Trying to ban the word 'thug' to describe Baltimore rioters

A battle is underway to make the word “thug” a racial epithet, comparable to (or even worse than) the n-word.  When the president of the United States (“thugs who tore up the place”), the governor of Maryland (“Our city of Baltimore to be taken over by thugs”), and the mayor of Baltimore (“The thugs who only want to incite violence”) all used the word “thugs” to describe rioters and looters in Baltimore, they set off the latest battle over control of the words we are allowed to use.

The mayor of Baltimore, who would not apologize for using the expression “space to destroy” in describing her policy toward demonstrators, did promptly apologize in a tweet for using the word “thugs.”

I wanted to clarify my comments on "thugs." When you speak out of frustration and anger, one can say things in a way that you don't mean.

She reiterated her apology:

“We don’t have thugs in Baltimore,” the mayor said at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore on Tuesday. “Sometimes, my own little anger translator gets the best of me.”

The most visible and vehement proponent of making the word “thug” off limits (for non-blacks only) is currently Baltimore city councilman Carl Stokes:

On CNN, Erin Burnett referenced how President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake both used the term “thug” to describe the rioters, and how plenty of voices on social media had objected to the characterization.

Burnett asked her guest, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes, whether “thug” was an appropriate term by which to define the predominantly young and black rioters. Stokes vehemently disagreed. “No. Of course it is not the right word to call our children thugs. These are the children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us. No. We don’t have to call them thugs,” said Stokes.

Burnett quickly responded: “But how does that justify what they did?” Stokes: “Come on? So calling them thugs? Just call them niggers. Just call them niggers. No. We don’t have to call them by names such as that. We don’t have to do that.” To which Burnett riposted that she “would hope that [she] would call [her] son a thug if he did such a thing.”

The word “thug” derives from the Thuggee cult of India, which preyed on travelers, robbing and strangling them, and was suppressed by British colonial officials in the first half of the 19th century.  (An excellent fact-based movie about this, The Deceivers, was released in 1988.)  There is no dispute that it had no racial connotations until very recently.  For example, FDR referred to the Nazis as thugs, and both pro- and anti-union goons have historically been referred to as thugs.

But in the past couple of decades, some blacks decided to claim the word for themselves, and by implication exclude others from legitimately using it.  Columbia University linguist John McWhorter claims to NPR:

MCWHORTER: Well, the word originates in India as a word for roughly that. And because the British ran India for a good long time, the word jumped the rails from Indian languages to English, and that's the reason that we in America have used the word for a very long time. And until rather recently, it did mean what you might call a ruffian, but of course, things have changed.

BLOCK: Well, how have they changed?

MCWHORTER: Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blonde hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn't need to. It's most certainly is.

[NPR interviewer] BLOCK: Although, if you think about it, I mean, in two of the pieces of tape that we played, we heard from an African-American mayor of Baltimore and an African-American president of the United States using that word.

MCWHORTER: Yep, and that is because just like the N-word, we have another one of these strangely bifurcated words. Thug in the black community, for about the past 25 to 30 years, has also meant ruffian, but there is a tinge of affection. A thug in black people's speech is somebody who is a ruffian but in being a ruffian is displaying a healthy sort of countercultural initiative, displaying a kind of resilience in the face of racism etc. Of course nobody puts it that way, but that's the feeling. And so when black people say it, they don't mean what white people mean, and that's why I think Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Barack Obama saying it means something different from the white housewife wherever who says it.

Writing in The Daily Beast, Tupac Knew makes a similar point:

America’s historical precedent of associating black Americans with violence and dehumanizing identifiers has allowed the word morph [sic] in this manner.

Wait a minute!  Exactly who is assopciating blacks with the word thug, and with violence?  Professor McWhorter makes the point that black people themselves appropriated the word, and did so with a bit of affection (so long as the violence and anger were directed at non-blacks).

My question is: who gets to determine the meaning of words?  Doesn’t history matter at all?  I have never in my life associated “thug” with any racial group – only with violent and intimidating behavior.  If some blacks choose to associate that word with their own racial group, doesn’t that reflect shame on them?

I resent this linguistic bullying.  The language belongs to all of us.