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The History of “Thug”

May 3, 2015
Ugh!  Now I have to go back and change every "thug" to "ruffian."   (image via Wikimedia)

Ugh! Now I have to go back and change every “thug” to “ruffian.” (image via Wikimedia)

I might have to stop using the word “thug” in my writing.  Over the last few days, several television commentators on several cable news stations have stated that “thug” is the new code for the “N-word.” I have to take their opinions seriously because cable news commentators are known for carefully thinking about what they say before they say it.

I admit, I use the word “thug” when I write.  I’ve used the word “thug” in a story that I’ve written recently.   In that story, the word “thug” is racially ambiguous, but that might not come across to the reader.  In today’s hostile cultural climate, a reader might see the word “thug” and assume certain attributes in my character that I hadn’t meant, and then that reader might assume that I am a racist.

I don’t want to be thought of as or accused of being a racist.  I don’t want to say the “N-word.”  I don’t even want to say words that rhyme with the “N-word.”  I always use the word “larger.”  I always say “that little lever your finger pulls to fire a gun.”  I don’t like to be misinterpreted when I speak, so I speak carefully, even more carefully than cable news commentators.

Being accused of racism is serious.  When I was in school, the worst thing to be accused of was passing gas.  Once a kid got called a farter, his/her reputation was destroyed, even if the accusation wasn’t true.  The same fear exists with racism.  Once you’re accused, that’s it; your reputation is destroyed.  Nowadays, the only thing worse than a racist is a farting racist because they spread both hate and nauseating smells, and that’s a bad combination.

Even though I don’t want to be accused of racism, it’s tough for me to let go of the word “thug.”  I like the way it sounds.  It’s short, so it’s tough to misspell.  It sounds much better than “ruffian.”  I really don’t want to use the word “ruffian” in place of “thug.”  Nobody really gets scared of “ruffians.”

If “thug” replaces the “N-word,” I’ll blame the British.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the British took the word “thug” from India in the 1800s.  In its original form, it was “thag,” meaning thief.  Then when the word “thug” found its way to Britain, it began to mean anybody who engaged in rough criminal behavior.  I usually don’t mind blaming others for my own problems, so I blame the British for “thug.”  I like the British, but this is all their fault.

Since “thug” originally meant “thief,” anybody who steals something is technically a thug.  So when looters clean out a store, they technically would be “thugs.”  When football player Richard Sherman was called a thug for trash talking after a football game a couple seasons ago, he had just intercepted an opponent’s pass, in effect stealing it, so technically, he was a “thug.” If he hadn’t just been a “thug,” his trash talking wouldn’t have made any sense.

If “thug” is the new “N-word,” and I can’t say it anymore, that’s going to cause problems because several common words rhyme with “thug.”  I will have to “embrace” my daughters, and they’ll look at me weird when I say that.  I’ll have to walk on the “small, thick carpets” in my house.  I’ll have to drink coffee from my “oversized cup.”  It’s annoying, but it’s a small price to pay in order not to be called racist.

If “thug” is the new “N-word,” then how are we going to refer to it when we’re talking about it?  We could call it the “T-word,” but there’s already another “T-word,” and that’s going to get confusing.  One “T-word” is a female body part and the other “T-word” would be considered a racial slur.  In the hierarchy of culturally insensitive words, racial slurs are usually worse than body parts, so the “T-word” would be understood to mean “thug,” unless the communicator makes it clear that a female body part is being discussed instead.

One of the television commentators said that “thug” is a new code word for racists, but I haven’t been able to verify that.  I’m afraid to.  I’d search for the new racist code words online, but I don’t want Google to have records of me researching “racist code words.”  I have enough problems (none of them racial) without Google notifying everybody that I was searching for racist code words.

I don’t want to speak in racist code, I promise.  The only reason I’d search for racist code words is to make sure I wasn’t accidentally speaking in a racist code.  I even looked up the word “thug” with a real dictionary so that nobody would have permanent digital proof that I looked up a word that might soon be considered racist.

Yes, I opened up a real dictionary and turned the pages and squinted my eyes.  I’ll do anything to NOT be accused of being a racist.


