Anthropology Friday: Crackers pt 2

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From JayMan’s post on the American Nations

I am frequently frustrated by our culture’s lack of good ethnonyms. Take “Hispanic.” It just means “someone who speaks Spanish or whose ancestors spoke Spanish.” It includes everyone from Lebanese-Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to Japanese-Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, from Sephardi Jews to native Bolivians, from white Argentinians to black Cubans, but doesn’t include Brazilians because speaking Portuguese instead of Spanish is a really critical ethnic difference.*

*In conversation, most people use “Hispanic” to mean “Mexican or Central American who’s at least partially Native American,” but the legal definition is what colleges and government agencies are using when determining who gets affirmative action. People think “Oh, those programs are to help poor, brown people,” when in reality the beneficiaries are mostly well-off and light-skinned–people who were well-off back in their home countries.

This is the danger of using euphemisms instead of saying what you actually mean.

Our ethnonyms for other groups are equally terrible. All non-whites are often lumped together under a single “POC” label, as though Nigerian Igbo and Han Chinese were totally equivalent and fungible peoples. Whites are similarly lumped, as if a poor white from the backwoods of Georgia and a wealthy Boston Puritan had anything in common. There are technical names for these groups, used in historical or academic contexts, but if you tell the average person you hail from a mix of “Cavalier-Yeoman and Cracker ancestors,” they’re just going to be confused.

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map of the American Nations

With the exception of Cajuns and recent immigrants who retain an old-world ethnic identity (eg, Irish, Jewish,) we simply lack common vernacular ethnonyms for the different white groups that settled the US–even though they are actually different.

The map at left comes from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the 11 Rival Regional Cultures of North America. 

As Woodard himself has noted, DNA studies have confirmed his map to an amazing degree.

American ethnic groups are not just Old World ethnic groups that happen to live in America. They’re real ethnicities that have developed over here during the past 500 years, but we have failed to adopt common names for them.

Woodard’s map implies a level of ethnic separation that is probably not entirely accurate, as these groups settled the American frontier in waves, creating layers of ethnicity that are thicker or thinner in different places. Today, we call these social classes, which is not entirely inaccurate.

Take the South. The area is dominated by two main ethnic blocks, Appalachians (in the mountains) and Cavalier-Plantation owners in the flatter areas. But the Cavalier area was never majority wealthy, elite plantation owners; it has always had a large contingent of middling-class whites, poor whites, and of course poor blacks. In areas of the “Deep South” where soils were poor or otherwise unsuited to cultivated, elite planters never penetrated, leaving the heartier backwoods whites–the Crackers–to their own devices.

If their ancestors spoke French, we recognize them as different, but if not, they’re just “poor”–or worse, “trash.”

Southern identity is a curious thing. Though I was born in the South (and my ancestors have lived there for over 400 years,) I have no meaningful “Southern identity” to speak of–nor do, I think, most southerners. It’s just a place; the core historical event of going to war to protect the interests of rich elites in perpetuating slavery doesn’t seem to resonate with most people I’ve met.

My interest in the region and its peoples stems not from Southern Pride, but the conventional curiosity adoptees tend to feel about their birth families: Where did I come from? What were they like? Were they good people? and Can I find a place where I feel comfortable and fit in? (No.)

My immediate biological family hails from parts of the South that never had any plantations (I had ancestors in Georgia in the 1800s, and ancestors in Virginia in the 1700s, but they’ve been dead for a while; my father lives within walking distance of his great-grandparent’s homestead.)

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Dust Storm, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1935 “This was a bad idea.”–Grandma

As previously discussed, I don’t exactly feel at home in cities;  perhaps this is because calling my ancestors “farmers” is a rather generous description for folks who thought it was a good idea to move to Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl.

(By the way, the only reason the prairies are consistently farmed today is due to irrigation, drawing water up from the Ogallala and other aquifers, and we are drawing water from those aquifers much faster than it is being replenished. If we keep using water at this rate–or faster, due to population growth–WE WILL RUN OUT. The prairies will go dry and dust storms will rage again.)

To be fair, some of my kin were successful farmers when it actually rained, but some were never so sedentary. Pastoralists, ranchers, hoe-farmers–they were the sorts of people who settled frontiers and moved on when places got too crowded, who drank hard and didn’t always raise their children. They match pretty closely Richard Sapp’s description of the Florida Crackers.

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From a genetic standpoint, the Crackers are either descended from borderlanders and Scotch-Irish (the pink region on the map at the top of the post,) or from folks who got along well with borderlanders and decided to move alongside them. I find it amazing that a relatively small place like Britain could produce such temperamentally different peoples as Puritans and Crackers–the former hard working, domesticated, stiff, and proper; the latter loud, liberty-loving, and more violent.

