David Skinner has a fascinating article at Slate that begins: “As Washington mopes to the end of a losing NFL season, the controversy over the team’s name appears to have plenty of fight left. To the language hound, however, the most remarkable aspect of this dispute may be its lack of historical context.” Skinner immediately goes on to say, quite correctly, “This fact, it’s important to emphasize, is entirely separate from whether people today, Native Americans especially, rightly find the term offensive.” As an old (if lapsed for the decades I have not been following the game) Redskins fan, I completely support the move to change the name. But Skinner is writing about something else, some largely unknown history:
In 2005, the Indian language scholar Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution published a remarkable and consequential study of redskin‘s early history. His findings shifted the dates for the word’s first appearance in print by more than a century and shed an awkward light on the contemporary debate. Goddard found, in summary, that “the actual origin of the word is entirely benign.”
Redskin, he learned, had not emerged first in English or any European language. The English term, in fact, derived from Native American phrases involving the color red in combination with terms for flesh, skin, and man. These phrases were part of a racial vocabulary that Indians often used to designate themselves in opposition to others whom they (like the Europeans) called black, white, and so on.
But the language into which those terms for Indians were first translated was French. The tribes among whom the proto forms of redskin first appeared lived in the area of the upper Mississippi River called Illinois country. Their extensive contact with French-speaking colonists, before the French pulled out of North America, led to these phrases being translated, in the 1760s, more or less literally as peau-rouge and only then into English as redskin. It bears mentioning that many such translators were mixed-blood Indians.
Based on Goddard’s research, the OED changed their entry, admitting that their alleged 1699 quote was spurious: “The OED now says the quotation was ‘subsequently found to be misattributed; the actual text was written in 1900 by an author claiming, for purposes of historical fiction, to be quoting an earlier letter.’” The whole thing is quite a saga and well worth your while.