What do you think?  Do you use the word “thug” in your writing?  What other questionable words or phrases do you use in your writing?  What other words rhyme with “thug” that I need to avoid saying?  Does anything rhyme with “ruffian”?  How can I research racist code words (so that I can avoid saying them) without somebody believing that I’m a racist?

From → Etymology

  1. Great post– very thought-provoking and funny. I remember many years ago there was a brouhaha about a Washington, DC government budget official who used the word “niggardly” in its original (and only) context of being stingy. Of course, it’s a now archaic word that really doesn’t have much conventual usage for obvious reasons, but here was someone who genuinely used it for its original intent. The poor guy learned a valuable lesson about both conventional and smart language usage.

    Fear not, I have to believe that “thug” will someday very soon be used by all of us again. But just to be on the safe side, you might wish to wait a bit before you use it in the near future. 🙂

    • It was partly because of that word you mentioned that I don’t say out loud words that rhyme with the “N-word.” If that guy could use a non-racist word in the correct way and still get accused of being a racist, then it could happen to me too.

      Maybe “thug” will be safe to use again soon, but I just can’t take that chance.

    • The problem with that and so many other words is that they get overused in a very tabloid kinda way, and thereby lose their effectiveness.
      This article is political correctness gone out of control.
      In Spanish “negro” is simply descriptive, only positive or negative if the context makes it so. Does that help you to relax a bit, or is there now a prize on my head?
      We shouldn’t be always be dumbing down in deference to hypersensitive ignorance…

  2. I think you are overthinking this, “thug” word. I have never heard of this representing the N word. I don’t believe, it will be catching on. I mean, why not just use the N word if that is what is meant by a racist.

    If it does, I don’t believe it would be in the context you use or misconstrued as such. Words are a funny thing, I make up my own all the time or combine them. In context they make sense, out of context there is no such word. Weird isn’t it.

    I’m not sure “overthinking” is a word but, you understand what is meant, (hopefully). You don’t need to go by rules you didn’t invent, too confusing. It is only, your responsibility to be understood by the terms you mean and use, the way you mean it to be interpreted. The challenge of writing!

    Don’t trip, chocolate chip. No pun intended, LOL!
    You could say, “Don’t trip” is a hippie throw-back term and I mean, you take hallucinogens. “Chocolate chip” rhymes. You know.

    • Context is so important. Words alone don’t mean much. That’s the wonder of writing, that by combining letters and words we can form sentences and create very precise communication…

  3. I preferred “the defendant” once the issue of the behavior for which the thug got locked up was sorted out. We made no pre existing conditions such as race or any behavioral preference prevent the exercise of the swift hand of justice. Oh my, is justice another of those new code words also?

    • I haven’t heard anybody complain about “justice” (except for the lack of it in certain parts of certain cities). I think the word “justice” is okay to say and write.

    • When we characterize, that says more about the one that’s characterizing than the one who’s being characterized…

  4. I like this writer’s style and his crazy way of pointing out that some common words are out there that describe bad behavior that we all probably been caught doing at one time or another. Good job.
    This article sounds like one I wrote myself about 20 years ago when people liked me more.

    • – Before you discovered how scary your own shadowis, like the writer of this article also evidently has?

      • I’m okay with my own shadow. It’s other people’s shadows that I occasionally get concerned about.

        • That’s not much better. I didn’t know that I had that effect on anyone.
          It would be much better if you’d actually gotten the point of what I was trying to say, but I guess that was too much too much to ask.
          Clues are exessive political correctness and hypersensitivity…

  5. getuliogregori permalink

    Reblogged this on Fonte da arte.

  6. “Thug” comes from the Thuggees, assassins of India. Yes, they were thieves, but they murdered to conduct their thieving.

    That being said, the “Thug is the new N-word” is just another attempt to divine dogwhistles and play the race card. However, lest we forget:

    • “Thug” sounds much more intimidating than “Thuggees.”

      “Thuggees,” if it’s pronounced like it’s spelled, sounds like a diaper, and nobody is intimidated by diapers, at least not when they’re new.

      • The interesting thing is that there is no “th” sound in Hindi. So is thuggee is actually pronounced tugged, not thuggee. Maybe that makes it more intimidating. 🙂

        • Ha! I was mispronouncing “thuggee.” I also mispronounced Les Miserables for a really long time too.

