So I was scrolling through the latest OED update, looking up (as is my wont) any words that strike me, and one of them was Pokot. It rang a faint bell, and when I saw “A member of an East African Nilotic people inhabiting parts of western Kenya and eastern central Uganda” I remembered that I had seen the name in language books (sometimes spelled Pökoot). But the etymology (origin unknown, in case you were wondering) included the line “The former name SUK n. and adj. is considered to be derogatory.” So of course I looked up Suk (“a. An East African people who inhabit an area on the Uganda-Kenya border; a member of this people. b. The Nilotic language spoken by the Suk”) and found no etymology at all; I presume they’ll add one, along with a “derogatory” note, when they get around to the su– words in a few years. At any rate, I plan to add this to my arsenal of examples of “correct” and “bad” ethnic names that people cannot reasonably be expected to be aware of (Oromo/Galla being another); I like to bring them up when people get too smug and snippy about correcting other people’s usage (“Surely you’re aware that the people you’re calling X prefer to be called Y, you hegemonic imperialist pig”). I’m all for spreading the word about such things, but it should be done in an ‘umble and kindly manner, with full awareness that one is likely an unwitting sinner oneself.
(Incidentally, the stress in Pokot is on the second syllable: puh-KOHT.)


  1. The Suck people are touchy suckers.

  2. I doggedly stick with Esquimaux: Inuit just sounds too much like idiot to me, with a little bit of ‘ingenuous’.

  3. I saw someone saying that Bushmen and Hottentots shouldn’t be called “San” because many of them find it offensive. But then the true point of PC isn’t the feelings of the referrants, is it?

  4. James Crippen says

    It’s okay to call them Eskimos. The derogatoriness of the name is a myth, although one which unfortunately some Eskimo people have fallen prey to. Also, it’s the only appropriate name when referring to the group of people which includes the Inuit in Canada, the Inupiat in northern Alaska, the Yupik in western Alaska, the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq in southcentral Alaska, and the Siberian Yupik in Alaska and Siberia. The ones in Alaska are emphatically not Inuit, as was explained to me many times while growing up in Alaska.

  5. Well, Dr. Crippen, you have one over on the OED then. Can you bust the OED’s world-beating etymology of ‘Eskimo’ as ‘eater of raw flesh’?

  6. Siganus Sutor says

    Even though he is one of my favourite authors, I never knew that Rabbi Chaim may have had cousins in Uganda and Kenya. Instead I would rather have thought of Ethiopia, where used to live the people generally known as Falashas — apparently “a term that they consider to be pejorative”.

  7. Conrad: You’ll want to check out this old LH post. It turns out Eskimo probably has something to do with snowshoes, etymologically speaking. (There’s also a discussion of why it’s ridiculous to use “San” for Bushmen.)

  8. Hurrah for LH!

  9. Graham Asher says

    And please (I humbly beg 😉 stop calling my ethnic group Brits – a derogatory term invented by a terrorist organisation. The correct term for me is ‘Englishman’. Scots and Welsh people dislike the term even more, and they are lucky enough to be generally called by their own preferred names, but we English get that unlovely monosyllable. If you must refer to all of us on this island as if we were a single group, we are British – a relatively recent coining, but not offensive.

  10. British, or Britons if you must use a plural noun. It’s a pity there isn’t a word ‘Englishperson’.
    San, yes, that’s a good one. Ha ha, caught you, San is derogatory!
    The referenced post about Eskimos doesn’t seem to include one of my favourite bon mots: up in Baffin Land someone said,’I’m an Eskimo. The Inuit are all down in Ottawa, lobbying.’

  11. Graham: quit whining, you pom limey staartman bastard. Brit is hardly an ethnophaulism.

  12. Pommy bastard.

  13. I’m dyin’ here!
    –LH (a Yank)

  14. Well, John and Steve, let’s call you Begabblers.

  15. OK, I see you’ve beaten me to “Eskimo/Innuit”. So I got another one for ya: Gypsy/Roma.

  16. Wait, which terrorist organization invented the term “Brits”? (18th-century American revolutionaries? Ha ha ha, just kidding, FBI/CIA internet-scanning program.)

