It turns out Eskimo doesn’t mean ‘eater of raw meat’:

In spite of the tenacity of the belief, both among Algonquian speakers and in the anthropological and general literature […] that Eskimo means ‘raw-meat eaters’, this explanation fits only the cited Ojibwa forms (containing Proto-Algonquian *ashk- ‘raw’ and *po- ‘eat’) and cannot be correct for the presumed Montagnais source of the word Eskimo itself. […] The Montagnais word awassimew (of which ay- [in ayassimew ‘Micmac’] is a reduplication) and its unreduplicated Attikamek cognate [ashkimew ‘Eskimo’] exactly match Montagnais assimew, Ojibwa ashkime ‘she nets a snowshoe’, and an origin from a form meaning ‘snowshoe-netter’ could be considered if the original Montagnais application (presumably before Montagnais contact with Eskimos) were to Algonquians.

Too late for the reputation of the English word, but good to know. (Thanks to Rusty Brooks for linking to this in his MetaFilter comment.)

Oh, and even if you prefer to avoid Eskimo, you can’t just refer to everyone as Inuit. The situation is complicated. There’s an interesting discussion by Steve Sailer here:

It’s generally assumed among up-to-date English-speakers that an ethnic group should be called by whatever it calls itself, not what outsiders call it.
Yet, practically no one outside of the Anglosphere worries about this principle at all. For example, Inuit Eskimos call French Canadians “Uiuinaat” or “Guiguinaat,” from the French word “oui” for “yes.” Anglophones are known as “Qallunaat.”

Considering how hard it is for English-speakers to correctly pronounce words even from other European languages that share our basic alphabet, asking Americans to accurately transliterate words from radically different phonetic structures would appear close to hopeless.

It’s become common, for instance, for Western journalists to refer to the “Qu’ran” [sic; should be “Qur’an”] instead of the traditional spelling of “Koran,” but virtually no American understands what sound the apostrophe in “Qu’ran” stands for. Nor could many even produce that sound properly.

Beyond the pronunciation difficulties, outsiders’ names are actually often more useful than insiders’ names for themselves.

Outsiders can enjoy a broader perspective that lets them see the similarities among ethnic subdivisions. In contrast, insiders can be so obsessed with small differences between themselves and their kin that they can’t see the forest for the trees. That’s why insiders’ names — like “Inuit” — sometimes discriminate against smaller groups, such as the Yup’ik Eskimos.

Tom Alton, the editor of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks’ Alaska Native Language Center, pointed out, “The name ‘Eskimo’ is considered derogatory in some areas of the North but is still acceptable in Alaska, mainly because Alaska includes Yup’ik people who are closely related culturally and linguistically but are not Inuit. ‘Eskimo’ includes Yup’ik as well as Inuit.”

Further, the word “Eskimo” is less ethnocentric than is “Inuit,” which implicitly draws a distinction between “the people” (the Inuit) and all those non-Inuit. Ironically, the movement to change ethnic names to those used by the groups themselves frequently restores these kind of self-glorifying terms. For example, Comanche Indians are now supposed to called the “Numunuu,” which means “the people.”

Sailer continues with a great discussion of why it’s ridiculous to use “San” for Bushmen, who hate the term: “It quickly became a badge among Western academics: If you say ‘San’ and I say ‘San,’ then we signal each other that we are on the fashionable side, politically. It had nothing to do with respect. I think most politically correct talk follows these dynamics.”


  1. I’ve heard that before, about Eskimo not meaning that.

  2. Michael Farris says

    Poor Eskimos, at least they still have all those words for snow.

  3. Heh.

  4. Robert Staubs says

    On the topic of insider/outsider terms, I’ve never seen the reasoning for the Ainu’s preference for being called Utari laid out. Is it simply that Ainu is the term most recently preferred by the ethnic majority?
    (ajnu “person”, utari “comrade”)

  5. Preferences can run the other way as well. An Iranian friend of mine gets annoyed when I call his first language “Farsi” rather than “Persian” since “Farsi” isn’t the English word for that language.
    I’ve been puzzled why the Indians, Burmese etc care what western publications call Bombay, Rangoon etc. Even more puzzling is that western publications went along with this. How do seemingly non political issues get politicized. Notice that none of the European countries whose names in English are not the local name seems to mind. I remember when the Czech Republic took that name and the concern about what the best English name would be. Nobody suggested ceska republika.