Peter Frost (evo and proud) has a theory that “core” Europe managed to decrease its homicide rates by executing criminals, thus removing them from the gene pool; the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland were perhaps beyond the reach of the hangman’s noose, or hopping the border allowed criminals to escape the police.

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from HBD Chick’s big summary post on the Hajnal Line

HBD Chick’s work focuses primarily on the effects of manorialism and outbreeding within the Hajnal line. Of the Crackers, she writes:

“The third American Revolution reached its climax in the years from 1779 to 1781. This was a rising of British borderers in the southern backcountry against American loyalists and British regulars who invaded the region. The result was a savage struggle which resembled many earlier conflicts in North Britain, with much family feuding and terrible atrocities committed on both sides. Prisoners were slaughtered, homes were burned, women were raped and even small children were put to the sword.” …

i’ve got a couple of posts related to those rambunctious folks from the backcountry whose ancestors came from the borderlands between england and scotland. libertarian crackers takes a quick look at why this group tends to love being independent and is distrustful of big gubmint — to make a long story short, the border folks married closely for much longer than the southern english — and they didn’t experience much manorialism, either (the lowland scots did, but not so much the border groups). did i mention that they’re a bit hot-headed? (not that there’s anything wrong with that! (~_^) ) see also: hatfields and mccoys. not surprising that this group’s war of independence involved “much family feuding.”

Less manorialism, less government control, less executing criminals, more cousin-marriage, more clannishness.

And the differences here aren’t merely cultural. As Nisbett and Cohen found (PDF; h/t HBD Chick):

During the experiment, a confederate bumped some subjects and muttered ‘asshole’ at them. Cortisol (a stress hormone) and testosterone (rises in preparation for violence) were measured before and after the insult. Insulted Southerners showed big jumps in both cortisol and testosterone compared to uninsulted Southerners and insulted Northerners. The difference in psychological and physiological responses to insults was manifest in behavior. Nisbett and Cohen recruited a 6’3” 250 lb (190 cm, 115 kg) American style football player whose task was to walk down the middle of a narrow hall as subjects came the other direction. The experimenters measured how close subjects came to the football player before stepping aside. Northerners stepped aside at around 6 feet regardless of whether they had been insulted. Un-insulted Southerners stepped aside at an average distance of 9 feet, whereas insulted Southerners approached to an average of about 3 feet. Polite but prepared to be violent, un-insulted Southerners take more care, presumably because they attribute a sense of honor to the football player and are normally respectful of others’ honor. When their honor is challenged, they are prepared and willing to challenge someone at considerable risk to their own safety.”

It’s genetic.

(The bit about honor is… not right. I witnessed a lot of football games as a child, and no one ever referred to the players as “honorable.” Southerners just don’t like to get close to each other, which is very sensible if people in your area get aggressive and angry easily. The South also has a lower population density than the North, so people are used to more space.)

As my grandmother says, “You don’t get to pick your ancestors.” I don’t know what I would think of my relatives had I actually grown up with them. They have their sins, like everyone else. But from a distance, as an adult, they’re fine people and they always have entertaining stories.

“Oh, yes, yet another time I almost died…”

As for racial attitudes, if you’re curious, they vary between “probably marched for Civil Rights back in the 50s” and “has never spoken a word, good or bad, generalizing about any ethnic group.” (I have met vocally anti-black people in the South; just not in my family.) I think my relatives are more interested in various strains of Charismatic Christianity than race.

It seems rather unfortunate that Southern identity is so heavily linked to the historical interests of the Plantation Elites. After all, it did the poor whites no good to die in a war fought to protect the interests of the rich. I think the desire to take pride in your ancestors and group is normal, healthy, and instinctive, but Southerners are in an unfortunate place where that identity is heavily infused with a racial ideology most Southerners don’t even agree with.

> Be white
> Be from the south
> Not into Confederacy
> Want an identity of some sort

> Now what?

In my case, I identify with nerds. This past is not an active source of ethnic identity, nor is the Cracker lifestyle even practical in the modern day. But my ancestors have still contributed (mostly genetically) to who I am.

Well, this was going to just be an introduction to today’s anthropology selection, but it turned out rather longer than expected, so let’s just save the real anthropology for next week.

