Know your slurs | Bleader

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Know your slurs

Posted By on 01.09.08 at 12:37 PM

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Did You Know? The word "honky" (almost certainly) originated in Chicago as a misappropriation of the (also pejorative) term "bohunk" or "hunkie," which referred to Hungarian, Bohemian, and other eastern European immigrants. Wikipedia suggests that the term was intentionally misappropriated in the 1960s for need of a slur directed towards white people, but the sourcing seems thin.

One theory popularized by John Leland in his well-regarded Hip: The History is that it comes from the Wolof word honq, meaning red or pink, but that theory is pretty well rejected by Jesse Sheidlower (editor at large of the OED and one of the U. of C.'s most awesome alumni). It does not, as I would have assumed, originate from "honky-tonk," which may come from the William Tonk pianos used by Tin Pan Alley songwriters, or from an ontomatopoeic phrase used to describe a "highly immoral" burlesque show in rural southern Oklahoma in 1894.

If you must know: I was trading Baltimore language trivia (yo: a self-generated gender-neutral pronoun; I guess English could use one) with a friend earlier today and recalled that one of the pejorative terms for whites arose in that city. Turns out it was "white trash." This all started with an exchange about The Wire, which employs the word "yo" as noted above and contains some of the most rich vernacular American dialogue since Twain. Yo is apparently unique to Baltimore, generally, though one of the commenters at Language Hat says that Spike Lee deployed it (in the plural) in 25th Hour.

This is what happens when you don't have hobbies or skills besides "using Google."

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