July 09, 2009

Etymologist says "squaw" okay

Lawyer Matthew L.M. Fletcher responds to a posting by Oxford Etymologist Anatoly Liberman:

Oxford Etymologist on the Word “Squaw”—Indigenous Etymologist Needed!We could be wrong, but this article seems to be a classic case of an academic wearing blinders, or worse, an etymological ideologue.

In short, Liberman concludes that the etymology of “squaw” is that the word simply means “woman,” and so therefore cannot possibly be an epithet. He mocks advocates for changing place names to eliminate the use of the word.
Fletcher notes two main problems with Liberman's screed:First, the Oxford Etymologist’s etymology is incredibly superficial, and downright ethnocentric.

Second, Liberman’s arrogant conclusion that “The moral of this episode is that etymology is a science and in serious situations should be left to specialists” deserves a response. Liberman seems angry that there are modern movements afoot to chance place names, blaming it all on Suzan Shown Harjo’s 1992 appearance on Oprah for some maddening reason, as if no one in Indian Country had any idea that “squaw” was an epithet before 1992.
Fletcher quotes a paper by William Bright, which "explains pretty persuasively how and why the word 'squaw'—whatever its etymological origins—became the ugly, nasty epithet it certainly is today": The English word ‘squaw’ belongs to a rather special semantic set. It may be significant that the semantic Indian set ‘buck, squaw, papoose’ is unusual among terms for ethnic groups, in that it has separate lexical items to distinguish male, female, and young; this pattern seems to group Indians with animals (e.g. horse: stallion, mare, colt) rather than with other human groups (cf. Italian: Italian man, Italian woman, Italian child). Note that the word ‘buck’ is otherwise used to refer to various male animals, especially the deer.And:Nevertheless, historical examples can be cited. Just as feminists have shown that American men have often imposed a ‘virgin vs. whore’ dichotomy on women, so Green 1975 notes that 19th century American writers tended to classify Indian women either as ‘Indian princesses’ or as ‘squaws,’ the latter being routinely characterized as ugly and whorish. Thus James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826, refers to “the crafty ‘squaw’ … the squalid and withered person of this hag” (1983:239). The memoirs of Lt. James W. Steele (1883:84) referred to ‘the universal ‘squaw’--squat, angular, pig-eyed, ragged, wretched, and insect-haunted.’Fletcher correctly concludes that Liberman is wrong and the critics of "squaw" are right.

For more on the subject, see Squelching the S-Word.

Below:  One of several Indian Squaw Outfits. I.e., the "squaw" as slut or whore.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Urrgh, fur bikini. As if any Indian woman EVER wore those. On the plains at least, a loincloth was a symbol of virility, so IT'S A TRAP! (And yes, the admiral is used to refer to all transvestites.) Makes note of the trend to eroticize Indian women by having them wear mock men's clothing, will analyze for indications of repressed homosexuality among imperialists later. Will also analyze the eroticization of Indian men for indications of repressed homosexuality among imperialists.

Anyway, "squaw", there's a reason the twinkie list includes "You say buck, squaw, berdache, and shaman, and wonder why the Indians are all mad at you."

(See? Told you "It's a TRAP!" was obligatory.)