Just a Note on Ethnonyms

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Every now and then I complain about ethnonyms. Here is an excerpt from a recent paper (Paleo-Eskimo Genetic Legacy Across North America) that demonstrates the difficulty:

Current evidence suggests that present-day Native Americans descend from at least four distinct streams of ancient migration from Asia1-3. The largest ancestral contribution was from populations that separated from the ancestors of present-day East Asian groups ~23,000 calendar years before present (calBP), occupied Beringia for several thousand years, and then moved into North and South America approximately 16,000 calBP2. To be consistent with the previous genetic literature we call this lineage “First Americans”, while acknowledging that indigenous scholars have suggested the term “First Peoples” as an alternative…

How do people not understand that “First Peoples” IS NOT SPECIFIC ENOUGH for genetic, ethnographic, or historical literature? Like, maybe there are multiple groups of people on the planet that phrase could refer to, making it completely useless for identifying anyone?

Besides, what if it turns out there were people there before them? Do we go back to all of the old books and papers, cross out “First Peoples” and replace it with “Second Peoples”?

The archaeological record in the Arctic provides clear evidence for the spread of Paleo-Eskimo culture, which spread across the Bering strait about 5,000 calBP, and expanded across coastal Alaska, Arctic Canada and Greenland a few hundred years later. Direct ancient DNA data has proven that the Paleo-Eskimo cultural spread was strongly correlated with the spread of a new people that continuously occupied the American Arctic for more than four millennia until ~700 calBP… Paleo-Eskimo archeological cultures are grouped under the Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt), and include the Denbigh, Choris, Norton, and Ipiutak cultures in Alaska and the Saqqaq, Independence, Pre-Dorset, and Dorset cultures in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. … In this paper, we use the genetic label “Paleo-Eskimo” to refer to the ancestry associated with ancient DNA from the ASTt and “Neo-Eskimo” to refer to ancient DNA from the later Northern Maritime tradition. While we recognize that some indigenous groups would prefer that the term “Eskimo” not be used, we are not aware of an alternative term that all relevant groups prefer instead. The terms “Paleo-Inuit” and “Thule Inuit” have been proposed as possible replacements for “Paleo-Eskimo” and “Neo-Eskimo”, respectively19, but the use of “Inuit” in this context might seem to imply that individuals from these ancient cultures are more closely related to present-day Inuit than to present-day Yupik, whereas genetic data show that Yupik and Inuit derive largely from the same ancestral populations (see below). Moreover, the term “Thule” does not cover the whole spectrum of Northern Mar associated with the latest phase of this tradition. We therefore use the “Eskimo” terminology here while acknowledging its imperfections.

Yupik are Eskimo. Inuit are Eskimo. Inuit want to be called Inuit. Yupik probably want to be called Yupik but are happy with Eskimo and think those Inuit are trying to impose this “Inuit” name on them that they don’t use for themselves. There is no way around this that doesn’t involve too many words, which is why I just call them all Eskimo.

The term “Eskimo” is not even pejorative; according to Wikipedia, it means “a person who laces a snowshoe.” Snowshoes are very clever and useful inventions and there is no shame in being able to lace one properly. I mean, I’m an “American”, what’s that, a corruption of an Italian guy’s signature that got mistaken for a map label?

There is a claim that it means “eaters of raw meat.” This sounds like backwards or creative etymology to me, less sound than the snowshoe label. But even if it is true, so what? Eskimo do eat raw meat. So do the French and the Japanese. The traditional Eskimo diet is one of the best, most nutritious in the world and there is no reason to feel ashamed of it.

Maybe we should change “America” to “Burger Eaters.” We’d be the “Golden Arches Land.”

A rose by any other name would smell just as deep fried in oil.

(Also, since the Neo-Eskimo only show up in the archaeological records of North America around 2,000 years ago, a couple thousand years after the Paleo-Eskimo, they aren’t “First People.” More like Second or Third People. Numbering peoples is absurd.)

It is otherwise a good paper and I encourage you to read it; I just feel sorry for the authors for having to spend so many lines defending the concept of conveying information clearly.

Why POC is a Terrible Term

In my line of blogging, I refer, frequently and often, to groups of people. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about ethnonyms (perhaps too much time.)

So what’s wrong with People of Color?

Simply put, it doesn’t actually correspond with any meaningful, real-world group.

Whenever we speak of one group of people, we of course imply the existence of everyone else who is not of that group. We can speak of Chinese and non-Chinese, whites and non-whites, Poles and non-Poles. But it is clear from this phrasing that “non-X” is not a group defined by any common characteristic, but by lack of a characteristic–whatever X is. No one attempts to describe what it is like to be “non-Chinese” because there is no such real-life group as “non-Chinese,” and there is therefore no single experience that non-Chinese people have.

