Slavs and Slaves.

Victor Mair at the Log has a very useful roundup of the connection between the words slave and Slav; I’ll quote the section on Proto-Slavic slověninъ, from Wiktionary, and send you to the link for those on English slave and Ancient Greek Σκλάβος:

Roman Jakobson insists on this etymology: from *slovo (“word”); with link to Old East Slavic кличане (kličane, “hunters, who raise game by shout”) : кличь (kličʹ), and also on the opposition *slověne vs. *němьci.

Trubachev (Трубачёв): Jakobson’s etymology is promising, with the verb *slovǫ, *sluti (“to speak (understandably)”).

Vasmer: it has nothing to do with *slava (“glory, fame”) which influenced it in terms of folk etymology later. *slověne can’t be formed from *slovo because *-ěninъ, *-aninъ only occurs in derivations from place names, however local name *Slovy is not attested. Most likely it’s derived from a hydronym.

Compare Old East Slavic Словутичь (Slovutičĭ) ― Dnepr epithet, Russian Слуя (Sluja) ― affluent of Вазуза (Vazuza), Polish river names Sława, Sławica, Serbo-Croatian Славница and others which brings together with Ancient Greek κλύζω (klúzō, “I lave”), κλύζωει (klúzōei) · πλημμυρεῖ (plēmmureî), ῥέει (rhéei), βρύει (brúei), κλύδων (klúdōn, “surf”), Latin cluō (“I clean”), cloāca (“sewer pipe”). Other etymologies are less likely.

Otrębski brings up an interesting parallel ― the Lithuanian village name Šlavė́nai on river Šlavė̃ which is identical to Proto-Slavic slověne.

Бернштейн repeats this etymology: from Proto-Indo-European *slawos (“people, nation, folk”).

Maher agrees with Trubachev’s connection of it to *sluti (“to be known”), on the grounds that *slovo (“word”) is an s-stem, *sloves-, which would have led to an expected form *slovesěni (compare Russian слове́сность (slovésnostʹ)

Messy, but fun.


  1. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Not a fan of the “I lave” gloss for κλύζω. The word is no longer in common use and it unclear whether it is supposed to mean more than “wash.” “I wash/rinse out” would be better.

  2. I agree.

  3. January First-of-May says

    and also on the opposition *slověne vs. *němьci.

    Checked out the latter on Wiktionary, and was surprised to find out that it is apparently the origin of the modern Arabic name of Austria (and I do mean Austria, not Germany, which was probably the most surprising part).

  4. Father Jape says

    Well, the Ottoman Empire bordered the Austrian Empire, and the border peoples were Slavic speakers, so…

  5. David Marjanović says

    Makes sense, though – right next to the Ottoman empire!

  6. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    It’s increasingly speculated here that Polish state was built by the Piast dynasty in the 10th century on the foundation of slave trade. Certainly archeological findings of many tribal fortresses from that period razed to the ground aren’t in conflict with this theory. Basically this is what happened in other areas and periods (Africa, North America) when a less technological culture met a more advanced one (and slave trade wasn’t taboo), the more ambitious and ruthless leaders soon realized that people e.g. war prisoners are a resource that’s valued by their trade partners more that anything else they could offer so they tapped it to fund further expansion. Also, early Slavs had an ‘open’ slavery system as evidenced by chronicles and allowed the slaves to integrate quickly if they were willing to accept their customs.

    As for the name Slavs, Zbigniew Gołąb’s hypothesis I have a soft spot for is that the original form was *Svoběne (‘our own ones’, cf. Suebi), as evidenced by the ancient record Suobenoi, which turned into Sloběne by dissimilation (cf. the oscillation svoboda ~ sloboda in various Slavic dialects) and Slověni by folk etymology (the worded ones), Slavjane is a further development due to sound change and folk etymology (the glorious ones).

    A fun case is the Romanian one, where the Romance-speaking people’s autonym rumîn came to mean ‘serf’ at one point (I wonder what was the neutral self-designation then, Vlah perhaps?); also the Slavic loan rob was a word for ‘slave’. Şcheau/șchiau from Latin *sclavus meant ‘Bulgarian’ as far as I can find. Nowadays they also use sclav for ‘slave’ (due to 19C relatinization-westernization?).

  7. I am curious what happened to the thousands of Slavs that were supplied to the Arabs. Did they leave descendants and have they made a contribution to the gene pool?