          You’re right; the single syllable makes it more intimidating.

      • thatgirlbehindanikon permalink

        Thuggees really does sound like huggies. Oh my god.

  7. Apparently, the British missed the vital connotation conveying deceit when they imported the word ‘thug’ from India. It is a powerful word and I will be extremely sorry to see it imbued in racial hues. What a fart!

    • The great thing about “fart” is that it’s not racist and can never be racist. “Fart” applies to everybody.

      Maybe “fart” can be gender biased, though, because some women say they never do it.

      • I agree that seems to be the case at the moment. I wouldn’t be shocked though if the culture comes to see farting in a different light down the years.

    • English speakers will gladly destroy any language…

  8. Sreejit Poole permalink

    There’s always the incognito window, but I have a feeling that that might really be a NSA filing system to keep track of what people don’t want you to know that they’re searching for.

    • And if that’s the case, we’d never know about it, unless some disgruntled employee is willing to hide in Russia after exposing the system. I’ll stick to looking things up in the dictionary and hoping there aren’t any hidden cameras.

  9. Speaking as a Brit, I’ve only ever heard the word thug used to describe someone violent- a ‘nasty piece of work’ – who may well be dishonest, but the thug bit just is about the violence. Often associated with someone unthinking, who leads with his fists.
    I’ve not heard the link between thug and the N word, but then I’m not a newscaster, so what do I know. They are the fonts of all knowledge after all…

    • Derek Edwards permalink

      It wasn’t even a newscaster who started this all. It was a football (our type, gridiron ball) player who kept being called a thug because of his general persona, who cried “racist” to distract from issues that reflected poorly on him.

  10. Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t know that the word “thug” which I often hear from Americans was actually imported by the Brits from India.

  11. Yupp.! I Totally agree on import of the word “Thug” by the British from India. Being an Indian I can assure you that “Thug” only means a thief or a con-man(as already explained by you) and doesn’t at all indicate towards any kind of racism whatsoever, in its original form. And the “farter” part…. definitely used to be embarrassing during school days.

  12. i think you should research this question with the men in the funny white hats.

  13. Derek Edwards permalink

    Thug isn’t racist. The only people who have said it also see racism in their toast.

  14. Surprisingly, the talking heads are not quite thinking on all cylinders. In my memory, and I’m not THAT old, “thug” referred to persons engaged in organized crime of the family sort. And I really think that is what it still means, albeit with an intentional tongue in cheek: persons who basically live unlawfully as a lifestyle.
    This was as funny and enjoyable as ever, thanks.

    • Also, clueless govts use the word to describe discontent and social unrest…

  15. First paragraph comment: “Cable News Commentators” do not think about what they are saying. Most of them are empty suits and dresses.

  16. A comment about the whole, petty piece. I cannot accept the idea that “political correctness” ought to be taking us down the road to Newspeak. In the vernacular “thug” means someone who is wantonly committing criminal acts, usually without a gun. I’ve listened to citizens of all races describe the destruction on the street, to property and to people as being committed by “thugs.” The connotation of “thug” goes beyond “robber” and “burglar.” Not all bank robbers are thug-like, but a bank robber who takes on the role of a thug is a very bad dude.

  17. I really don’t think we should start taking works out of our vocabulary this way. I use the term Thug Cops for any cops that kills people because by definition – its rough criminal behavior. The more you avoid these words, the more weight you give them.

  18. percetakan rawamangun permalink


  19. I don’t use thug a lot. And I have thugs in the WiP, I think it’s that my main character just doesn’t think of them like that. It’s thief or enforcer or something more specific. Hmm. If I changed PoV characters, I think thug would come up a lot more.

    • “Enforcer” is pretty good, for certain tough guys. I’ve used “brute” a few times too, but that was just to demonstrate the guys had big muscles and weren’t too bright.

      One brute turned out to be a nice, law-abiding citizen, so I guess “brute” and “thug” aren’t quite synonymous.

  20. I like the word “thug” but I like battleaxes too and I wouldn’t swing either around carelessly. Hopefully it doesn’t become one of those words have to refer to as the “-word” After all, we only have 26 letters to do that with and I think C,F, and L are already taken.