  17. Every name has a flip side. It be an OZ B. from KingsX that taught this Pommy? the meaning of the Marquis of Queensberry rules in a practical demonstation of Ozzie welcome to the Commonwealth Brigade. I may looked like a p. of S tied with a piece of old string, but it saved my life many times later in other conflicts that I had with the Brigade’s blessing and later too.
    I not be a Brit, Limey or English, except by landing head first in London Hospital. Passport says different, but that be Civil servants viewpoint. I am awaiting a on DNA result on which of the original Eves I be developed from.

  18. –LH (a Yank)
    You mean a gringo? (See two posts back… 😉)

  19. By the way, how derogatory — or not — is gringo? The question may baffle some faraway people, especially when they read this kind of stuff:
    “The term does lend itself to derogatory, paternalistic or endearing connotations, depending on the context and the intent of the user. In contrast, the term “yanqui” (“Yankee”) is used almost exclusively in a derogatory way, to refer to any U.S. citizen”.
    “Mexico, Central America, and northern South America: In these areas the word normally means specifically a U.S. citizen, regardless of language spoken or ethnic origin. Its use is sometimes derogatory.”
    “Southern South America: In this region a gringo is a person from North America, and the term is less derogatory than in northern Latin America.”
    “In Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, the word most often just means generally a foreigner […]. In Argentina, a country of large European immigration, all European immigrants other than Spaniards, particularly Italians, are colloquially called gringos. It is most often not pejorative and may even carry positive connotations, especially when used as an adjective.”
    (The Urban Dictionary is also fairly prolific when it comes to talking about this word.)
    So, “gringo”, a touchy subject for a citizen of the U.S. (of America), or not really?

  20. I don’t find it derogatory, but then I used to live in Argentina.

  21. (Origin of Eskimo) According to the reference given above for this name having to do with “snowshoes” rather than “raw meat” (a posting by a person considered the authority on Algonquian languages), in one of those languages there is a word meaning “she nets snowshoes”. I am not convinced. Speakers of Northern Algonquian languages (in Canada and Northern US) were experts at making snowshoes in order to walk on top of deep, soft snow in the forests in winter, rather than sink into it up to their knees or even deeper. Eskimos/Inuit also need to deal with snow, but mostly in a different way. Here is what Wikipedia says under “snowshoe”:
    >The Inuit have two styles, one being triangular in shape and about 18 inches (45 cm) in length, and the other almost circular, both reflecting the need for high flotation in deep, loose and powdery snow. However, contrary to popular perception, they did not use their snowshoes much since they did most of their foot travel in winter over sea ice or on the tundra, where snow does not pile up deeply.> Indeed the typical image of these people shows them travelling on sleighs with dogs, and neither people nor dogs are sinking in the snow, which is not deep. In contrast, Wikipedia shows an old picture of a man leading a horse (not in Eskimo/Inuit country), and both are wearing snowshoes.
    Why people expert at making snowshoes would use, in order to name their distant neighbours who did not use snowshoes much, a verb form (one of a huge number, since the Algonquian verb is very complex) meaning “she nets snowshoes” does not make much sense. I think that the origin of the word is still unknown.

  22. Wait, which terrorist organization invented the term “Brits”?
    IRA was intended, I imagine.
    I doubt anyone really believes that if Republicans said Crown Security Forces instead the world would be better off.

  23. I prefer to be called estadounidense, myself. (Also Yid, but maybe we shouldn’t go there.)

  24. Tolkien, too, hated being called “British”. In his address “English and Welsh”, he said:

    In Felix of Crowland’s life of St Guthlac (referring to the beginning of the eighth
    century) British is made the language of devils. The attribution of the British language to devils and its description as cacophonous are of little importance. Cacophony is an accusation commonly made, especially by those of small linguistic
    experience, against any unfamiliar form of speech. More interesting is it that the ability of some English people to understand ‘British’ is assumed. British was, no doubt, chosen as the language of the devils mainly as the one alien vernacular at
    that time likely to be known to an Englishman, or at least recognized by him.
    In this story we find the term ‘British’ used. In the Anglo­Saxon version of the Life the expression Bryttisc sprecende appears. This no doubt is partly due to the Latin. But Brettas and the adjective brittisc, bryttisc continued to be used throughout the Old English period as the equivalent of Wealas (Walas) and wielisc (waelisc), that is of modern Welsh, though it also included Cornish. Sometimes the two terms were combined in Bretwalas and bretwielisc.
    In modern England the usage has become disastrously confused by the malef­icent interference of the Government with the usual object of governments: uni­formity. The misuse of British begins after the union of the crowns of England and Scotland, when in a quite unnecessary desire for a common name the English were officially deprived of their Englishry and the Welsh of their claim to be the chief inheritors of the title British.
    ‘Fy fa fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman’, wrote Nashe in 1595 (Have with you to Saffron Walden).

    Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
    His word was stil: Fie, foh, and fum,
    I smell the blood of a British man,

    Edgar says, or is made to say, in King Lear (III. iv).
    The modern Englishman finds this very confusing. He has long read of British prowess in battle, and especially of British stubbornness in defeat in many impe­rial wars; so when he hears of Britons stubbornly (as is to be expected) opposing the landing of Julius Caesar or of Aulus Plautius, he is apt to suppose that the English (who meekly put themselves down as British in hotel ­registers) were already there, facing the first of their long series of glorious defeats. A supposition far from uncommon even among those who offer themselves for ‘honours’ in the School of English.
    But in early times there was no such confusion. The Brettas and the Walas were the same.

    I just love the phrases “officially deprived of their Englishry” and “meekly put themselves down as British in hotel registers.”

  25. This discussion leaves out the case of United Kingdom citizens of South Asian, East Asian, West Indian, or African origin resident in and native to England who define themselves not as English but as British.

  26. Several comments ago, somebody mentioned the Falasha of Ethiopia. Just to note that the word used for Ethiopia (it is believed) in the Hebrew Bible is כוש (Kush) and a כושי (Kushi) is an Ethiopian. Utilise an expression such as this to an Ethiopian in Israel today and you might get a smack in the face. They prefer Ityopi (an Ethiopian word: ኢትዮጲ) or Ge’zi (likewise: ግዕዚ). Kushi, nowadays, has the same semantic range as the American “nigger”.

  27. Surely ‘ityopi’ is a local rendering of ‘Ethiopian’ = Greek for ‘burnt looking’ or ‘burnt fact’.

  28. Surely ‘ityopi’ is a local rendering of ‘Ethiopian’ = Greek for ‘burnt looking’ or ‘burnt face’.

  29. Siganus Sutor says

    Simon Holloway : « Utilise an expression such as this [kush] to an Ethiopian in Israel today and you might get a smack in the face. »
    Then what is the word used in Israel to talk of the Cushitic group of languages?
    And has the famous film Kush Kush Hota Hai (spelling?) been banned there?
    P.-S.: Am I the only one to see square empty boxes in the previous comment? (It happens to me from time to time.)

  30. Siganus Sutor says

    Surely ‘ityopi’ is a local rendering of ‘Ethiopian’ = Greek for ‘burnt looking’ or ‘burnt fact’. [‘Burn fact’ or ‘burnt face’?]
    Ahem, Conrad, if it is so some would rather put a hat on before going out in the sun, just in case they suddenly found themselves being mistreated by some ruthless Ethiopian ruler who thought he had the right to lay hands on them because of their burnt face.

  31. Not about the topic of the post (when is it ever) but Fun Facts to Know about the Pokot.
    From an article of mine:
    To take a number of much studied examples, the Pokot of Kenya recognize three sexes. (See Chart below). Most infants are declared to be male or female, but those with genital malformations (both genetic males and females) are either killed (the Roman solution) or assigned to a third biological sex, labeled sererr ‘neuter’. Some sererr take up male dress, some female, but since the gender roles of “male” and “female” depend heavily on the important circumcision rites for both these sexes and on the production of children, sererr have no gender role. As one Pokot said, “A sererr cannot be a real person.” That is, the Pokot operate with three biological sexes, but only two cultural genders.
    Edgerton, Robert. 1964. “Pokot Intersexuality: An East African Example of the Resolution of Sexual Incongruity.” American Anthropologist 66: 1288-99
    Holt N. Parker, “The Myth of the Heterosexual or The Anthropology of Sexuality for Classicists,” Arethusa 34 (2001) 313-62. Available on-line (.pdf) at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/arethusa/toc/are34.3.html

  32. Conrad: Thanks for that. I’ve never studied Greek and, while there is a lot of Greek influence on Ethiopic, I wasn’t aware that this particular name for their nation had a Grecian etymology.
    Siganus: Ha, I have no idea. I think that in many instances, a word may retain its initial value within academic circles, but lose it amongst people on the street. And you were probably not the only one to see squares: I downloaded my fonts from a website for Apple computers and I’ve since found that they’re not displaying on PCs. Sorry about that.

