Ethnonymic Creep is the Bane of my Existence

(a minor bane, but still a bane.)

Writing well requires, at the very least, two things: clarity and cadence. Clarity is meaning: words mean something. When I write, I do it because I intend to convey some idea from my head to your head, and if I am not clear, then you won’t have any idea what I mean. Cadence is the way the words flow together. People like reading collections of words that sound nice and dislike reading words that jar against each other.

Not all writing requires both clarity and cadence. For example, if a surgeon is about to remove a tumor from your lungs, you want the medical documents describing your tumor to be very accurate about its size and location, but you don’t particularly care if the medical documents are pleasant to read. Chemistry textbooks are very exact and thus make it very clear exactly which atoms go into specific molecules, and even go into minute details like which electrons they share, but aren’t known for their artistic prose. By contrast, a romance novel about a hunky doctor who saves the life of a brilliant chemist needs to sound good, but it does not (and really should not,) need to describe exactly where in the chemist’s lungs the exact chemical formula she was working with created the dreaded cancer.

457px-Hindoostan_map_1831Most of my posts focus, in one way or another, on groups of people, and so it is vital that you actually know which group of people I am talking about. But since I am writing for a popular audience and not people who have been forced to buy a textbook, I also try to make the posts pleasant and enjoyable.

Ethnonymic creep is the process of ethnonyms–the names for groups of people (and countries)–changing over time. For example, high-class Brits used to write about people called “Hindoos” who lived in a place called “Hindoostan.” Today we call it India and the religious adherents, Hindus.

(And just to confuse things, while “-stan” comes from an Indo-European root and means “land of,” eg, “land of the Hindoos,” and is usually preceded by the name of the ethnic group that lives in the area, eg, Balochistan is the land of the Balochis; Afghanistan is the land of the Afghans; “Pakistan” does not actually refer to an ethnic group at all but instead means something like “Pure land” or “Land of the Pure,” [I’m not sure which.] Of course it is totally valid to describe the kind of land one’s country is, mountainous or forested or pleasant or whathaveyou, but this does lead to the confusion that there must be an ethnic group it refers to. Not only is there not an ethnic group, but the obvious shortened form of Pakistani is a slur, so you’d better keep it all straight.

But these are relatively mild substitutions–the average person can figure out that “Hindu” and “Hindoo” sound exactly alike and that “Hindoostan” and “India” are liable to be approximately the same places. The average person is not likely to instantly realize that “Eskimo” and “Inuit” are the same people, nor “Gypsy” and “Rom,” (plural “Roma.”) The latter is particularly problematic because “Roman” and “Romanian” already exist, to which we are now adding “Romani,” the adjectival form of “Rom.” It’s bad enough that we already have Austria and Australia, Andorra and Angola, The Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, the people of which call themselves “Taiwanese” even though they’re mostly Han Chinese by ethnicity and the aboriginal Taiwanese are several small ethnic groups that were conquered by the Chinese.)

*breathes deeply*

I understand when people don’t want to be called by terms that are actually slurs. (I also understand that counter-signaling among friends is why people can use slurs among themselves without getting offended when they would be deeply offended if an outsider used the same slur, just as I can playfully punch my husband in the arm and he knows I am not actually punching him, but if a random stranger walked up and punched him in the arm, he might not take it the same way.)

But “Gypsy” is not a slur in English (at least not American English.) Americans don’t really know much about Gypsies, are barely aware that any Gypsies live in America, and so they don’t put much effort into insulting them. The idea that “Gypsy” is a slur and therefore has to be replaced with the linguistically unclear (and problematic, because it does not pluralize and adjectivize like an English word,) “Rom”/”Roma,” is simply untrue. Moreover, unlike Hindoo/Hindu, Rom is not an obvious variant of Gypsy. Many people, encountering “Roma” for the first time, will have no idea that this is supposed to mean “Gypsy,” nor do they deserve to be castigated as racists for using an “ethnic slur” that they have never heard anyone use as a slur.

Similarly for the switch from “Eskimo” to “Inuit.” Perhaps Eskimo–or Esquimaux, as I have also seen it–means something insulting in the local language of the Eskimo, but it certainly means nothing insulting in English. The Gypsies are actually known for a propensity toward theft, a reputation they would like to leave behind–indeed, one may cynically suspect that avoiding association with the actual Gypsy over-representation among criminals is the true motivation behind the shift–but the Eskimo are known only for building igloos, a custom the rest of the world finds delightful.

And to complicate matters even worse, while the Eskimo of Canada prefer to be called Inuit, the Eskimo of Alaska prefer to be called Eskimo, and think this whole “Inuit” thing is being imposed on them by those Canadians. If you want to be extra safe, call the ones from Alaska the “Yupik,” if you can remember that.