    • You have to be careful with battleaxes too because “battleaxe” is a derogatory term for old person. In my quest to not be called a racist, I don’t want to accidentally offend an old person.

      • The definition I know of “battleax” is a 50+ lady with a difficult personality…

        • Oh, great! Now “battleaxe” is sexist too. This is getting worse and worse!

          • If referring to something means promoting it, then we’re all screwed…

        • Margaux Wilder permalink

          Check yourself, yskjs, before this battleax comes at you with a word that will describe YOU! THEN you’ll be sorry! (…where’s that tone button? Does s/he know I’m kidding, or am I gonna get flamed again? And what about ‘flaming?’ Is that homophobic? Uh oh….)

  21. thatgirlbehindanikon permalink

    A word on the N-word, though. As a teen in today’s age of social media and popular media in general- people say the N-word all the time. Not in an offensive or racist manner, everything is nigga this or nigga that, friends call friends niggas, rappers rap with he word easily and extensively, including black people. The N-word, in my generation anyway, doesn’t have such a racist connotation anymore, it’s use has become mostly commonplace and it isn’t offensive to most people. Here’s a link to some definitions from UrbanDictionary..

    • As an older person (from your point of view, probably), it would be very weird to me if any variation of the “N-word” became acceptable while “thug” became racist.

      Thank you for the Urban Dictionary link. I was able to do a little research with that without Google getting proof that I was looking at possibly racist code words.

  22. This article is spot on. The other day I used the word thug because I think of big, stupid, white guys in the 1920s mafia when I use the word. When everyone gave me an awkward silence, I was confused! It has to be explained to me that this was the new no-go word.

    • My thugs (or the thugs in my story) were like the guys you described. I’m leaning toward keeping the word as it is because the context of “thug” in my story is pretty clear. Like I’ve said, I don’t think “ruffian” is strong enough, and “T-word” kills the mood of the entire scene.

  23. bananaandgranola permalink


  24. themonkseal permalink

    Reblogged this on themonkseal.

  25. Reblogged this on ravipariyar and commented:
    जुन किरी को जुन संगै
    तारा हरू गन्दई थिये
    ऊन् कै नाम को शब्द जोडदै मन् को गित् गाउदई थिये

  26. Reblogged this on jamesmcraig and commented:
    So now we can’t use the “T” word?

  27. Zahara permalink

    It does not sound racist to me at all…people like to feel offended by everything.

  28. Every time I don’t read your posts, I’m doing it wrong.

  29. Anonymous permalink

    I have a 15-year-old gender-shifting ‘Social Justice Warrior’ living with me that is constantly schooling me [sic] on the ever-changing language, and I have been dragged, kicking and shrieking, into the world of language ultra-sensitivity. There are credible and important issues here, and then there are personal affronts to my vocabulary freedom: I no longer feel comfortable using the word ‘niggardly,’ and although this doesn’t require anything more than a quick change to ‘stingy’ on my part (allowing for lack of nuance), it actually did cost a young man his job for a while back in 1999:

    (sorry if the link doesn’t work, still a bit of a Luddite)

  30. Margaux Wilder permalink

    I have a 15-year-old gender-shifting ‘Social Justice Warrior’ living with me that is constantly schooling me [sic] on the ever-changing language, and I have been dragged, kicking and shrieking, into the world of language ultra-sensitivity. There are credible and important issues therein, and then there are personal affronts to my vocabulary freedom: I no longer feel comfortable using the word ‘niggardly,’ and although this doesn’t require anything more than a quick change to ‘stingy’ on my part (allowing for lack of nuance), it actually did cost a young man his job for a while back in 1999:

  31. Go to your private window, then your search bar, enter Urban Dictionary. Your browser history will show Google/Bing directing you to Urban Dictionary. It’s supposed to be private. I don’t believe that. But I don’t think anyone would care enough to follow that trail.

  32. Anushika Dubey permalink

    I hope I’m not being obnoxious when I point out that you wrote ‘a racist’ instead of ‘racist’. ‘Racist’ is an adjective and not a noun. Geez.

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