  33. Ne ultra crepidam, Sutor.

  34. You’ve been waiting all your life for a chance to say that, haven’t you?

  35. I downloaded my fonts from a website for Apple computers and I’ve since found that they’re not displaying on PCs.
    Looks fine in FF and IE with Code2000 installed.

  36. Maybe 😉

  37. Sutor ne supra crepidam? But why? What’s the problem with me? What have I done?
    I know my latin is even worse than my English, but do I really deserve a slap on the fin?
    Maybe I do, though… (Though “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”.)

  38. Sorry, perhaps my humorous pedantry was overstated–but then, as LH guessed, I have been waiting several years now to say that. But your blatant racism concerning Ethiop political practices is appalling. (No, I’m still not being serious.)

  39. No, no, maybe the so-called “overstated humorous pedantry” was more on somebody else’s side than on yours, after all…
    Anyway, I’m glad to have given you the opportunity to let this out — at last!

  40. Aaargh! Beaten to it! 😉

  41. As for pejoratives, when I studied Russian (many moons since,) I recall being told that the Russian word for Germans – Nemets, if I recall correctly – was originally pejorative. Perhaps some Russian expert could verify, or contradict the information.
    Further on pejorative labels: in his “Thinking Black”, Dan Crawford follows a trail of pejorative from the East coast toward the Congo basin. The Arabs from Muscat, he says, call the Swahili man “Kaffir.” The Swahili man passes on the compliment to Africans of the interior, calling them “Wasenshi.” Proceeding westward, a Munyamweshi looks westward, and calls one who lives there “Munabushi.” And arriving at Congo basin, the Luba, cannibals at the time, call an outsider “Muhemba.” And they did not eat man, only Vahemba. (Crawford, D. “Thinking Black”. New York, George H. Doran Company, 1912, pp 95,96.)
    I believe that “Kaffir” is the Arabic for an unbeliever, and Crawford comments that “Wasenshi” is accompanied by a “flouting glance”. He doesn’t appear to give a meaning to “Munabushi,” only suggesting it designates “heathen.” Then, the “Vahemba” are the uncircumcised. It’s not always easy to follow Crawford’s prose. His point is that as a missionary, he doesn’t need to explain the concept of what we call “Phariseeism,” for it was right there in Africa, ready to his hand.

  42. Siganus Sutor says

    Henry IX : « I believe that “Kaffir” is the Arabic for an unbeliever ».
    Yes, unbeliever, or infidel. What is funny with this word is that it has been used by Christian Europeans to call black people of Southern Africa, chiefly Xhosa. Also written Kaffer or Caffre, it is quite derogatory I believe. In French it became “cafre”. In Réunion Island, cafre is a non-pejorative word to describe a black person whose ancestry is mostly African. Together with its feminine cafrine, it has given names to some places (e.g. “Plaine des Cafres”). The expression “mon caf’” is even pleasantly used to call an old pal. But in nearby Mauritius, which is mainly French-speaking too, cafre is so insulting that it is barely used…

  43. John Cowan says

    Kaffir and cafre from 2013, with Hottentot thrown in too. I wonder if this Reunionnais use of caf resembles the use in other French-based creoles of neg ‘a person, someone’.

  44. Lars Mathiesen says

    And more recently, in Gemara and Austrian slang.

    (I managed to google up a thread! Yay me!)

  45. January First-of-May says

    As for pejoratives, when I studied Russian (many moons since,) I recall being told that the Russian word for Germans – Nemets, if I recall correctly – was originally pejorative. Perhaps some Russian expert could verify, or contradict the information.

    It’s true: nemets “German” is from nemoy “mute”, which in this context means “the one that doesn’t speak properly”.

  46. Moses Nyeko says

    Opinion from Moroto District, Karamojong region of North Eastern Uganda:

    The question; what is a name? and what is in a name? remains of great interest to scholars. That not withstanding, Nomadology offers a few answers. The Nomads are categorized into five groups by their natural alignment to their environment/nature; These are; – hunters-gatherers, trader nomads, clay/pottery nomads, black smith nomads and nomadic pastoralists.