  8. It is inconceivable in 2019 to use an ethnic name to describe a category of people in bondage and servitude. But that is exactly what happens when using the word “slave”. There is no excuse for it in English, because there exists a substitute word “thrall”.

  9. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    I am curious what happened to the thousands of Slavs that were supplied to the Arabs. Did they leave descendants and have they made a contribution to the gene pool?

    AFAIK this was minimized through widespread castration and closed slavery system (slaves were a closed caste with no hope of getting out, they were kept to work and as a status display; those countries have little arable land, people married and bred carefully).

    Some rebelled though, there are records about a Slavic fortress somewhere in North Africa.

  10. Canada’s Northwest territory is divided into five administrative regions, two of them are called North Slave Region and South Slave Region.

    The indigenous people of the area are called Slavey (or Slave, Slavé) people.

    The name was given by their enemies – the Cree Indians who liked to enslave them.

  11. xyz: There is no excuse for (using an ethnic name) in English, because there exists a substitute word “thrall”.

    I agree, cf “to jew” etc., but are you using thrall now instead of slave? Thralary, the thrall trade, a thrall unit etc?

  12. @ Bathrobe:
    I am curious what happened to the thousands of Slavs that were supplied to the Arabs. Did they leave descendants and have they made a contribution to the gene pool?

    Undoubtedly. Throughout much of the Islamic period, a majority of slaves traded from different regions were female, and some of these were used concubines/sex slaves, whose children could grow up as free, becoming members of the general society. A rather extreme later example is Roxelana, originally a Ruthenian woman kidnapped into slavery by Crimean raiders, who became the favorite wife of the Ottoman sultan Süleyman, and mother of his successor.

    In addition, male slaves could become freedmen if they were manumitted by their owners (something encouraged by Islam).

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Grace Jones might have sung “Thrall to the music”, but I doubt with equal success. It’s more of an Edith Sitwell title.

    Or rather a word postulatoried by the thought of her:

    # … contrast Waldron with two other poets — Edith Sitwell and Stevie Smith. You might find these strange bedfellows but both poets are sui generis writers and developed a linguistic world: percussive, postulatory and in thrall to the syntactic music of the poem #

  14. Thralary

    Naah. Salary is connected with salt, but we don’t know exactly how. In Roman times salarium, which is formally the neuter form of the adjective meaning ‘salt-related’, may have meant ‘salt given as an equivalent of wages’ or ‘money paid to buy salt’, or who knows what.

  15. Undoubtedly
    Population genetics usually provides good answers not only on the extent of these ethnic admixtures, but also on timing (by segment size distribution), most likely subregional sources (by scoring best fitting matches) and sex biases of admixture (both by classical uniparental markers and by X-to-autosome ratios).
    But I don’t recall thorough studies of the Middle Eastern Muslim countries by this methodology. The easiest to observe admixtures there are well known though, and attributed to slave trade, specifically from Subsaharan Africa. They are widespread in Muslims, especially in Egypt and Yemen, but absent in non-Muslim groups (Coptic, Yemeni Jewish) or in pre-islamic samples.

  16. John Cowan says

    It is inconceivable in 2019 to use an ethnic name to describe a category of people in bondage and servitude. But that is exactly what happens when using the word “slave”.

    It’s purely a historical fact, not present in the minds of English-speakers, who see no connection between slave and Slav, any more than between insignia and ensign, or attach and attack, or cream and grime, or carton and cartoon, or cloak and clock, or domain and dungeon, or sovereign and soprano, or tradition and treason, or chakra, cycle, wheel, or price, prize, praise, pry, or dish, desk, disk, discus, dais, disco, or chief, chef, cape, capo, caput, head, or any of hundreds of others. If we called slaves slavs, you’d have a case; the argument against Slavey is quite reasonable. In any case, to enthrall someone with your voice, or beauty, or guitar playing, is by no means to enslave them.

    (An Irish doublet just for the Hat: cuid and píosa , both ‘part, portion’. The first is native, whereas the second is from Gaulish > Late Latin pettia > Normand piece > Middle English > Middle Irish pissa.)

  17. In 1914, 26-year-old Sitwell moved to a small, shabby flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater, which she shared with Helen Rootham (1875–1938), her governess since 1903.

