Recently, one of our Moderators — one of the nicest, if longwinded, people you will ever meet — was banned from a Disqus house channel for using the word “thug.” The moderator, Kandy and Iodine Tabs stated it was racist to “people of color.” Oh. Really?
‘Thug’ is an oft-used derogatory term, and it turns out the Thuggees of India were actually pretty horrible people.
The word “thug” has been in the American lexicon for a long time, but the origins of the word date well past even the founding of the United States. “Thug” finds its roots in the Hindi word “thag,” which translates into “thief,” and the Sanskrit word “sthagati”, which means “to conceal.”
The first reference to thugs dates back to the writings of Ziau-d din Barni, a Muslim political thinker and writer, in 1356.
The original thugs were members of the Thuggee tribe, a professional class of organized criminals who swindled, robbed, and murdered travelers across the Indian subcontinent from as early as the 14th century. Tracing their origins back to seven Muslim tribes, both Muslim and later Hindu members worshipped Mother Kali, the goddess of destruction.
The Thuggees would join caravans as fellow travelers, gaining their trust until they reached a remote place where it would be safe to attack.
At times, different members would secretly join at different legs throughout the journey, pretending not to know each other, until the Thuggees outnumbered the caravan’s travelers. They would then rob and murder the caravan members. The typical method of murder was strangulation, usually with nooses, leading the British soldiers to nickname them “phansigars” or “noose-operators.”
Once the travelers were dead, the Thuggee members would then dispose of the bodies before stealing the caravan’s belongings and escaping. Various historical estimates place the number of their victims somewhere between 50,000 to 2 million people over the years.
It was largely a hereditary profession with membership being passed down from fathers to sons. However, in some cases, the Thuggees spared the lives of young caravan members, instead adopting them and grooming them to become a part of the Thuggee class, and it was not unheard of that an outsider could befriend and then be recruited by members of the Thuggee tribe.
It wasn’t until the 1830s when the British governor-general of India, Lord William Bentinck, and Captain William Sleeman – British soldier and civil servant – worked to eradicate the Thuggee threat in India.
Relying on captured informants, they were able to try, convict, and sentence around 2,000 Thuggee members. Despite British claims that the Thuggee criminals had been all but erased from India by the 1870s, they remained pervasive in the cultural conscience of the British. English and later American writers in the 19th century continued to write about the Thuggee class and were responsible for introducing the word “thug” to the wider English speaking population.
While the word has morphed over time, adopting different nuances and cultural significance, the original conception of a thug as someone who operates outside the law has changed little in the last few hundred years.
The first printed reference to a “thug” appeared in Ziau-d din Barni’s History of Fīrūz Shāh, which was written in about 1356. However, the Thuggees as a group weren’t “discovered” by the British or even widely discussed until the 1830s. That’s when the British governor-general of India, Lord William Bentinck, and Capt. William Sleeman made a concerted effort to eradicate the thuggees from India.
Nearly 4,000 thugs were discovered and, of those, about 2,000 were convicted; the remaining were either sentenced to death or transported within the next six years. Sleeman then declared the thuggee to be completely eradicated.
Mark Twain wrote extensively about the thuggees in two chapters of his classic 1897 travelogue, Following the Equator. As critic Gladys Carmen Bellamy notes, Twain “found India a strange and sinister land,” and these feelings are quite clear in his descriptions of Thuggees. Twain devotes page after page of the book to describing exactly how the Thugs killed their victims; one chapter is titled “Eradication of Thuggee.”
Twain also draws a parallel between India’s Thugs and Westerners in this passage:
“The joy of killing! The joy of seeing killing done — these are the traits of the human race at large. We White people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who not long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena …”
Gee, I guess Mark Twain was wrong, at least according to this Discus house channel moderator.
A thug is a thug, no matter how much melanin s/he has. It is someone operating outside the law. To claim that the term is inherently discriminatory against “People of Color” seems absurd and is itself racist.
Here in the United States, the word thug has long been a staple in rap lyrics. According to the invaluable site Rap Genius, “thug” appears in either the name of the artist or in the lyrics of over 4,800 songs. And Tupac Shakur famously had “Thug Life” tattooed across his abdomen.
Not everyone is happy with the prevalence of thug culture in hip-hop. As Tricia Rose writes in her book The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop and Why It Matters: “The thug both represents a product of discriminatory conditions and embodies behaviors that injure the very communities from which it comes.”
In the publishing world, “thug lit” refers to a genre of fiction that is trying to break into the mainstream. Best-selling author Wahida Clark’s website calls her the “Queen of Street Literature.” Clark is signed to Cash Money Content, a Simon and Schuster imprint that’s operated by the Cash Money record label, which is home to rappers Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and Drake.
I guess Kandy has been into the thug life a little too much.
So if a white person uses it, it’s “cultural appropriation” and “racist.”
And on the subject of racism, African-descent people are racist against fellow ‘blacks’ depending on how dark their respective skin color is. Talk about the pot & kettle… This last meme says it all, Kandy.