    Pastoral Nomadism refers to herding of livestock as a way of life (pure nomadism and semi nomadism). the distinguishing factor about pastoral nomads is pastoral mobility i.e. moving from place to place looking for water, pasture, salt licks and medicinal shrubs for their animals. This therefore connotes that Pastoral nomads have a territorial space (customary and communal land use as opposed to ownership of land akin to Sir Robert Torrence system of land registration in Australia and now adopted by modern states in their codes). Their mobility also means constant, violent encounters with sedentary neighbors representing in our case the ‘modern state’.

    Three theories have been advanced in support of the ‘tribal state’ as other wise termed as theories of pastoral mobility; they are 1. the high reliability theory, 2. the risk averse theory, and 3. the military mobility theory. The military mobility theory has seen pastoral nomads over throwing or aiding in over throw of governments e.g. in Mesopotamia.

    Pastoral Nomads do not call themselves any name, but rather, firstly acknowledge themselves as human being(s) (itunganan/ Ngi-tunga), secondly; they identify themselves with the clan one is born, usually patrilineal. thirdly; with place/residence/settlements usually based on clans e.g. Abram /Abura (meaning to cover the head of a sick person using the rumen of sheep or goat-the name Abura was given because the mother was sickly when he was being born), of Ur (Ur means ‘honestly speaking/ let me not swear) of the Chaldeans (Chaldea is with reference to a clan of Chaldean brothers of Chamkea). apart from Name, no census is allowed among the pastoral nomads because men must go to war and mercy is for the weak as well as women inheritance is allowed including that of elder son of his young mother.

    Abura is the brother of Nahor- Nahor is derived from Nahoroi-meaning Tse-Tse fly. so Nahor is the land infested with tse-tse fly and Nahor is a name given to a child born during tse-tse fly infestation.

    Pastoral nomads belief systems and shrines are categorized into three; Ngi-monia (Amoni means bush, Nga-mon (bushes/vast shrubs and trees-so those who worship the environment from Abram’s lineage (Abura), Ngitopon Etop means the galaxy and so those who worship the stars, the moon etc shrine for the lineage of (Nahor), Ngi-mogoth you may have read about the Magosian culture in the Mesolithic era. three are divided into three in their shrine, the ngi-mogoth, Ngi-muno. ’emun’ means snake/serpent/dragon they are the worshippers of the Dragon. and ngi-merimong-emun means bull- meri is spotted meaning worshipers of the spotted bull. for Haran.

    Ngi-monia and Ngi-topon share the same shrine space but Ngi-mogoth are separate. This is because although they are from the same Papa (father) by name Thinyang, their mothers differ, Toto (mummy) Nakong for Ngi-monia and Ngi-topon and Toto (mummy) Nakadanya for Ngi-mogoth. Ngimogoth have a sister who is the mother of Ngi-Upe/Pokot/Suk they are uncles to the Suk whose mother married Kalenjin/Ngiyale- ngiyale is a name given by the uncles because of the word lee (which in Kup sabiny/means “I am saying”). the woman maintains the name of the Clan Chep-Katekok (fire clan), Chep-Katap (rain clan/ priestly clan) etc the only norm is that she is prohibited from performing rituals at her father’s ancestry save for attached to the husband’s.

    The name Hebrew, Habiru, Toubou, Zaggara, Afr-Iranians, afro-Iraqi, afro-Syrian, Negro, Nilotics, Hamites, Karimojong, Heskimos, Kalenjin, Turkana, Nyangatom, Merile, Topotha etc is not how the pastoralist called themselves by what they were referred to. and this includes Upe/Pokot/Suk.

    On Ethiopia: Etop means star (Sirius the God or Dog star), pia/piak is like a camera flash thus “Etopia”, And ‘Lot’ (Lote/ lote moti meaning evening star providing light for clay and pottery experts ‘Amot’ is a clay pot)

    On Noah. this is the beginning of the calendar, the calendar is 4 days ahead of the current calendar as proved by appearance of the moon. its marked by events and thus and exclamation “emam ngeanyuna nu ngina pei ka-nuan/inuwa) meaning “I have never seen or heard of this ever since the days of Noah).

    On Ham, when greeting pastoral nomads (ebalai? am/emam/mam) (how are you/ so? fine), Anu ngace? am/emam/mam (whatsup? nothing/cool), Engaleo a? am/emam/mam (healthwise hope all is well with you? nothing).

    On Cush/Kuch: Iriono means Black, chuch (sooty), iriono chuch (very black).

    Kind regards,

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