Over the past few days, with the events transpiring in Baltimore, we’ve heard several people–mostly elected officials–toss around the word “thug” to describe people were were looting, setting fires, and engaging in other illegal acts. But do we really know what the word means? It doesn’t mean what you might think, and its origin goes all the way back to the 19th century.
The word thug can be traced back to the Hindi word meaning a cheat or a swindler. Early colonial accounts make mention of groups of Thugs who practiced Thuggee and were known to rob and kill travelers. Some histories even describe these Thugs as members of a religious cult that worshipped the goddess of death and destruction and killed in order to please her.
One of the earliest uses of the word in the United States is in 1852, when an article appeared in The New York Times which noted that the Thugs of India were:
“(A) terrible sect of religionists, whose worship is the most hideous in the whole record of false ideologies.”
The article then went on to compare the Indian Thugs to “the Rowdies of New York,” and then expanded on the metaphor:
“We have never seen the comparison made, but it is so obvious that it must have suggested itself to some reader or writer. At Hoboken, lately, a party of ladies and gentlemen were attacked by some New York thugs….Perhaps, next November, as our readers go to the polling booths, they will recollect what we have said about Thuggism, and for the sake of the City’s good name, will resolve to abate it.”
Even Mark Twain made reference to the Indian Thugs in his 1897 travelogue, Following the Equator. There was also a passing mention of them in the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In the movie, the Thugs were portrayed as villains from the Orient who were known to engage in human sacrifice.
When we reach the 20th century in America, we begin to see the use of the word in hip-hop lyrics such as those by Tupac Shakur, who popularized the term “thug life.” But as Michael Jeffries notes in Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop:
“The concept of the thug underwent a…transformation, from signifying disgust, rebellion, and nihilism to evoking coolness and power.”
Thug became a word of protest against the conditions so many young urban minorities found themselves living in. Jeffries writes:
“The label was attached to black and brown people, impoverished people, living in urban communities, regardless of their behavior. They adopted the word for subversive and oppositional reasons, and it found its way into the music. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of this word in the public sphere coincided with the uptick in the punishment and hyper-incarceration of black and brown people living in late 20th century urban America.”
Today, the word “thug” is most often used as a sort of socially acceptable replacement for the “N” word when one is talking about young black and brown men who somehow do not adhere to every single established norm or rule that has been imposed upon them. So if a young black person decides to refuse the orders of a police officer, suddenly he’s a thug.
Kim Wagner, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, best sums up why anyone would ever use the word thug, be it in the 19th century or today:
“To call someone a thug is politically dismissive.”
And if you can dismiss someone in such a cavalier fashion, you can then pretend their complaints and concerns don’t matter, so you can then ignore them. But ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. It only makes it fester.
This article was originally published by the same author at LiberalAmerica.org.