Oh, and now they’re Sami, not Lapps or Laplanders, even though “Lapp” was, again, never a slur in English (at least not American English,) because why on earth would we insult some random ethnic group from some other country.

And the children’s book “Polar Bears Past Bedtime” describes the Eskimo as “Arctic Peoples.” Ugh.

The Democrats have lately taken to pronouncing “Muslim” as “Mooslim.” Maybe that is closer to how Muslims pronounce the word, (given that there are countries with significant Muslim populations stretching from Nigeria to Bosnia to Indonesia, I doubt there is any standardized pronunciation anymore than “Christian” is pronounced the same in English, Russian, and Ethiopian,) but to me it just sounds like “moose,” and it doesn’t seem superior to me to call them after a large deer.

“Muslim” is itself a replacement for Mohammedan, which I encounter frequently in older scholarly works. (I don’t really read many older non-scholarly works, to be honest.) From the standpoint of utility, “Mohammedan” is a better term. “Muslim” tells me only that these people have something to do with moose, whereas “Mohammedan” tells me that they have something to do with Mohammad, a famous historical figure.

“Bantu” is supposedly a slur, but there’s no efficient replacement besides “Bantu-speaking-people,” which is too clunky, and in the midst of articles about Bantus literally eating Pygmies for dinner, we have people wondering whether it’s even acceptable to call people “Pygmies” anymore. Perhaps we should call them the Batwa or Bambuti People (redundant, since “Ba” means “people,”) but there is no singular term that encompasses all of the really short people of the world (who aren’t genetically dwarves, who prefer not to be called midgets and probably aren’t keen on “dwarf,” either–I hear they prefer “little people,” a phrase I use for small children,) besides Pygmy, so Pygmy it is. Personally, I think the Pygmies have bigger problems than whether or not we call them Pygmies, but the NY Times has recently taken to referring to them as Bambuti in an effort to disguise the fact that they are in fact talking about Pygmies, because the folks at the Times don’t want to get called “racist.”

I loved that movie
Nǃxau ǂToma, (aka Gcao Tekene Coma,) Bushman star of “The Gods Must be Crazy,” roughly 1944-2003

Meanwhile, the Bushmen actually prefer being called Bushmen, but Bushmen sounds vaguely improper so people have taken to calling the Khoi-San people (or Khoisan or whatever,) even though I think they have historically had rather violent conflicts with the Khoi people (Bushmen I believe speak the San languages,) and “San” is itself vaguely pejorative.

The indigenous peoples of the US are also linguistically problematic; last time I checked, a small majority of them preferred the term “Indian” as a collective noun, because “Native American” sounds like a label you put on artifacts at a museum, not a group of people, and they’ve been called Indians for hundreds of years, so they’re pretty used to it. Unfortunately, Indians are also the group formerly known as Hindoos or Hindoostanis, who now live in the US in large enough numbers that even if I use a somewhat clunky term like “American Indians,” it’s not entirely clear without context that I’m referring to indigenous Americans and not “Indian Americans,” ethnic people from India who now live in America.

The terms for Americans of African descent, likewise, have gone through rapid evolution. Since Americans actually care about what you call them, your choice of ethnonym is taken to indicate something about your political (or racial) stance. I do not know whether the terms used in Huck Finn were ever considered polite, but they were certainly mainstream in the 1800s. The intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois did not hesitate to refer to his people as “Negroes,” a term now seen, at best, as archaic:

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: … How does it feel to be a problem? … One ever feels his two-ness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder … He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.” — Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People”, 1897[19]

Du Bois also wrote The Souls of Black Folk.

We may safely assume that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did not use “colored” as a slur, but today the use is, at best, odd; we have replaced it with “people of color,” which is so clunky that even its proponents do not actually use it, but resort to abbreviations like “POC” or “TWOC” (trans women of color.) POC remains highly politicized (despite being efficiently short,) so those who do not want to imply a particular political stance are let with clunkier alternatives like “non-whites.” “Blacks” is efficient, but is regarded as somewhat pejorative–to be safe, you need the longer “black people” or “African Americans.” (And even then, you still get the occasional person trying to argue that these terms are bad because “People aren’t really black or white, they’re just shades of brown,” or “African Americans weren’t actually born in Africa, they should just be called Americans.” These people apparently hate communicating.) The preference for writing “African Americans” instead of “black” in more formal publications has lead, I understand, to at least one newspaper accidentally referring to Nelson Mandela as “The first African American president of South Africa.”

I could go on–how the term “purple” as referent to Australian Aborigines has disappeared (when I was a kid, I really did think that people came in a rainbow of crayon colors,) how “yellow” is no longer an acceptable skin descriptor, even though people in China actually use the term for themselves; the disuse of “Mongoloid” for the third great race of man; and other varied changes in ethnonyms–but you get the gist.

