one that not everyone cares to follow. Some have decided to cut the knot entirely and prefer to be called by more specific terms like “Mexican-American,” “Cuban-American,” or “Chicano/a,” which refers only to those of Mexican descent and is derived from the Nahuatl word Xicana, an abbreviation of Mexicana (pronounced meh-chi-ka-na). An even greater number of people don’t care either way: While Hispanic is preferred over Latino by a 2-to-1 difference (and 4-to-1 in Texas), up to 50 percent of Lathispanicanos expressed no particular preference over one or the other.

5 Yankee

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To the European, a Yankee is an American.
To an American, a Yankee is a New Englander.
To a New Englander, a Yankee is a Vermonter.
To a Vermonter, a Yankee is someone who eats apple pie for breakfast.
And to a Vermonter who eats apple pie for breakfast
a Yankee is someone who eats it with a knife.

As you can tell from the above quote, the exact meaning of “Yankee” is unclear. It was used to describe the Union during the American Civil War and was generally used to describe all Americans by people from outside the United States. The etymology of the word is equally confused.

Daniel Webster (of dictionary fame) first had a crack at it in 1810, claiming it derived from the Persian janghe, meaning “a warlike man” or “a swift horse.” By 1828, he was claiming it came from Yengeese, a Native American pronunciation of “English.” A particularly popular theory is that it comes from Dutch, a combination of “Jan” (a popular first name) and kees (meaning “cheese”). That theory is well known, but it seems to raise more questions than it answers. The US Navy believes that it comes from Dutch merchants calling American sea captains yankers, meaning “wrangler.” Other theories include: a French corruption of “Anglais,” a word derived from the Scottish word “yank” (referring to a hard blow), and a British appropriation of the Cherokee word eankke, meaning “slave” or “coward.”

While none of these theories can be proven, there is evidence that it may ultimately have a Native American origin. The Lenni-Lenape referred to the English as Yankwis, though more often in the derivative Yankwako, or “English snake.” Other sources say that the Lenni-Lenape word referred to people from New England specifically, while the English proper were referred to as Saggenash and Virginians were just ominously called “long knives.”

4 Squaw

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Photo via Wikipedia

The word “squaw” is generally considered an offensive term to describe Native American women. The problem seems to stem from a tendency of white Americans to use the word “squaw” in a pejorative manner and as a synonym for “mistress” or “prostitute.” It was also commonly used in offensive depictions of Native Americans in film and television, where they would speak in broken English. (While it is likely that historical Native Americans who spoke English as a second language would have spoken it inexpertly, they wouldn’t have all sounded exactly the same and they wouldn’t have all used words like “papoose” and “heap big.”)

The 1973 book Literature of a Native America asserted that the word “squaw” was a non-native invention, probably the result of a French corruption of the Iroquois otsiskwa, referring to a woman’s sexual organs. However, linguists and Algonquian speakers disagree. The word ultimately derives from a Narragansett word that simply meant “woman,” and variations of the word exist in most Algonquian languages.

Its first written appearance was in the 1622 book Mourt’s Relation: A Journey of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and it was used in a non-derogatory manner. It started to take on derogatory color in the late 19th century, especially after the 1970s. One problem that arises in the etymological confusion is that people forget that while “squaw” may not have always been an ethnic slur, it has been used as one since at least the early 20th century. The fact that it wasn’t always a slur doesn’t mean it isn’t one now, and the history doesn’t give everyone else the right to fling it about willy-nilly while defending themselves with linguistic arguments. On the other hand, some speakers of Algonquian languages are annoyed that their word has been made forbidden and associated with wretchedness, all due to white racism and the well-meaning efforts of non-Algonquians who were only familiar with the word in its worst form. In general, its probably best to just avoid the term, unless you’re actually speaking to someone in an Algonquian language.

3 Burma Or Myanmar

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Photo credit: Corto Maltese

The southeast Asian country perched between Bangladesh and Thailand is officially known as Myanmar, but often referred to as “Burma,” as it was once known until its name was changed by the government in 1989. (At the same time, the capital city Rangoon became Yangon.) This controversy stems from the fact that many foreigners believe that since the name change was orchestrated by a non-democratic government without the express consent of the Burmese people, it lacks legitimacy. In this sense, the use of “Burma” is a pro-democracy political statement, and that is indeed the name for the country used by the well-regarded democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters.

