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The changing context of who gets called a ‘thug’ in America

A rioter stands atop a burning car as another man pours fuel onto the fire in Baltimore on Monday. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

As violence flared up in pockets of Baltimore on Monday, the city’s mayor had some strong words for those participating in the riots. “Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who in a very senseless way are trying to tear down what so many have fought for,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told reporters.

One word in particular stuck out: “Thugs.”

It was a word that Rawlings-Blake later said she regretted using.

“We don’t have thugs in Baltimore,” the mayor said at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore on Tuesday. “Sometimes, my own little anger translator gets the best of me.”

The word “thug” spiked on Merriam-Webster’s Web site overnight, as lexicographer Kory Stamper noted on Twitter. Some others, said her colleague Peter Sokolowski, were “racism,” “bigot,” “violence,” “riot” and “martial law.”

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Currently, Merriam-Webster defines “thug” as “a brutal ruffian or assassin.”

Stamper also tweeted that “thug,” as a word, has shifted in application and was once used to refer to “hired goons sent in by the powerful to break up protests, union rallies,” and the like.

We asked her to elaborate.

” ‘Thug’ has, in some sense, always been used to paint people as lawless, violent, corrupt (regardless of whether they were or not),” Stamper wrote in an e-mail to The Post.

The word’s first English use came in about 1810, derived from a Hindi & Urdu word meaning “thief.”

Merriam-Webster’s senior etymologist James Rader wrote in a blog post last year that the earliest English uses stem from a “vigorous” British campaign “against bands of highway robbers known as thugs. . . . The thugs were supposedly members of a centuries old hereditary criminal cast who befriended travelers and after winning their trust strangled them and plundered their goods.”

Even belonging to a group of thugs, Rader wrote, became punishable by a lifetime in jail under an “extraordinary legal measure” used to target the groups. Those thugs who were captured could turn in others in exchange for a reduced sentence.

“Thuggee” stories soon became the subject of popular rumor, epitomized by 1839’s “Confessions of a Thug.” Rader largely credits that book with popularizing the idea that a “thug” was “any brutal ruffian,” detaching the word from its original, specific context. And that context was itself “largely a product of British imagination,” Rader notes.

(The early British and American history of the word was also traced in a Gawker essay published shortly after people began to protest the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury decisions.)

“Thug” went in a slightly different direction in the United States, Stamper says. In the 1900s, “thug” meant “someone who was a habitual criminal.” In the 1930s, it meant a “gangster.”

Eventually, “thug” became the flag tied at the center of a tug-of-war between burgeoning American unions and the people who wanted to stop them.

“The unionization of American labor seemed to be a haven for “thug” use, where the word was used almost entirely of violent agitators, for goons hired to break unionizers and unionizers themselves,” Stamper wrote.”This isn’t that surprising: It was the age of sensationalism in journalism, and ‘thug,’ with its criminal overtones, was a great smear for both sides.”

Chicago was more or less the epicenter of “thug” as a union battle slur. Stamper points to a couple of examples: “In 1889, ‘thugs’ broke up another meeting of car-men, who were discussing their dissatisfaction with the Chicago political machine (according to the Tribune).”

“Thug” became a union tool in a headline from the front page of the May 17, 1890, edition of the Chicago Tribune:

Stamper goes on:

“From that point on, ‘tough’ and ‘thug’ were the favored smears used for anyone who disrupted union meetings or a workday. Unionizers seem to have been branded with ‘thug’ more often than those hired to bust unions were. That trend changed as unionization became more common: by the teens, ‘thug’ was used as often of people hired by employers to break strikes or target union leaders as it was of union sympathizers. As union struggles died down, so too did use of ‘thug’ in this way.”

As this second context for the word faded, “thug” popped up elsewhere, before settling into the context in which the word is used today. Anti-war protesters during Vietnam were “thugs.” So were civil rights protesters in the 1960s and ’70s. Anti-nuclear protesters were “thugs” in the two decades after that, Stamper notes.

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The word kept shifting contexts. Rapper Tupac Shakur celebrated “Thug Life” with a stomach tattoo and side project.

Per Gawker:

In the 1990s, there was something of a thug renaissance. The maligned and marginalized gay-rights movement had begun to reassert itself and claim queerness as a positive attribute, and many black men similarly responded to their demonization by finding solidarity in the old negative labels. Nobody typified or explained this celebration of “thug life” better than Tupac.
The aim was “to reclaim and transform the meaning of words in order to evade the surveillance of nonblack onlookers or to affirm self-worth,” Wellesley College professor Michael Jeffries writes in his survey of hip-hop semiotics and politics, Thug Life.

Just as the N-word was reclaimed and recast, Jeffries wrote, according to Gawker, “rap acts since the mid-1990s have embraced the word thug as an unapologetic affirmation of their experiences as black men . . . insulted by mainstream America.”

But that reclaiming has always been partial. As when applied to Baltimore now, by the city’s own mayor, “thug” remains a charged word.

“Though it’s a charged word, it’s not surprising to see ‘thug’ show up in commentary on protesters today,” Stamper writes. “It has a long history of such use.”

More reading: 

What you really need to know about Baltimore, from a reporter who’s lived there for over 30 years

A Freddie Gray primer: Who was he, how did he die, why is there so much anger?

Obama urges country to do ‘soul searching’ in wake of Baltimore riots