On March 16, 2022

The sting of ethnic slurs

By Julia Purdy

Now that St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, we are treated to the usual time-honored ethnic slurs and jokes about the Irish: freckled red-haired leprechauns with huge grins and missing teeth, the drunken Irishman with his hat on sideways, leaning against a lamppost. We may recall when “No Irish need apply” and the rural ghettoes here in Vermont: for example, Irish Hill in Shelburne, Dublin Road in Plymouth.

There is no end to the ethnic- and race-based slurs commonly used in American social discourse. “Bohunks” (Bohemians), “Polacks” (Polish), “Guineas” (very dark-skinned Italians), “Dagos” (Italians, Spanish, Portuguese)… directed at immigrants, and many originating in World War II when Americans saw foreigners under the worst conditions (“How many gears does an Italian tank have? One forward and 2 reverse”).

Of course, the excluded groups have their own unflattering terms for others: WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), shiksa (non-Jewish girls), Gentiles (non-Mormons), unbelievers (read: infidel, anyone not born again in Christ); the list is endless. Most serve to remind the name-callers that they are “special,” to demarcate tribal boundaries so as to protect and perpetuate their cultural and/or biological uniqueness.

Much of American bigotry originates in religious observances such as the food people eat and how they worship. Catholics in particular were despised as “Papists” going all the way back to the reign of Henry VIII, who broke with the Catholic Church and created his own version which became the Church of England. Incense-burning and the panoply of the Roman church became anathema.

The abhorrence of Catholics still persists at the subconscious level toward Latin Americans and Mexicans. Now and then one sees a white Protestant supremacist flyer attacking Catholicism as the work of the devil.

In America, the Irish, Italians and French Canadians have successfully integrated into the mainstream over the past 150 years. In America, the Italians and the Irish have worked their way up the ranks from hard manual labor to becoming successful businessmen, lawyers and politicians, teachers and administrators. But the term “wop” resurfaced as a sore spot in a February 2018 speech by Nancy Pelosi, followed on April 19 by then Gov. Andrew Cuomo (both of whom have Italian surnames).

As they both stated, in the popular mind, “wop” comes from “With Out Papers,” as repeated by virtually any Italian-American you can ask. But both still drew fire for the use of the term.

The April 23, 2018, issue of The Atlantic quickly printed a rebuttal to this tradition, charging that the origin of the acronym “WOP” is just another urban myth, subverted to further liberal political agendas. The author, linguist Ben Zimmer, assails Cuomo and Pelosi for making “rhetorical hay out of the bogus etymology.”

So where did the term “wop” originate? Well, Zimmer says etymologists’ “best guess” is a Spanish term from Spanish-occupied Sicily (1409-1713) by way of Sicilians immigrating to America in the early 20th Century. The explanation, Zimmer offers, runs like this: the term comes from the Spanish word guapo for a “handsome, bold” young man, then entered Sicilian dialect as guappo.

Shortened in speech to guapp’ it somehow entered the English language as “wop,” just as prevalent as the n-word or “kike” or “dago,” “hillbilly” or “trailer trash” or “southern crackers.”

The term “connoted arrogance, bluster, and maleficence entwined,” according to music journalist Nick Tosches. Tosches’ book “Where Dead Voices Gather” is a “historical exploration of the Italian-flavored pop-music genre once known as ‘wop songs.’” Did the Italian immigrants refer to their songs like “O Sole Mio” or “Core ‘Ngrato” as “wop” songs??? (Those songs still bring tears to the eyes of the older generation, just as “Danny Boy” does among Irish-Americans.)

(Incidentally, the word “macaroni” originated in Italian as maccherone, meaning a swaggering dandy, preserved in our colonial-period ditty, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (“stuck a feather in his cap and called it….” macaroni???).

Zimmer further asserts that acronyms “became popular only in the mid-20th century” and compares “wop” to such acronyms as SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) but also to other non-acronyms such as “golf” (“gentlemen only ladies forbidden”) or “cop” (“constable on patrol”). (He omits SNAFU, “situation normal all [fouled] up) which came out of World War II.) In fact, the term “wop” never was a true acronym. Instead, it came from immigration officials at Ellis Island, to denote “With Out Papers.”

Given that virtually no immigrants from southern Italy at the time spoke English – and in fact, officials often had difficulty spelling the Italian name so they substituted an American-sounding one – those immigrants might simply have shown the paperwork with the abbreviation “w.o.p.” when asked to prove their identity. Zimmer offers a passage from an early New York newspaper in 1906 that printed the term to mean “an Italian in the latest downtown dialect.” Whose dialect?

Personal accounts and reminiscences support the use of the term. It would have been the talk around the family dinner table, reinforcing the sense of being strangers in a strange land.

Speaker Pelosi cited her own family back to her great-grandparents as hearing the term used derogatorily toward Italian immigrants. So did Cuomo. So did the Cleveland Indians manager Ken Aspromonte in the Tucson Daily Citizen, quoted by Zimmer:

“If anyone called me a ‘wop’ I was furious and wanted to slug the guy right then and there,” Aspromonte said, “but then one day my grandfather explained the origin of the word. He told me that in the early 1900’s so many Italians were coming into the United States that many of them didn’t bother to get visas. When they’d arrive on Ellis Island and didn’t have papers with them the inspector would holler out, ‘Here’s another one, without papers.’ So somebody took the letters ‘W-O-P’ for ‘without papers’ and that’s how it got started.”

And similarly in 1971, New York Herald Tribune columnist Hy Gardner wrote: “‘Wop’ reverts to the turn of the century when millions of Calabrians and Sicilians came off their ships holding a slip of paper with the name of the foreman they had been assigned to. U.S. immigration officials rubberstamped the papers ‘W.O.P.’—meaning ‘without passport.’”

It’s like the time-worn theory of how “Indians” managed to appear in America… presumably across the Bering Strait. But the Native people say, “We were always here.” And it turns out that new archeaological finds indicate they probably have been. A racial or ethnic group simply could not have their own history, it must be someone else’s (normally not of their own descent) version grafted onto them.

In the 21st Century, debating the origin of a term such as “wop” is like ecclesiastics debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The debate is irrelevant. To those of Italian descent, the term is not merely a linguistic oddity that can be easily dismissed as “folk etymology” or “etymythology” by scholars. It stings, as does any attempt to rationalize the sting out of existence. What counts is the demeaning intent behind the word, that makes those descendants feel – and their children believe – that they are “less than” the dominant culture, especially when their experience speaks otherwise.

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