    There is nothing SHABBY about Pembridge Mansions. It’s one block from Kensington Gardens. In 1917, the architect of the National Theatre Denys Lasdun was born at 17 Pembridge Place, around the corner. I spent my childhood at number 18. Why would a Wikipedia article writer have a grudge against Pembridge Mansions?

    You may choose whatever spelling you like for thralary, John. It’s all yours. I remembered slave & slav have totally different meanings. Never mind the number of Ls, thral- is nutty. I don’t know what came over me.

  18. No need to invent “thrallary” when we have “thralldom” already.

  19. slovo (word) and slava (fame, glory) come from the same PIE *ḱlēw-. Russian slang word клёвый /klyovyj/ (cool, awesome) probably has nothing to do with them and comes directly from клевать (peck, bite)

  20. David Marjanović says


    So the *slověne – *němьci opposition would be real, but only as folk etymology! I like that. How old is this Suobenoi, though?

  21. David Marjanović says


    Short vowel – the length ( > -a-) is attributed to Balto-Slavic word derivation by vrddhi.

  22. I think zyxt is baiting us.

  23. “South Thrall languages like Servian…”

    Damn, never realized how awful these names actually sounded

  24. So do I. Mea culpa.

  25. Hello bathrobe
    I just don’t think that it’s OK that Slavs should be regarded with inferiority, or associated with or linked to human trafficking & exploitation. That’s what happens when their name is used in such a context.

  26. But is it what happens? That’s an empirical claim for which you have provided no evidence at all. Do you have any examples of complaints by Slavs (who certainly know how to complain) about the inappropriateness of skllav, esclavu, sklav, slave, esclau, slaaf, sklavo, esclave, σκλάβος sklavos, sclábhaí, schiavo, sclavus, sleab, escravo, esclavo, sciavo, שקלאַף shklaf, or even Swedish slav, which actually does mean both ‘Slav’ and ‘slave’ (though differentiated in the plural, slaver vs. slavar)?

    Rumania and Servia, the serf lands.

  27. David Marjanović says

    …Just in case, srb(-) < *sьrb > serb- has been the self-designation of the Serbs and the Sorbians “since ever”. It has nothing to do with servus or its descendants, except perhaps by occasional folk etymology of especially the Greek version, which has been spelled with β for traditional reasons and accordingly pronounced with [v] for something like 1400 years now.

  28. John Cowan, is cuid cognate to quantum?

  29. John Cowan says

    Wiktionary says no, that Proto-Celtic *kʷesdis > cuid has no known cognates, and conjectures it is a substrate word. In the insular P-Celtic languages, the sense shifted to ‘thing’, giving Breton pezh, Welsh peth, Cornish peth/pyth.

    However, the Late Latin form pettia has spread widely: besides its direct descendants Italian pezzo, Spanish pieza, Portuguese and Occitan and Catalan peça, there is also Albanian pjesë direct from Latin, and Danish pjece ‘gun; booklet’, Swedish pjäs ‘(performance of a) play; playing piece (in games)’, Russian пьеса pʹjesa ‘performance of a play, musical composition’, Kurdish piyes ‘theatrical performance’, all from French. All these meanings are specific senses of French pièce and/or English piece.

    On the other hand, English fit in the sense ‘part of a musical composition or poem’ (Lewis Carroll subtitled “The Hunting of the Snark” as “An Agony in Eight Fits”, punning on both nouns) is a good semantic and formal match for *kʷesd-is (Icelandic fit ‘web’ and older German Fitze ‘skein’ are good formal matches though less good semantically), so it may have spread from Celtic to Germanic or vice versa before Grimm’s Law, or alternatively we are dealing with an irregular descendant of PIE *pedjo-. “Infinite are the arguments of mages.”

    Note: The Gaulish form is reconstructed; I should have written it *pettiā above.

  30. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    How old is this Suobenoi, though?

    It’s in Ptolemy (2nd century).

  31. Zeleny Drak says

    @Ксёнѕ Фаўст

    The term rumîn came to mean serf just in one part of the country (ironically enough in the region called Țara Românească=Wallachia). In the principality of Moldova the name for serfs was “vecin” (same origin as the Spanish word vecino). Rumîn seems to have expanded the sense to mean man then from there to peasant. Once almost all peasant lost their freedom and became tied to the land (end of the 16th century) the term got the meaning of serf, as there was no longer any meaningful separation between peasants. I’m not sure if there was another neutral term used. For sure it was not Vlah as this was never a word in Romanian (only used in the Slavonic documents). I would imagine it was something like Creștin (Christian), but I might need to check that. Keep in mind that starting from the early 18th century most of the nobility was of Greek origin.

