Friday, January 24, 2014


 I am really not a sports fan, so news from the sports world usually comes to me obliquely and belatedly. Therefore, I only learned of Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman's story from watching a segment on it on Chris Hayes last night. In short, Sherman did some 'trash talking' about a player on the other team, which led various commentators to call him a thug, which in turn led Sherman to take it as a racial slur--which, given other racially inflected comments, it probably was.

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
One thing that does seem to stay with the word is its ability to inflame lurid imaginations. As Rushby says, official interviews with captured thugs mention women infrequently, and when they are mentioned its to say that they are not legitimate targets. This did not stop subsequent popular accounts from portraying thugs as ravishers of the fairer sex. On that note, I thought an interesting aside on the Chris Hayes show was one person's comment that the real "problem" with Sherman's behavior was that he was getting too het up around the female sports reporter who was interviewing him, a sin of proximity only. Perhaps, Jung is right and the best thing we can do in this life is to withdraw our projections...

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.


  1. I knew that thug came from what I have spelled in English thugee, and I knew its origins were Indian. But I had no idea that a word with connotations of criminal guile and stealth turned into an English word whose connotations are so strongly physical. In NFL terms, if Richard Sherman is a thug in the word's modern American sense, Bill Belichick, the Patriots' coach, is more a thaggi or a thak, according to what he gets accused of every few years.

    I read some assertion that Sherman had a 3.9 GPA Stanford. Granted that that school appears to lower its standards for athletic figures, to judge from public statements they sometimes make, it suggests that Sherman is probably no dope.
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    Detectives Beyond Borders

  2. What I "have seen spelled," that is.

  3. Yes, as Richard Sherman pointed out in the interview, being termed a thug was a bit harsh considering he didn't actually hurt anyone.

    Although of course we're translating from Hindi, so who knows, it looks like thuggee was the ritualized act of robbing and strangling, whereas the thieves were actually called thugs.

  4. My dad generally referred to football players as "thugs" and politicians as "crooks". Does that make "crooks" a racial slur?

  5. Well, it's not a compliment at least. It might be interesting to go into the development of that word over time, though.

    I remember my art history professor showing us a painting of some 1900s campaign or other. The look on the constituents' faces made her comment that Americans' distrust of politicians has been with us for a long, long time.

    Not so much with sports figures, I'm thinking.

  6. Seana

    Perhaps I'm unique in that I immediately think of the Thugees in India first before any other association perhaps because of reading Kipling at an early age or something or maybe it was the Moonstone...I think we used hood more than thug. Thug was always a little bit exotic, at least to me...

  7. I think that you are not unique, in that you are in some sense British. Among other things. Peter too has the thugees in mind. But I don't think Richard Sherman does, scholar though he is.

  8. Thug reenters my life. I attended a Noir at the Bar in Baltimore this evening, where a won a door prize of two issues of Thuglit, including the one with which you illustrate this post.

  9. Right, and I don't think the Thuglit series has much to do with racial slurs if I understand their themes.

  10. Nothing at all, as far as I can tell.