  6. phenyl_engine_rods says

    I just read a somewhat interesting essay someone had written (not published) about why the Indians have been renaming their cities: He basically argues that it boils down to political parties trying to win regional ethnic votes.

  7. The one that always annoys me is the Ivory Coast. It is supposed to be called the Côte d’Ivoire in every language. I see no reason to pronounce the name of the country in French when there is a perfectly good English translation that has been in use for years. I also don’t want to have to figure out how to do a circumflex. Fortunately there was copy-and-paste for this message.

  8. It is supposed to be called the Côte d’Ivoire in every language
    Is it?
    I also don’t want to have to figure out how to do a circumflex
    You wouldn’t have to if you were using a French keyboard.

  9. I always prefer the English word to the “correct ethnic word”. I say Persian, Burmese, Eskimo, and Indian (referring to our native non-Métis, non-Eskimo North American friends).

  10. There can be multiple English words, though — Indian, First Nations, Native — and of course Eskimo is an ethnic word.
    I think there is a difference between what people in a position of power choose to do (try to call people what they want to be called, modulo non-English phonemes, seems like a good plan) and what other people choose to do. Not that it’s not useful for all people to try to be courteous about this, but it makes a lot more difference when it’s the people in power.

  11. Andrew Dunbar says

    since “Farsi” isn’t the English word for that language
    Says who? “Farsi” is in the AHD, Collins, Encara, and Merrian-Webster online dictionaries, Encarta says it’s been an English word since the late 19th century.

  12. At our school they were referred to as the “Hairy Ainu” in Geography lessons. This led to jokes about Esau. Happy days, eh?

  13. Robert Staubs says

    “It is supposed to be called the Côte d’Ivoire in every language”
    Is it?

    Depends on what you mean by “supposed to be” but in October 1985 the Ivorian government asked that it be referred to as “Côte d’Ivoire” in every language and made it national law not to translate the name from French.
    Most government bodies respect this (the US State Department will never call it “Ivory Coast” officially and if someone does I imagine they get a stern talking-to). Whether others do is kinda hit-or-miss, though it’s generally considered okay to say “Ivory Coast” as long as you don’t put a definite article in there.

  14. Virtually no American??? Sorry, I consider this just foolishness to say. Millions of them must know what the aleph in Hebrew and hamza in Arabic sounds like.

  15. Living in Montreal, a city that has a fairly large population of Inuit & Métis people, I’ll say that I’d definitely feel a bit odd about referring to someone as an ‘Eskimo’, though I wouldn’t necessarily feel that way about referring to someone as an ‘Indian’, if I weren’t sure about which tribe or nation they were affiliated with. (though I’d probably say ‘native’ instead, to avoid confusion) Here we tend to get around it by using ‘northern peoples’ as a collective term in more official contexts.
    I just think it’s polite to call people by the names they wish to be called by – just like if you’re introduced to ‘the right Hon. R. Banks’ you’re not going to start calling him ‘Robbie’ unless he expressly invites you to do so.

  16. Right, but you don’t know what a person prefers to be called unless he tells you. If someone says “please refer to me as an Inuit,” that’s fine. But knowing that some people (like the Yupik) don’t want to be called Inuit would make me leery of making assumptions.

  17. Actually, the old thing about a multitude of Eskimo words for snow is also, apparently, an urban myth. There’s a whole book about it. (I’ll post again when I have more information)

  18. Yes, I think Michael Farris was making a joke about it. You can read about it here and here and get a nice list of English words for snow here. Geoff Pullum wrote the book you’re thinking of; I have a copy around somewhere.

  19. The Czechs call the Ivory Coast “Pobřeží slonoviny” literally the coast of ivory (slonovina ivory root is slon meaning elephant). The average Czech does not recognize other names for that country.

  20. Michael Farris says

    In Polish it’s Wybrzeże Kości Słoniowej (the Czech phrase I think would sound vaguely like Bacon Coast to Poles). I don’t know if Cote D’Ivoire would be recognized.