  32. David Marjanović says

    or alternatively we are dealing with an irregular descendant of PIE *pedjo-.

    That would give the Germanic forms directly: Grimm, West Germanic consonant lengthening, umlaut. It would not explain a Celtic or Latin -tt-, however.

    It’s in Ptolemy (2nd century).


  33. John Cowan says

    Yes, I meant that the Celtic forms, not the Germanic ones, were irregular, which is why Wikt says conservatively that they are not IE.

    The words for ‘thing’ in IE have an extraordinary variety of origins: ‘assembly’ in Germanic, ‘piece’ in Brittonic (and Icelandic, where þing retains its original sense), ’cause’ in Romance, ‘what is spoken of’ in Slavic, ‘what is done’ in Hellenic, ‘substance’ (I think) in Indic, I have no idea what in Baltic or Iranian.

  34. The semantic space for “thing” just seems like it attracts new coinages and repurposings. Note that there is still the phenomenon of using nonsense words to mean “thing.” Some of these stick around: doohickey, doodad, thingimajig, etc.; however, most if them do not persist. Billy Crystal had a joke about how his family did not actually know much Yiddish, but they were good at making up Yiddish-sounding nonce words for things.

  35. @zyxt

    Apart from etymologists, I don’t think anyone connects ‘Slav’ with ‘slave’. Your well-meaning suggestion can only lead to another convulsion of politically-correct word replacement. (Incidentally, have you always felt this way or did you only get this idea after you read this thread?) ‘Serf’, ‘slave’, ‘peasant’ all have their etymologies. Are you seriously suggesting that swathes of familiar terminology should be replaced because someone doesn’t like the etymology?

    Do you feel the same about ‘buggery’, which is based on the word ‘Bulgar’?

  36. Yeah, but other language groups got much prettier names, it’s so unfair!

    Like Romance, for example. 😉

  37. @Bathrobe

    When I was a child and first encountered the word “Slav”, the similarity to “slave” immediately struck me.
    More people would make the connection, if this were an aspect of history that was more generally taught.

  38. I don’t suggest for a moment that any contributors to this forum are prejudiced against Slavs. Indeed our gracious host LH has, if anything, a genuine pro-slav attitude, as evidenced in his numerous posts on Russian literature and related topics.

    As to empirical research, I can’t point you to any. It’s a matter for professional researchers to do that. In all likelihood, 60 years ago there was no empirical research on gender-biased language either.

    However, I can mention this off the top of my head:
    – My dictionary lists these words in this order: slav, slave, slaver, slavery, slavic, slavish. Plus there is a statement that “slave” comes “from the reduction to slavery of many Slavic peoples”. Enough to make anyone think of a connection.
    – There is a controversial play called “Slav” performed in Montreal at the moment. The controversy is NOT about the lack of Slav actors in the play.
    – It would be trite to list numerous examples of negative attitudes towards Slavs, prejudice, and negation or surpression of their role in history.

    I’m not interested in getting into disputes about this. The use of the words serf, peasant, etc is beside the point. The point is that it’s not OK to use the name of an ethnic group to describe a state of inferiority or bondage, and there is an alternative word to use. There is an opportunity to right a wrong. No need to shoot the messenger if you disagree with the message.

  39. John Cowan says

    There is a controversial play called “Slav” performed in Montreal at the moment.

    Red herring: the controversy is all about white actors playing black slaves and consequent cultural appropriation[*], and nothing to do with either Slavs or the word slave. I got to wondering why the play is called that, and turned up the Mop and Pail article, which styles it SLĀV, presumably North American Dictionary Respelling for slave.

    it’s not OK to use the name of an ethnic group to describe a state of inferiority or bondage

    Agreed. But slave/Slav is simply not a case of this, except possibly in Swedish. The only difference between this and the notion that picnic is a slur on African Americans is that the etymology in that case is false, whereas in this case it’s true. But it’s still an etymological connection only.

    there is an alternative word to use

    Unfortunately, there isn’t. Thrall ‘slave’ is simply obsolete: the last use (other than in historical or poetic contexts) in this meaning that the OED records is in 1612, where unredeemed human beings are described as “thralls to Satan”. You might as well try to revive waugh (although the Welsh might not like it).

    There is an opportunity to right a wrong.

