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Why Words Matter

The ideological battle over what we call things.

Words been in the news a lot lately, at least in terms of words that force us to face controversial parts of our history. Headlines have shone a harsh light on terms like Dixie, squaw, and Redskins, all seen as offensive based on the socio-historical meanings that have developed over time.

Many question whether they should remain as place-names or mascot, band, and team names, while, on the other side, some suggest that this is merely an overreach of political correctness. So, who is right?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, but perhaps the question being asked is the wrong one. The focus on whether we should eradicate the use of such terms, and the political maelstrom it engenders, diverts us from looking deeper into how these terms evolved and the social and cultural histories driving the battle over their use. Understanding where these words come from may help us to understand why they are, to some, deeply problematic and painful reminders of a racist past.

To begin with, many place names are colonial legacies, derived from European settlers who misunderstood or mispronounced indigenous words (i.e. squaw) or from terms that were used, often in a derogatory way, to identify ethnic membership (like red skins or, in more modern times, jap or the N-word).

Given this history, and since the meanings of words include not just semantic aspects but, critically, also the connotations that those words take on as they are used over time, it's not hard to see why words become sources of socio-political struggle.

Take the term Dixie, a word that certainly attracted a lot of press recently when the singing group formerly known as The Dixie Chicks decided to drop it from their name in light of its association with the South’s racialized past. But what is the etymological story behind the word?

For many, Dixie is simply synonymous with the South. But for others, it’s a reminder of a Pre-Civil War era that glorified the antebellum South and, with it, slavery. Linguist Ben Zimmer, in an article for The Atlantic, recounts how slang historian Jonathan Lightner discovered the word likely originated from the famed Mason-Dixon line that separated the North from the South (becoming known as Dixie’s Land). Dixie was a shortening adopted for the name of a children’s game in the early 1800s. (Another theory, that it was related to a $10 banknote in New Orleans, printed with the French word Dix, has been debunked.)

Frank H. Nowell - Dixieland//Wikimedia Commons
Dixieland Band 1909
Source: Frank H. Nowell - Dixieland//Wikimedia Commons

Innocuous enough beginnings perhaps, but from child’s play to grown-up mockery, the use of Dixie appeared in a minstrel song in 1859 which developed into the song “Dixie’s Land." In the song, minstrel player (and songwriter) Daniel Emmett portrayed a slave longing for life in the plantation South in a parody complete with blackface.

Though it originated in the North before the war, this song became a wildly popular marching song for the Confederate army and became the unofficial anthem for the Confederacy itself, forever binding this term with the romanticizing of a pro-slavery pre-civil war Southern way of life.

And consider the word squaw, a term featured prominently in many place names (Squaw Valley, Squaw Meadows, Squaw Peak, to name a few), and the focus of a number of renaming petitions by Native American groups. What is the history of this word which, in some cases, may seem distant even from its original meaning of ‘woman’ in the many names it occupies?

Again, the evolution of the term has not been straightforward, but was traced in the article “The Sociolinguistics of the S-Word: Squaw in American Placenames” by indigenous language expert William Bright. While the idea has been floated that squaw derives from a Mohawk word (ots' skwa?) for vagina (most notably on an Oprah show segment), Bright suggests there is little linguistic evidence to support this claim. Instead, it appears to be a term borrowed in the 1600s from the Algonquian language Massachusett, in which it meant ‘young woman.’

According to Bright, several contemporary Algonquian languages, like Cree and Ojibwa, have words with surface similarity (i.e. Cree /iskwe:w/), although the English appropriation of the word squaw was likely an anglicized and somewhat mispronounced version.

Like Dixie, the trouble with squaw isn’t its origin, but its usage over time. Bright found that the word was derogatorily used to talk about Native American women as having unattractive or whorish tendencies, and was often used in concert with the term buck to refer to Native American men.

This pejorative meaning emerges primarily in nineteenth-century journalistic and frontier writing, though it is to some degree found in literary sources, such as The Last of the Mohicans. Bright cites a description of a squaw in an 1883 memoir describing "the universal 'squaw'-squat, angular, pig-eyed, ragged, wretched, and insect-haunted."

Such descriptions might explain why dictionaries such as Merriam Webster tag it as an offensive term, and, of course, why Native Americans would find the ideological underpinnings of the term objectionable.

We may not realize it, but in the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names removed derogatory words from hundreds of American place names, including many with the N-word as well as the word Jap, as a result of their offensive and racist history. So this more recent push for revising names is not new or unprecedented.

A famous saying in linguistics is that ‘each word has its own history.’ While we often use words without knowing these broader histories, that doesn’t mean this history is forgotten by all, or that our positions relative to this history will be the same.

Part of what makes us differentially sensitive to what terms mean is that we come to them from different perspectives. Our understanding of a name or term is often shaped dramatically by our experiences with those labels and the historical, social, and economic asymmetries that accompany them. In other words, we might not personally find a word offensive because the history behind it hasn’t affected us. But that doesn’t mean ignoring that history makes the word, or the world, a better place.


Bright, William. 2000. The Sociolinguistics of the “S–Word” : Squaw in American Placenames, Names, 48:3-4, 207-216

Sanders, Eli. Renaming 'Squaw' Sites Proves Touchy in Oregon. New York Times (…, accessed June 30 2020).

Zimmer, Ben. “What Dixie Really Means.” The Atlantic (…, accessed June 30, 2020).

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