  21. According to the various dictionaries I’ve read, no one doubts that the word “Eskimo” has been around in the English language since 1584.
    However, there is no agreement on which Algonkian Indian language the word came from or what it originally meant. I have seen both “raw-flesh eaters” or “She sows a snowshoe” listed as its original meaning. Certainly, a similar word exists in the Micmac language of Nova Scotia esk’tamit “to eat raw food” (see Albert D. DeBlois – “Micmac Dictionary” – Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1996). However, there are many ethnic and topological names in in history like Pict (Fighters? Painted people?), Celt (Battle sword people?) Cherokee (Cave people? The Real people?) and even German (Neighbors? Shouters? Spearmen?) and Spain (Land of rabbits?) where the original meaning is in doubt and historical sources list several possibilities. ‘Eskimo’ may be just another one of these.

  22. I am supporter of the ‘legacy principle’. Do you imagine a German person disagreeing with others referring to him/her as ‘German’ or ‘Nemets’ and not ‘Deutsch’ (try to read this spelling in English :)).
    It’s not a common knowledge among Russians, for instance, why we are [rouskeeyeh]. A few professionals would give you a hypothesis or two. How can ‘Northern People’ be offended with a name they can’t even prove it’s offensive just because nobody knows exactly what that meant and in what language?
    Pure politics. Similar thing we had, after the Soviet Union desintegration, everyone wanted to impose on the others their native names of, say, capital cities, despite centuries of Russian usage tradition. Why on Earth do Russian papers writing in Russian for Russians have to change Alma-Ata to Alma-Aty, Baku to Baky, Kishinev (Chisinau) to Kishineu? Coming back to Europe, can you imagine the UK suggesting they have to use London instead of Londres in France?
    Making a long story short: Any traditional name should suit within a language native speaking community to refer to outsiders, unless it’s an obviously pejorative nickname. The “Hon. R. Banks” example doesn’t work, since both versions here lay within a single culture. Besides, for many language pairs, even if A’s self-name is adopted by B, A nation representative will not necessarily be able to perceive it behind B’s phonetics. So what’s the point?
    I personally am vitally interested in knowing nations’ self-naming just because I am in linguistics, which is far from being the case with most “conventional language users”.
    PS: The ‘Nemets’ word in the old Russian language used to mean ‘one who can’t speak the proper language’ and has the same root with the modern Russian word ‘mute’. It used to be applicable to any foreigner but then stuck to Germans. Any objections, liebe Freunde? 🙂
    pax vobiscum

  23. Michael Farris says

    Every gal in Constantinople
    Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
    So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
    She’ll be waiting in Istanbul
    So take me back to Constantinople
    No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
    Been a long time gone, Constantinople
    Why did Constantinople get the works?
    That’s nobody’s business but the Turks

  24. John Emerson says

    The Dutch / Netherlanders in the Netherlands / Holland have a particular problem in this area, but as the tallest people in the industrialized world, they just don’t care.
    The shorter Greeks, however, are notoriously touchy, and I can’t imagine that they like it when Ελλάδα is called “Griechenland”. All relativism, objectivity, and neutrality aside — what an ugly name!

  25. I don’t mind being short, and I certainly have no problem whatsoever with “Griechenland” (“Frankreich” sound “uglier” to my ears), “Greece”, “Grèce”, etc., as long as people don’t try to use it in Greek. I would prefer something like “Yelada” instead of “Xila” 希腊, but that does not really bother me either (and “Yunanistan” just makes me feel like we do have something to do with China).
    Unlike what an urban legend I’ve heard recently from fellow Greek who forgot to look up their dictionary, Graikos is a Greek word which appears in Aristotelis and other ancient authors.

  26. Is Yunanistan from “Ionian”? In languages of India the Greeks are the “Yovanas”, IIRC; in Indian drama some kings have bodyguards of Yovana women — IIRC, again.

  27. John,
    “Yunan” is the Modern Persian word for “Greek.” I originally found that out from an Iranian exchange professor I knew back in the early 1970’s when the U.S. and Iran had better relations.
    The name comes from Old Persian Yauna “Greek”, a corruption of ‘Ionia’ because the Greek colonists of Asia Minor whom the Persians conquered in the 6th century B.C. were Ionian Greeks.