    Nor that either. The Slavs who were enslaved are beyond our help, and their descendants and relatives do not suffer a continuing disadvantage because of it, nor are they touchy on the subject.

    [*] I spent yesterday evening listening to the music of Stan Rogers and singing along with it, thus appropriating an enthralling product of white Anglo-Canadian culture. Why, I have even learned some by heart and sung them all by myself, though admittedly not for money.

  40. In other news, the term “terrorism” now considered across the Galactic Federation unfair against Terrans.

  41. I wonder if Montenegro, Nigeria and especially Niger are considered racist by someone…

  42. The US states and territories with offensive names: Colorado (offends Colored people), Indiana (offends Indians), Virginia, West Virginia and US Virgin islands (offends women), Puerto Rico (offends poor people).

  43. John Cowan says

    If Geraint is any indication, however, New Jersey does not offend people from Jersey: indeed, they consider it a colony of theirs.

  44. J.W. Brewer says

    I think the fact that Slav and slave are neither homographs nor homophones in (most varieties of? or is it all varieties of?) modern English is what means that the distant historical connection is at least as opaque as the Bulgar/bugger one (i.e. pretty opaque for the overwhelming majority of speakers with no interest in curious etymological trivia). To take some parallels, I doubt most Anglophones would assume a connection, however vague, between “pop” and “pope” or “mat” and “mate.” The words in those pairs have different vowels, just as Slav and slave do. That some random theatrical folks in Canada have chosen a non-standard spelling of “slave” for their production does not change that.

    To take another obvious example, perhaps “cretin” should be considered an offensive word on other grounds, but not because of its opaque etymological connection to “Christian.”

    One perhaps cutting the other way — in Latin fourteen-odd centuries ago the words for “English” and “angel” were close enough to enable a famous bit of wordplay (“non Angli sed Angeli”), but in modern English us Persons of Anglo-Saxonness are rarely taken, even in jest, to be angelic.

  45. J.W. Brewer says

    To the extent it’s true as John Cowan says (which it certainly is afaik) that it’s difficult to turn up Slavs who are touchy on this point, I wonder to what extent there’s a systematic difference between an endonym which gave rise to pejorative derived words in other languages (as is the case here) and an exonym which “came with” pejorative baggage from the outsiders who imposed the name? Slavs (or rather the minority with any predisposition to care about that stuff) may be less likely to be touchy if they are more focused on the positive vibe of the endonym in its own language-of-origin. Not to mention the fact that in most Anglophone societies, slavery is a purely historical phenomenon — if it were ongoing it would no doubt have already gone through a couple cycles on the euphemism treadmill and now be called something else.

  46. I think that the main reason people in general don’t connect the two words is that for the average English speaker, “slavery” is practically synonymous with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the antebellum South. That’s how people are educated. If it weren’t for that, it would be very easy to see a link, the two words are very similar and you don’t need to know any laws of phonetics to see the similarity.

    This hasn’t been an issue because the Slavs haven’t generally been in antagonistic contact with English-speaking communities and there isn’t any political capital in this to be made by anyone. If the German word for “slave” was “Slave” instead of “Sklave” I expect that would be seen as a problem (Slav being Slawe).

    I bet a lot of people in Eastern Europe wonder about it though, when they learn English.

  47. J.W. Brewer says

    The fictitious nation of “Lower Slobbovia” in the old Li’l Abner comic strip is perhaps some evidence that if AmEng speakers are looking for a pejorative word that evokes or resembles “Slav,” it turns out that “slob” is a closer fit than “slave.” (FWIW, the first kinda-plausible etymology for “slob” I googled up is kinda hilarious because it says it came from a borrowing from Irish, but the relevant Irish word had itself been a loanword from an earlier era of English, with that English word having fallen out of use in English during the intervening centuries.)

  48. January First-of-May says

    I wonder if Montenegro, Nigeria and especially Niger are considered racist by someone…

    When the Everything Wrong With Yakko’s World video got to the Niger line, it did, in fact, respond with “that’s racist!”
    So when the inevitable Everything Wrong With Everything Wrong With Yakko’s World came out, the response to that line was “it’s not racist, it’s the country’s name!”

    (The “negro” part of Montenegro is at least of the same origin as the respective racist epithet; Niger, however, is probably entirely unrelated – though IIRC the etymology in question is still somewhat disputed.
    Nigeria, of course, is of the same origin as Niger, whatever that might be, both countries having been named for the Niger river.)

