One of my favorite threads from 2006 was this one, about (among other things) the history of the word Yoruba. Unfortunately, I had to close it, like so many old threads [insert rant against spammers], so a reader named Hugh was unable to add a comment and instead e-mailed me. With his permission, I am reproducing portions of his e-mail here:

In my research, I also came across the following explanation…

“The word ‘Yoruba’ metamorphosed from a derogatory phrase the Igbos had used for the Oyo people. Before Oduduwa and his Obas put the whole Southwest to rout, the Oyos, who thought they were enjoying Oduduwa’s civilisation, would call the Igbos ‘bush people.’ The Igbos, to pay them back their insult, would call them ‘Oyo Oru Oba’ (Oyo, slaves of the Oba). That is how the name Yoruba came about”.

The point of my online research was to find an appropriate equivalent to the American prejorative “Uncle Tom” for a specific application… The phrase “Uncle Tom” exists as a pejorative, intended to describe a certain kind of black man deemed subservient to whites for which the term “ebonekhui” in the Edo language will work.
But another phrase needs to be identified or invented, to describe the black man who is subservient to Arabs and to Muslims. For the long history of Arab Muslim enslavement of black Africans… Perhaps someone knows that such a word or phrase already exists, most likely in Swahili, but possibly in one of the Kwa languages of West Africa, or in Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa. Anyone out there have suggestions for the Muslim equivalent of “Uncle Tom”?

So: can anybody help Hugh out? (No political rants, please!)


  1. I’m probably farther from being an expert on any language—let alone language in general—than most readers of this blog, so my opinion might amount to somewhat less than the usual two cents.
    Anyway, my guess is that the most common terms for blacks subservient to Arab Muslims would derive not from any particular language spoken by the slaves themselves (of which there would be many), but rather from Arabic words that the Arabs would use to refer to their slaves. So I think the terms abd (literally slave or servant) and kafir (generally used to refer to any ‘unbeliever’) would have been used often enough by the Arabs to refer to their slaves that the slaves themselves would have used the same terms to insult other slaves.
    There might have been other terms used by speakers of the various languages spoken by the slaves, but I’ll assume most slave populations would consist of speakers of several languages, meaning the terms in question would more likely come from the only language common to them at the time: the language of their masters.
    For what it’s worth, the two terms I mentioned are still used in a pejorative sense by Arab Muslims. Many Arabs still use the word abd as a derogatory term for blacks. Kafir is used (more and more, it seems) to refer to unbelievers of all colours and even Muslims who are deemed not Muslim enough, but it is also used in some places (mostly by white people, however) to specifically refer to blacks.

  2. Jordan, I understand where you are coming from. The term “kafir” or “infidel” as imposed by muhammedans does not capture the essence of “uncle tom”.
    The term I seek will describe those black people who, in accepting Islam, also willingly accept Islam as a vehicle for Arab supremacism, including the lingusitic, cultural, and political imperialism of the Arabs, an imperialism that has been of much longer duration, and far more successful (because so much more all-encompassing, and for some harder to detect).
    Darfur is a case in point.

  3. in arabic, there’s the word “zinj” (sometimes “zanj”) which means “black person.” my understanding is that it’s not always used in a derogatory sense. it could just be descriptive. “zanj” is also linked to an ancient semitic name for subsaharan africa in general and may be where the name “zanzibar” (zanjibaar”) comes from.
    another word for black people that is always derogatory is “zurga.” oddly, it comes from the word for blue (“zurqaa” is the feminine form of the word for “blue.” “azraq” is masculine version and is related to the english word “azure”)
    i wrote a blog post about “zurga” here
    kafir, as far as i know, has no racial component to it when used by arabs. it simple means a non-believer/infidel. it’s just as easy to be a swedish kafir as a congoese kafir.
    part of the confusion about kafir comes from the fact that the boers in south africa borrowed the arab word and started using it as a racial slur (see wiki). in south africa, however, black people were called “kaffirs” even if they happened to be muslim. in essence that use of the word kafir/kaffir now bears little resemblance to how the word is used by arabs
    as for “abd”, it does mean slave and also servant. historically arabs had black slaves, but the words use as a racial slur is complicated by the fact that abd is also part of a common arab name, what we generally spell “abdul” (although “abdul” really isn’t an arab name, just half of one. but that is a different rant). considering how many arabs call themselves “adb”, i don’t think it’s used as a racial slur at all.

  4. Upyernoz, thanks. I understand that Arabic has had it’s influence on the various languages spoken in this region. The term or phrase I’m looking for should be based in Swahili or one of the Kwa languages.

  5. It’s true, abd is often used in a non-derogatory way, in many Muslim names. My father-in-law, for example, is Abdul-Rahman. However, when used alone, not followed by the article and an attribute of Allah, the word abd means simply slave and is indeed used quite often by Arabs to refer to blacks (Muslim or not) in a derogatory way.
    Zanj is a very general term; I doubt it would be used often (if at all) in a derogatory way.

  6. I wouldn’t mind if Hugh explained exactly why he is looking for a prejorative word which may not exist? Languagehat’s request for no political rants when replying to a deeply loaded question (especially one which freely exchanges the word ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’)only leads me to worry.
    Still, your blog, your rules.

  7. Yeah, I’m posting this purely for its linguistic interest; I think Hugh’s reasons for asking are his business, but if he wants to discuss them with you he can let me know and I’ll give you his e-mail address if he so wishes. Otherwise, I see absolutely no value in a thread consisting of increasingly angry exchanges about people’s political/racial views (or rather the cartoonish versions other people hold of them). There are plenty of places on the internet for that sort of thing.

  8. Hey, who said Choderlos de Laclos’ craft is dead?
    I have enjoyed this exchange tremendously.
    Thank you, Mr.Hat.

  9. My pleasure!
    *doffs hat*

  10. I understood that abd’ as slave meant someone who looks to someone, so that sunflowers are called “abd al shams” – which is about as nice a formulation for the concept servant or slave as I can think of. It reminds me of the Chinese term for a royal court, chao2.

  11. The social prerequisites for a term describing “the black man who is subservient to Arabs” to emerge would presumably be a situation where blacks and Arabs are readily identifiable, and identified, as distinct groups, in which Arabs have long been the dominant group. This pretty well rules out Darfur (where the Fur enthusiastically pursued the slave trade, and the Arabs were historically tributaries to the Fur, and both groups look about equally dark to any outside observer anyway), but Mauritania or parts of the Sahara might work. If I were you, I would look for Mauritanians to ask. (And to say the obvious: I think you’re totally barking up the wrong tree when you look for “Islam as a vehicle for Arab supremacism”. Arab ethnocentrism – an unremarkable phenomenon shared with most cultures – predates Islam and is fundamentally incompatible with it.)
    However, Algeria can offer a couple of terms for an Algerian who helped the French or fought on their side: goumi or harki.

  12. I appreciate your insight Lameen, thank you, noting that Taraji Mustafa would beg to differ with you.
    Again, I prefer to limit the term I seek within the scope of Swahili or one of the Kwa languages.
    Out of respect to the site owner, I opt out of further responses entering the political realm.

Speak Your Mind