Of course, if I just wanted to be clear, I could easily list all of the relevant names for a group, a map of their range, and a photograph of a typical individual when discussing anyone not immediately obvious. But this takes up my time (and yours) and makes the text clunky. “Germans” is an efficient word, and I care not a whit that “Germans” is not actually the word people in Germany use for describing themselves in speaking German. It is a literary annoyance, then, that “blacks” cannot be used in the same way, and that “Japanese,” while I may get away with using it as a noun, is really an adjective. We can speak of Spaniards, Italians and Russians, Indonesians and Pygmies, but if we want to be grammatical, we’re stuck with “Chinese people,” “Black people,” and “Japanese People.” (I’m just glad I can still use “Jews.”)

Few words seem to turn over as quickly as ethnonyms. Even euphemisms for bodily functions, such “shit,” can be traced back almost unchanged to proto-Indo-European words ( “skheid,“) and “fuck” has been around almost unchanged since the 14oos, has numerous cognates in other Germanic languages, and probably hails from the PIE “*peuk” = “to prick.” (See also here, since that website is slated to go down in September, and here for a longer discussion of the relative antiquity of many vulgarisms.) We have not seen a cascade of polite words for defecation become crass over time as the upper classes invent ever new ways to avoid admitting that they, too, make poopies. (Though I am sure that if I looked, I could find some archaic swears in the likes of Chaucer.)

shoutout to my Serb friends
Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Belgrade

Nor do regular words seem to do this; as far as I can tell, this annoying turnover is limited almost exclusively to ethnonyms and terms for other groups of people (like “cripples” becoming “handicapped,” “disabled,” or “differently-abled,) and is driven largely by the twin forces of wanting to show that you’re worldly enough to know the latest, fanciest pronunciations (“Belgrade” or “Beograd”? “Chilly” or “Chill-eh?”) and wanting to signal that you’re not racist/homophobic.

One of the effects of constant ethnymic creep (other than making people get into stupid fights on the internet with each other over terminology,) is to make information less accessible by making it harder for people to know what others are talking about and by making them more likely to dismiss sources that don’t use the newest ethnonym. In some cases, I think this is intentional.

Making information about groups of people less accessible is, of course, the opposite of my intentions.

31 thoughts on “Ethnonymic Creep is the Bane of my Existence

  1. You’ve given away some personal information here. It seems you are a women. We’ve known you are an academic for some time.


    • This comment probably makes the author laugh if any of it is inaccurate.

      Anyway, yes linguistic drift is a thing. Having to change words every few decades is annoying, but not a huge cost, especially relative to the importance of showing people respect.

      What’s more concerning is the method of linguistic drift. *Obviously* this always starts from the upper classes and trickles down, because usually terms like these are a way for the Correct and Fashionable Classes to show they know better than the lower classes (the middle class adapts to what the upper class was using last year, and the lower class adapts to the middle class, we all remember celluar automata). Information collects at the top, then flows down.

      Given that this is a tool of class status games, it should not be treated as a bludgeon to make people feel ashamed. The words will naturally change, but people should not be morally condemned for their position in the rat race.


      • Words changing every few decades becomes a large cost when I’m reading a book from the 1800s and literally can’t figure out which ethnic group the author is referring to, even after Googling, using Wikipedia, etc. (which is what inspired this post.) I also get annoyed when books that are actually respectful and positive are decried as disrespectful due to older language. Like no, that is dumb. Everything ages.

        In general, I dislike what I see as arbitrary litmus tests of “respect” (or “affection.”) They’re unwinable games.


      • They are certainly unwinnable games, but they’re still inevitable games.

        Language is fluid and contextual. They were not speaking the exact same language as us in the 1800s, and translation will take effort. (My favorite example of this is how the protagonist of “All Quite on the Western Front” takes umbrage at the word “psycho” as disturbingly politically correct. But I would not argue that it should now still be polite to call a mental health patient “psycho”.) It’s not going to stay still, and the internet is going to accelerate that.

        What we can do is respect that these are class-boundaries, where linguistic signals are used to identify what class you are in, and to imitate other classes, instead of seeing them as universally true words that everyone should agree on. If someone asks you to use a different term for them, be polite and do so. If someone shames you for not having already known, then give them the same moral weight you would for someone who corrects you about what the right fork is to use at dinner.


      • Your a girl ;) & it pays to walk small.

        I keep several attorneys and a bail bondmen on retainer/ speed dial. Thought once or twice about getting their numbers tattooed on my forearm but I change out underlings fairly oft r not.

        Mostly I am against this shifting terminology deal because it’s a sign of weakness and I abhor weakness in men, cultures and what not. The conquers can call the conquered whatever they damn well like and in this world, you rule over others or are ruled


  2. Is there any indication that ethnonyms have always changed rapidly? It has seemed that the rapid change in the last century has more to do with the state religion of the West settling on ethnicity as a holiness marker (along with sexuality, another subset with rapid name drift). The youth are able to cringe with holy shame at the sound of their parents and grandparents using outmoded, low-status label usage, while hip/holy older (((Skype))) [did I do that right?] can keep ahead of the social guillotine.