  49. David Marjanović says

    In other news, the term “terrorism” now considered across the Galactic Federation unfair against Terrans.

    Fearless Flightsuit did consistently dissimilate terror to Terra, and War on Terror to Warren Terra.

  50. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m just happy that the Montenegrins apparently remain content to be known in English (and numerous other non-Slavic languages) by a calque (into Venetian, sez one source, which I guess retained the “g” that standard Italian lost) of their autonym and aren’t demanding we call the place Crna Gora in English.* Let’s not encourage any move in that direction. They may be the only UN member, but other toponyms with “negro” as a component are very common in parts of the world where speakers of Spanish or Portuguese did much of the naming, and that’s a lot of different places.

    *Fun fact: as of a few years ago I used to see a car with the N.Y. vanity license plate CRNAGORA with some frequency within a one-or-two-mile radius of my house, but not recently, so the owner must have either moved out of the neighborhood or gotten a different license plate.

  51. John Cowan says

    Quoth Wikipedia:

    The earliest use of the name “Niger” for the river is by Leo Africanus in his Della descrittione dell’Africa et delle cose notabili che iui sono published in Italian in 1550. The name may come from Berber phrase ger-n-ger meaning “river of rivers”. As Timbuktu was the southern end of the principal Trans-Saharan trade route to the western Mediterranean, it was the source of most European knowledge of the region.

    Medieval European maps applied the name Niger to the middle reaches of the river, in modern Mali, but Quorra (Kworra) to the lower reaches in modern Nigeria, as these were not recognized at the time as being the same river. When European colonial powers began to send ships along the west coast of Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Senegal River was often postulated to be the seaward end of the Niger. The Niger Delta, pouring into the Atlantic through mangrove swamps and thousands of distributaries along more than 160 kilometres (100 miles), was thought to be no more than coastal wetlands. It was only with the 18th-century visits of Mungo Park, who travelled down the Niger River and visited the great Sahelian empires of his day, that Europeans correctly identified the course of the Niger and extended the name to its entire course.


  52. Jack De Manio was famous in Britain during the 1960s as the presenter of Today, the BBC radio news programme from 6 – 9 am. He had a Woosterlike accent, was pretty conservative and looked like a frog, but I enjoyed listening at the time. Some loathed him (my great-uncle). His career nearly crashed in 1956 when he was duty announcer for the BBC’s Home Service. A major radio feature, The Land of the Niger, was broadcast worldwide to mark a Royal visit to Nigeria. Carelessly, he back-announced it as ‘The Land of the Nigger’.[3][4] There was outrage; he was immediately suspended and then returned to the General Overseas Service.

  53. @J.W. Brewer: Slob is also nicely complemented by the Yiddish borrowing zhlub or s(c)hlub, which has a somewhat similar meaning but is apparently unrelated (with Polish żłób being a likely source). I usually hear it with /ʃ/, but with my dad being a native(ish) Yiddish speaker, I acquired it with /ʒ/.

  54. Perhaps Fergie finds New York offensive…

  55. The rule of thumb with the potentially-offensive words is, etymology and the past use don’t matter. What matters is a) the negative feeling of today, b) the availability of nicer synonyms, and c) the political clout of the offended group. Since b and c aren’t there, we are free to discuss the (otherwise irrelevant) etymological stuff.
    Calling Russians the russkis OTOH may be etymologically fine, but there is a) and b) so it’s out.

  56. Reminds me of the wonderful note in Urban dictionary:

    Definition: Slang for russian.
    (not racist because russians are not a race)

  57. I feel like there should be a term for pejorated endonyms.

  58. January First-of-May says

    Medieval European maps applied the name Niger to the middle reaches of the river, in modern Mali, but Quorra (Kworra) to the lower reaches in modern Nigeria, as these were not recognized at the time as being the same river.

    Ironically enough, one of the early 19th century British expeditions to find the Niger actually started from the Quorra (and never found anything it could identify as the Niger).

    I feel like there should be a term for pejorated endonyms.

    I definitely agree that there should be a term, and wouldn’t be very surprised if there actually is one already.

  59. Topical, if not yet completely pejorated: the word for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland leaving the EU ought to be Brexeunt. That would leave ‘Brexit’ for Great Britain leaving without taking N. Ireland with it (see ‘backstop’).

