To tell you the truth, when I hear the word 'thug', I don't automatically think of African-American men, though it seems that this has become a common association. My associations are older, going back to the kind of gangster movies that I'd see on television as a kid. For some reason, I see a little white guy, though probably not Anglo-Saxon, scrawny but muscular, in a big fancy suit. And a fedora. Definitely a criminal, whatever else.
The reason that 'thug' evokes a menacing black man for some, and a scrawny white brawler for me, is that the word is an example of that etymological drift that I find so interesting. It really starts in India, and comes from the Hindi thaggi, and goes back to the Marathi thag or thak,which meant "cheat or swindler". The Online Etymology Dictionary makes less decisive claims that it probably goes back to the Sanskrit sthaga-s, and possibly to sthagayati, which means "he covers, he conceals".
"Thug" begins to come into our own sense of it, though, with the rise of a band of professional thieves and assassins in India who come into the written record by 1356 in The History of Firuz Shah. This group, apparently originally Muslim, but soon attracting Hindu adherents, sounds a bit like the Mafia in being a society with its own entrance requirements as much as a criminal enterprise. However their ritual practice of thuggee seems to have been a bit different than Mafioso style. Thugs would ingratiate themselves with travelers, and then, once they were part of the group, strangle them and rob them.
When Britain came to be a colonial power there, a task force was set to exterminate them, and seems to have succeeded. An informative article from The Guardian by Kevin Rushby shows how the word passed into our language. Its popularity stemmed from a novel called Confessions of a Thug, which was written by one Philip Meadows Taylor, who had been peripherally involved in the thug extirpation. He chose to fictionalize a real thug named Feringhea, who in Rushby's account, actually comes across rather better than his British captors.
|Group of thugs, 1894|
Here's the Chris Hayes segment. One thing that I found so interesting was to see the apparently intelligent and reasonable Sherman off the field as he articulated his discomfort about the thug reference. It's obvious that the rant was all part of the performance known as pro football.