  28. Michael Farris says

    I don’t think Griechenland sounds so awful, but the Hungarian name Görögország is no thing of beauty (and I usually like the sound of Hungarian).
    The name Yunan always puzzled me and I never would have guessed it was from Ionian, once more languagehat educates the (almost) uneducateable! (If uneducateable is a word and if it’s spelled that way, that is).

  29. Ineducable?

  30. This link suggests that the people called ‘San’ don’t, in fact, hate the term.

  31. As a linguist(-in-training) and an Alaskan, I can verify that no, Alaskans don’t use ‘Inuit’. It leaves out the Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Alutiiq (not to be confused with the Aleut). We tend to use ‘Eskimo’ as long as it’s understood in context to be non-derogatory. Sure, sometimes people use ‘Eskimo’ as a slur, but you can use any name as a slur.
    We’re even more likely to use Native (or Native Alaskan), though, because that includes all Alaskan groups (Yup’ik, Inupiat, Athabaskan, Tlingit, etc.). Someone *might* use ‘Inuit’ to refer to Canadian or Greenlandic people, but it’s pretty rare.

  32. you can use any name as a slur
    If only more people would realize this, life would be a lot easier.

  33. To: Whom it may concern,
    I’ve been trying to get Inuvialuktuit names, through the internet, but l seem to have no luck. So if you could lead me on the right path, l’ll be so greatful.

  34. “Greece” and “Greeks” never exist in history before 1823 y.”Greeks” never have state before 1823 y.Before 1823y they call himself Romei,”Greek” it`s from german “romantics” “historians”..from 19cent….”Greeks” alphabet is not “Greeks”,”Greeks” Gods are not “Greeks”,they steal alphabet,gods,history(not greeks word),culture,heritage from others,neighbourhood…from Macedonians…

  35. inuk living in Winnipeg says

    Why don’t we ALL agree that we are human beings with different languages and not be picky what to be called politically correct or not?

  36. Rich scholl says

    Yupik Eskimos (figure that combo out) are literate enough to use either term (proudly in my experience) depending on whom they are speaking to. It seems like the most confused are from the dominant culture becoming woke or those who feel dominated by them.

  37. jack morava says

    Perhaps tangential, but: I only recently learned about

    which go back to 1840 or before and which I think are the bee’s knees and an admirable invention. I think they should be better known; they look great on the side of an alien spaceship, BTW…

  38. They sure look nice.

  39. John Cowan says

    Note that they are isomorphic (in the sense “same structure”, not “same shape”) to Indic and Ethiopic scripts: a basic symbol for the consonant which is then modified for the vowel. It’s just that the modification for CAS is a rotation.

  40. AFAIK, the only syllabic script which works in the reverse (vowel symbol with consonant modifier) is Pahawh Hmong.

  41. John Cowan says

    I don’t think that’s a fair description. The characters used for onsets and rimes are equal in size and prominence, making Pahawh Hmong an alphabet. A diacritic on the rime letter represents the tone (if different from the inherent tone of the rime letter), whereas one on the onset letter represents a different onset (the result of combining an onset letter and a diacritic being unpredictable).

    What’s peculiar about it is that the rime letters appear before (to the left of) the onset letters. So for example the three-syllable name Phajhauj Hmoob (the name of the script in romanized tonal spelling) is written using six letters and four diacritics, thus: a, j-tone-diacritic, ntʃ, onset-diacritic-16B35; au, j-tone-diacritic, h; oo (phonemically /oŋ/), , onset-diacritic-16B35. The a letter has an inherent neutral tone, which must be overridden to produce the j-tone, but the oo letter has an inherent b-tone, so no tone diacritic is used. The consonant diacritic U+16B35 combines with the letter ntʃ to produce /pʰ/, whereas it combines with the letter to produce /ʰm/. (There are two recensions of the alphabet in use, structurally similar but with different letter-sound assignments.)

  42. John Cowan says

    On rereading the above, I see that it is barely distinguishable from gibberish. My apologies: I don’t think I can fix it, at least not now.

  43. David Marjanović says

    I understood it just fine, it’s just horrifying. Maybe you Went Mad from the Revelation on rereading?

  44. I have an acquaintance that is fluent in Hmong, as an L1. I had not even heard of Hmong before I met her.

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