  60. Despite ‘Negro’ being etymologically unexceptionable it has been deprecated and is no longer commonly used. ‘Niggardly’ is also etymologically unexceptionable but is avoided by many because of its resemblance to another word.

    In both cases the problem is that people take issue with their perceived discriminatory overtones.

    It is conceivable that one day some people will take issue with the word ‘slave’, but I doubt it will have anything to do the Slavs. It is more likely to be an objection, for whatever reason, to the characterisation of people as ‘slaves’.

  61. California is not just offensive, but outright extremist – because it is named after the title of ISIS leader….

  62. Wow, I just found out that the term nègre littéraire (“literary Negro”) is a still-current way to say “ghostwriter” in French. Apparently some replacements have been mooted, though, like prête-plume and fantôme écrivain.

  63. David Eddyshaw says

    On the other hand, âme damnée is so much better than “catspaw”, and moreover is not offensively antifelinist. Anglophones are so insensitive.

  64. Thrall to mean “slave” is sufficiently obscure these days that there was this question was asked about whether thrull from Magic: the Gathering was a play on it. (I was reminded of this today because my answer suddenly got a new flurry of up votes.). Of course, there is the further complication that the Order of the Ebon Hand’s thrulls were slaves intended specifically for dual use as servitors and sacrifices.

  65. John Cowan says

    It’s interesting how the Thrulls have kept an oppressive name and made it their own. “Kaffir” is deeply insulting in South and East Africa and in Mauritius, neutral in Reunion, and a term of pride in Sri Lanka for the African-descended (etymologically it is Arabic for ‘unbeliever’).

  66. “catspaw”

    Then monkey shoulder is positively outrageous.

    The name Monkey Shoulder originates from an injury that the maltmen (those that hand turn the grain in a malthouse) would get as it would leave one arm hanging.

  67. I feel names like White Sea, Black Sea, Red Sea and especially Yellow Sea are kind of racist too.

  68. David Marjanović says

    Fun fact: in Turkish, it’s the Mediterranean that is called White Sea (Akdeniz), evidently simply in contrast to the Black Sea (Karadeniz).

  69. For what it’s worth, my personal preference is for the de-hydronymic origin of *slověne, since the the suffix *-ěn- otherwise occurs only in “habitative” ethnonyms — names of tribes or communities based on their place of origin (either a toponym or a common noun such as ‘wood’, ‘meadowland’, ‘lake’ etc.). It has the same function as the much more frequent suffix *-jan-. Gołąb’s *svoběne fails on this count.

  70. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    In earliest sources, the form словѣни occurs, though. There’s also the -ěnъ in adjectives and nouns of quality like *maslěnъ ‘butter _’, *kostěnъ ‘bone _’, *molděnъ ‘young man’. So maybe the original form was *Svoběnъ, not *Svoběninъ.

  71. David Marjanović: Careful! In Turkish color terms were used once to refer to directions: “black” stood for North and White for “West”, so the Turkish name for the Mediterranean may have nothing to do with its being less dark than the Black Sea…

    Lazar: “nègre littéraire” is certainly no longer current in French today, the noun now being as stigmatized as its English equivalent,

  72. David Marjanović says



    Still, Akdeniz refers to the whole Mediterranean, not just to the Aegean, so it’s mostly south rather than west of Turkey, and the Black Sea was called “black/dark” in some Iranian language even before the Quite Ancient Greeks Indeed misinterpreted that as axeinos “inhospitable” and then changed that to euxeinos.

  73. So maybe the original form was *Svoběnъ, not *Svoběninъ.

    Which gives us two irregular substitutions arbitrarily blamed on folk etymology plus an unmotivated change from a plain o-stem to a consonantal stem of the kind associated with “habitative” ethnonyms. And why should the allegedly original ethnonym have been just an adjective without any noun-forming suffix? It strikes me as unusual in the Slavic context. After all, we have *němьcь with the *-ьcь < *-iko- extension, not *němъ (= the basic adjective).

    The derivation doesn’t work without several ad hoc assumptions.

  74. >Still, Akdeniz refers to the whole Mediterranean, not just to the Aegean, so it’s mostly south rather than west of Turkey, and the Black Sea was called “black/dark” in some Iranian language even before the Quite Ancient Greeks Indeed misinterpreted that as axeinos “inhospitable” and then changed that to euxeinos.

    In Bulgarian the White Sea is specifically the Aegean. I would love to know if this is post-Ottoman or pre-Ottoman. I should research that.