    • I suspect that ethnonyms go through periods of rapid shift and periods of stability. Eg, rapid shift from “Mohammadan” to “Muslim” around 1950 (I think) but “Muslim” has remained relatively stable until recently. Early 2000s seems to have been a rapid shift period for a lot of words.


      • I spell muslim the old fashion way of moslem because apparently it’s offensive to hajjis and I intend on being as offensive as humanly possible to them


      • “Muslim” is pronounced “moosliim” in Arabic, so it’s sort of a lose – lose. On the other hand, listening to a Midwestern prole pronounce “Al-Qa’ida” grates on the ears. Once the proles pick up a brahmin signaling tick, it iterates.


      • Wasn’t Mohammadan dropped because it implies they consider him central in the same that Christ is Christianity (i.e. not a mere prophet)? Of course that raises the question of why we don’t call Buddhism something else.

        Also Pakistan from memory an acronym/abreviation/neologism of it’s regions with an i thrown in to ease pronunciation.

        Jefferson, I think you used the (((echoes))) incorrectly or it just reads weirdly to me. From someone who sucks at grammar I think you either use it around names of people and places, e.g. (((America)), (((banker))), (((citizens))) or as a replacement of a verb, e.g. (((banking))), (((adjusting))).


      • IMO, Christ and Mohammad were both founders of new religious movements, so the comparison is apt.
        “Judaism” comes from the name “Judah,” leader of a tribe in Israel back in the day, who is way less important to Judaism than Mohammad is to Islam. (Kind of hard to miss the importance of Mohammad.) “Mosesism” or “Yahwehism” or even “Torahism” would be much more accurate.


  3. I’ve long seen the terms “dot Indian” and “feather Indian”, which clears up that ambiguity.

    Africans are now being referred to as “googles” and Jews as “skypes”, supposedly to make these terms harder for Google to censor.

    I prefer to say “African” without “-American” because people who kneel and raise a fist during the national anthem are not Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Slur creep is not such a bane because I don’t use ethnic slurs, but if future generations try to read these things, they’re going to be confused.

      “Blacks” is better suited to your purpose than “Africans” because it doesn’t result in confusion w/recently arrived immigrants.


  4. Just a random factoid, only tangentially related… In “The Gods Must Be Crazy 2”, the children speak an entirely different language than the star. It would be something like having one character speak English and his supposed kids speaking Arabic, and nobody is bilingual.


  5. “Unfortunately, Indians are also the group formerly known as Hindoos or Hindoostanis, who now live in the US in large enough numbers that even if I use a somewhat clunky term like “American Indians,” it’s not entirely clear without context that I’m referring to indigenous Americans and not “Indian Americans,” ethnic people from India who now live in America.”

    I’m guessing it’s not PC to ask “dot or feather?”


    • A friend who’s only been an American for about a decade from Canada was speaking to an Indian guy, (American since ’06), recently, and when speaking about his wife, he mentioned to the Indian guy, that she is an Indian, but “feather, not dot.” The Indian guy was confused and said, “did you say she’s a feather?” The friend said, “Yes, she’s a “feather” Indian, not a “dot” Indian like you.”
      I can honestly say I’ve never seen an Indian man laugh so hard. He was extremely excited to learn this “cool lingo,” and couldn’t wait to use it on his wife. Who knows what offends, these days? Yeah, I don’t know either, but I’m sure there’s 8 million middle/upper middle class, college educated, young white women who are always on duty to police everyone’s language. My! They are just SO delightful.
      Personally, I loathe the whole class in-grouping/out-grouping used against folks who might not be as educated or informed or who’ve, unbeknownst to them, somehow avoided prolonged contact with those who consider themselves as the #SmartSet. The biggest thing folks under 35 need more than anything these days, is to be a whole lot more offended and a whole lot less sensitive.


      • There’s a mural at Harvard depicting a Revolutionary War battle in which, oddly, some of the fighters are wearing turbans. Yes, the artist was told that some of the fighters were Indians, and painted the wrong kind…
        Communication: it’s a good thing.


  6. This kind of semantic change is actually quite common. Often we sort of unconsciously adapt to the expanded semantic range which ordinary concepts take on in bygone centuries, but at other times the changes can make it quite easy to misinterpret old books.

    Be that as it may, the dynamics are quite interesting, especially when they show up over and over again. For example, “cultivation” and “improvement” both followed the same track from economic development (plowing fields, clearing land, draining swamps) to metaphorical *self*-cultivation or *self*-improvement, which then became the main sense (and both were subsequently extended from there to a more abstract, generic sense of “to promote/make better”)


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