The term PoC attempts to imply that there such a thing as a unitary non-white experience, and by contrast, a unitary white experience. Take, for example, this comic, which is supposed to “[explore] a subtle kind of racism many people of color experience”:

picture-15abFun personal story time: Despite having been married for many years, doctors and maternity ward staff have assumed I’m single. (There’s special paperwork for single moms.)

Meanwhile, Asians are PoC, and yet these are not questions that people typically ask Asians, because there’s no stereotype that Asians have high teen pregnancy rates and are bad at school. Asians do have to deal with racism and dumb questions, but since Asians aren’t black, their experiences aren’t black experiences.

Indeed, the girl drawn in the comic is clearly not Asian, Indian, or Hispanic, but black! The author purposefully wrote about a black person, and yet the person promoting the comic decided to ignore this and pretend that the comic is about the experiences of all non-white people (and, of course, never the experiences of whites.)

This duality is false.

Whites are not particularly unified. It wasn’t so long ago that Germany invaded Poland and killed 1/5 of the population (not to mention all of the other people who died on various sides during WWII.) In 1932-33, the Soviet Union committed genocide against millions of Ukrainians (also white). During the Second Anglo-Boer war, the English committed genocide against the Dutch-descended people of South Africa. The Irish, Italians, and Jews are still claiming to be exempt from historical “white privilege” arguments due to discrimination against their ancestors.

Jayman's map of the American Nations
Jayman’s map of the American Nations

I could go on–the list of European wars and inter-ethnic conflicts extends approximately forever, after all.

In the US, of course, “white” is a more meaningful term than in Europe, but even here, there are major distinctions of class, culture, and genetics. The average white person from West Virginia is not the same as the average white from New York, Texas, or Minnesota. Not only were these places originally settled by different groups of whites–Appalachia received whites from the “borderlands” region of Britain while Minnesota is heavily Scandinavian–but they currently have very different cultures.

Class further complicates matters, with Southern and rural whites generally seen as low-class (and treated accordingly) by other whites. Much of our current political debate can be seen as a fight between white social classes, with wealthy whites using a coalition of non-whites as a cudgel against poor whites.

clk4xrpugam65ajIronically, Asian and Indian (not Native American) migrants are wealthier and higher-class than whites (though there are distinctions even among these, as “Asian” is not a single, homogenous group.)

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Now, I can hear some of you saying, “but race is a social construct, and yet you use terms like ‘black’ and ‘white’ as though they were meaningful! How are these more meaningful than ‘PoC’?”

Look, “race” is a social construct the way “color” is a social construct. There is no sharp dividing line between “red” and “orange,” but we don’t go saying that the electromagentic spectrum is a myth.

Racial groups are culturally, historically, and genetically real. Sub-Saharan Africans are more closely related to Sub-Saharan Africans than to Europeans. Europeans are more closely related to other Europeans than to Asians. And Asians are more closely related to other Asians than to Aborigines. Here is Haak et al’s full graph of modern human DNA (except for the far left portion, which comes from old skeletons):

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The “light blue” portion is found only in Africa. The “orange” is Europe and Asia. The “yellow” is east-Asian.

There’s an entire field of science devoted to tracing ancient migrations via the patterns found in modern human DNA, because the DNA of different ethnic groups is different. Black, white, and Asian are, in fact, fundamental genetic groupings as a result of early human migrations.

There’s another, related field devoted to ethnic variations in responses to medical care. Organ donation, sickle cell anemia risk, and even medications can be significantly impacted by race:

Although organ transplants can occur between races, matches are more difficult to achieve for blacks. Transplant recipients must have similar genes in their immune systems to those of the donor. Otherwise, the body will reject the organ.

G6PD deficiency is protective against malaria
G6PD deficiency is protective against malaria

And from Racial and ethnic differences in response to medicines: towards individualized pharmaceutical treatment:

Pharmacogenetic research in the past few decades has uncovered significant differences among racial and ethnic groups in the metabolism, clinical effectiveness, and side-effect profiles of many clinically important drugs.

The interactions between genetics and medication are complicated, and doctors have to know this because it puts their patients at risk not to.

No word is perfect. Every ethnonym represents a compromise between absolute accuracy and being able to make any statements about human groups at all. Not all English are the same, but we can still make some generalized statements that are basically true for most English people. Not all Chinese are the same, but we can still speaking meaningfully about “the Chinese.” There is a huge amount of variation among “whites,” “blacks,” and “Asians,” but even at this coarse level, we can still say some meaningful things.

“PoC” is a political term that corresponds to no real-world culture or group.

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.