  75. John Cowan says

    You may choose whatever spelling you like for thralary, John.

    Sorry for being thick, AJP. I genuinely didn’t read that as thrall-ery.

  76. Lars (the original one) says

    the problem is that people take issue — if it was only that. Some words are inextricably bound up with actual, (hopefully) historical crimes against humanity, and if the victims or their descendants tell you that those or similar words make them uncomfortable or worse, the only courteous thing to do is to believe them and try to change your usage.

    Then there are people who seem to delight in taking offense to words on behalf of others, or pretending that innocent use of certain words is ipso facto proof of bad intentions. I have no patience with that.

  77. Same here.

  78. I genuinely didn’t read that as thrall-ery.

    But like salary! Nice one, John. It’s my silly affected accent (‘thrawl’).

  79. John Cowan says

    I say “thrawl” too, but of course when I say it, it’s just normal for a person from the Northeast, or indeed the South (like my wife). 🙂

    It’s the /l/ that pushed the vowel over to aw, as in all, stall, gall etc., but then in BrE it changed Americans who merge THOUGHT with PALM of course say “thrahl”. I doubt if anyone says “thral” to rhyme with “Sal” any more (maybe in Scotland or Ireland). Are there non-North-Americans who say “throll” to rhyme with “doll”?

  80. Eli Nelson says

    Some accents of Scottish English are supposed to merge LOT and THOUGHT (as [ɔ]), but I don’t know whether “thrall” is a THOUGHT word in such accents.

  81. John Cowan says

    It’s more that they never split TRAP and PALM in the first place: psalm rhymes with Sam, and both are [a], as in Middle English. TRAP is the normal reflex of ME short /a/, but in a few classes of words such those with compensatory lengthening (as in palm itself) and lengthening before /r/, plus the anomalous word father, a new low back vowel PALM arose. PALM then added onomatopoeic words and foreign borrowings, and in TRAP-BATH-splitting varieties all the BATH words as well. Wells himself said that PALM is the least satisfactory of his 24 keywords, partly because of its heterogeneous origins: any keyword you pick might not belong to PALM in some areas.

  82. Slavonian means slave. They were slaves of germanic tribes. Copied many germanic words too.

  83. There otta be a law that you aren’t allowed to add a comment until you have read the other comments, or most of them. But I can’t blame foreigners (that is, non-Hattics) for not knowing that this is a conversation, not a place where people air their views in total isolation from everyone else’s views, like YouTube comments.

    Somebody said that the Greeks said that you didn’t have an actual opinion until you had rubbed up against other people’s opinions, only a dokei-moi ‘it-seems-to-me’. My memory of all this is obviously vague beyond all bearing.

  84. David Eddyshaw says

    like YouTube comments


  85. @David Eddyshaw: I think that by 2008, when that comic came out, YouTube had already shown itself to have the worst comments of any major World-Wide Web site. “Never, ever read YouTube comments,” was a standard piece of Internet advice for a long time. Ironically, the comments on YouTube have probably gotten a bit better since then—and they certainly look better in comparison to the ones at some other sites—because a lot of the really vile posters have migrated to other platforms in the intervening years.

  86. jack morava says

    @ JWB 3 years ago : …. it’s difficult to turn up Slavs who are touchy on this point …

    I have a kind of itchy grudge against Franz Boas [bless his heart as my momma would say] for chasing strange cultures in strange places with his dueling scars while AFAICT ignoring the Slavs all around him. But alas everyone has blind spots…

  87. David Eddyshaw says

    Just not exotic enough. Now, had he been surrounded by Welshmen … but, alas, it was not to be, and he had to make do with Kwakiutl.

  88. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps (the currently-living members of) some of the ethnolinguistic groups Boas did focus on wish he’d diverted his attentions elsewhere?

    @Brett: Of course that stereotype was what led the proprietor of the “Sad Youtube” blog (floruit 2012-2015) to take the contrarian view that there was gold in them thar comment threads if you knew how to look for it, and I found his results quite impressive. “Moments of melancholy, sadness and saudade from the lives of strangers, gleaned from the unfairly maligned ocean of YouTube comments.” I assume that once the contrarian proprietor got rolling he figured out how to find the stuff he was looking for pretty efficiently, although I don’t know how many man-hours he needed to invest before he got the knack of it.

Speak Your Mind