The position of the Naypyidaw government is that “Burma” refers only to the most prominent ethnic group, while “Myanmar” is more inclusive of the country’s diverse peoples. This is contrived, as both words share the same roots and variant forms of both “Myanmar” and “Burma” have been used for centuries, with the former usually referring to the language and the latter referring to the people. British colonialists turned “Burma” into the country’s name, and they were certainly no more respectful of the wishes of the Burmese people than the current junta. It appears that things are starting to change of late, as Barack Obama used the term “Myanmar” when hosting President Thein Sein in 2012, with some saying that changing the nomenclature may be a cheap way to get some goodwill from the junta and help to push for further liberalization. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi has started to use euphemisms like “our country” and “this country of ours,” though she maintains that “Burma” is an easier name for foreigners to pronounce.

2 Pakeha

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The Maori word for a New Zealander of European descent is Pakeha. From about 1815, this was used for anyone born in England who came to New Zealand, and later for anyone of fair skin born in the country. In more recent years, the term has expanded with the arrival of Asian immigrants and now applies to any New Zealander who is not of Maori or Polynesian descent. Some New Zealanders dislike the term, believing the word is inherently offensive and derogatory, the equivalent of “white pig” or possibly meaning “bugger ya.” Other white New Zealanders have accepted the word as a self-identifier of pride, signaling their history and place in New Zealand while showing respect for the original Maori inhabitants and serving as a more convenient and natural name than the antiseptic “Caucasian” or “European New Zealander.”

Those who dislike the word believe that its origin is a combination of the words poaka (“pig”) and keha (“flea”). However, this isn’t entirely convincing as both of those species were introduced to New Zealand by Europeans, and poaka probably came from the English porker. One early theory suggested that the word originates from the word Paakehakeha, which referred to mythical ocean gods with the forms of men and fish, but the vowels used in the two words don’t seem to match. Another possibility is Pakepakeha, which were a kind of pale-skinned and mischievous forest folk. These elf-like creatures were also linked with the Patupaiarehe, who were fair-skinned people with beautiful voices and magical reed boats. These mythological etymologies make sense considering the very first term used to describe Captain Cook and his men was tipua or tupua, meaning “goblin.” Regardless, there is little evidence that the word Pakeha ever had a derogatory meaning.

1 Woman

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With the rise of feminist discourse in the 20th century, there has been a reaction against the inherent sexism of the word “woman.” The fact that “man” can be used as a synonym for both the human race in general and male humans in particular is grating and has led to the altering of words such as “chairman” and “policeman” and the development of the alternative spelling “womyn” for members of the female gender. But, etymologically, it is the use of “man” to refer to males only that is a corruption.

In Old English, the word “man” referred to human beings in general with no gender connotation, as remains the case in German. The word for females was “wyfman” and the word for males was “were,” pluralized as “waepman.” The word “wyfman” slowly developed into “woman,” while “wyf” started to refer to a married woman in the 12th century and gained the additional meaning of “female marketeer” or “saleswoman” in the 16th century. The simple “adult female human” meaning of “wyf” was lost, while the words “were” and “waepman” had also been lost by the 13th century. People had forgotten all this by the early modern period, joking that “woman” derived from “woe man” or “wee men.”

Sir Thomas More wrote in 1534: “Man himselfe borne of a woman, is in deede a wo man, that is, ful of wo and miserie.” And a 1653 quote from Richard Flecknoe appears in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Say of Woman worst ye can, What prolongs their woe, but man?” As amusing as these may be, they are folk etymologies at best.

Interestingly, the perceived correspondence between “female” and “male” is also a misnomer, as both words had separate origins. “Female” came from the Old French femelle, which derived from the Latin femina (meaning “woman”), while “male” came from the Old French masle from the Latin masculus (meaning “little man”). The transition from Middle English femelle to our modern English equivalent happened in the 14th century, creating a perception of an asymmetrical relationship between the words. Some say that, despite the etymology, the fact remains that the word “man” has for the last seven centuries been used primarily for males, and that the need for gender neutral pronouns is valid.

David Tormsen as a child corrected other kids who pronounced his name “Thompson,” which incited them to say it that way more. He still bears the scars. He tolerates people doing it today, but the smile is false.