Current Events

What’s in a Name: Named by an Outsider

The study of names, or onomastics, is a linguistic field with close ties to historical linguistics and sociolinguistics. Our first article in what will hopefully become an ongoing series will deal with exonyms, which are names given to people, places, or languages by an outside source.

An exonym is not used within the society being named, though it may be forcibly applied as a result of the more powerful societies popularizing the names they’ve chosen. Many exonyms are based on harmless observations, such as the Chippewa name for the Sioux, which refers to their tendency to roast their food. Sometimes, it is an intentionally derogatory nickname that evolves into a people’s recognized name: the Greeks referred to all non-Greek nations as barbaria, or “land of the barbarians,” which became the now widely accepted name for the Berber people of northern Africa. Exonyms are surprisingly common and can have lasting effects, yet they often go unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Nemy (Mute)


An endonym is the name a group of people gives to themselves. The Slavic endonym slov came from the root slovo (“word,” “speech”), which indicates that their people are “the speaking ones.” Conversely, they referred to their German neighbors as nemy (“mute”), which doesn’t sound quite as familiar as slov unless you look at the modern name for Germans in nearly a dozen Slavic languages, including Russian, Polish, and Romanian. This name is found even outside of Slavic languages: Arabic borrowed the term from Turkish, which had gotten it from Slavic, but they both decided it was more applicable to the Austrians. This name emphasizes not only a sense of otherness but also of these “others” being unable to communicate and thus ignorant compared to the namer’s own wise, verbose society.

This has happened to the Germans plenty of times over history. Anyone who speaks multiple languages has probably realized that, while most names for a group of people are at least somewhat similar to each other across languages (e.g. Spain and España), the names for Germany are not even close: the Spanish call it Alemenia, while Niemcy is its name in Polish, and Italians named it Germania but refer to its citizens with the completely unrelated Tedeschi. None of these, of course, are even close to the name Germany prefers for itself, Deutschland. There are dozens upon dozens of pejorative exonyms for Germans all over the world, most of which are unrelated to each other and some of which are paired with an alternative, friendly term just in case they started getting along (e.g. Dutch oosterbuur instead of the offensive mof).

Carribean (Cannibal)


The name for the Carribean region is an example of backformation, which in this case refers to an etymology that has been retroactively and inaccurately attributed to a word. The indigenous island population called themselves Carib, denoting strength and bravery in their native Arawak language, long before any Europeans appeared on their shores. However, Europeans of this era were particularly fond of making up horror stories about people they were in the process of conquering and Christopher Columbus was no exception.

Columbus decided that his new friends were all cannibals and rationalized this by explaining that Carib meant “cannibal.” (It didn’t.) Meanwhile, Columbus was insisting that he was in Asia. (He wasn’t.) The next logical step was to exclaim that the Carib people had named themselves after their Mongolian leader, the Great Khan. (They hadn’t.)

When Columbus brought back news of these blood-thirsty cannibals to Europe, his titillated audience expanded on this faux etymology: the form that Columbus chose, Canibal, looked like the Latin word for “dog,” canis. To this day, even dictionaries rarely indicate the false nature of this connection between the Latinate word and the Arawak name for themselves. The result is that most people who look up the meaning of “Carribean” come away thinking they were named after cannibals.

Sioux (Foreign-Speaking)


The Sioux is a group of North American tribes who originally referred to themselves as Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, or “Seven Council Fires.” Each of the fires served as a symbol for one of the Sioux nations during councils and the name carried great spiritual significance. In modern times, the Sioux are often referred to as Lakota or Dakota (“friend,” “ally”) depending on their tribe’s location. The origin of the more commonly used “Sioux” is up for debate, but both explanations make it clear that the name certainly wasn’t their idea.

The name likely comes from the reports of a 17th century Frenchman who named them Nadouessioux after the Chippewa name for the Sioux meaning “little snakes,” which is why it has the French -x tacked on the end to indicate a plural noun. Similarly, the Chippewa referred to the Iroquois as Nadowe, or “big snakes.” Later, the Chippewa renamed the Sioux Bwaanag (“roasters”) as a friendlier reference to their tendency to roast food.

The Algonquin named them na·towe·ssiw (“foreign-speaking”) and one theory is that “Sioux” is the French spelling of this exonym’s last syllable. To complicate matters further, the Algonquin name for the Iroquois came from na·towe·wa and is noticeably similar to their name for the Sioux tribes. That is because they’re both from the same root verb, *-a·towe· (“to speak a foreign language”). After this root evolved into their name for the Iroquois – the tribes named “big snakes” by the Chippewa – it eventually came to mean “small rattlesnakes” in several descendent languages.

Ghetto (Foundry or Small Borough)


Within the Cannaregio district of Venice, there was only one small area in which Jews were allowed to live. The two most likely origins of “ghetto” are getto, meaning “foundry” in reference to one located nearby, or a shortening of borghetto, “small borough.” Despite its innocuous etymology, “ghetto” predictably evolved to have far darker implications. It is important to note that “ghetto” did not only refer to a minority group’s socioeconomic status, but also to much older, negative traits stereotypically associated with them. This dual sense of the word has survived into its modern usage.

The word’s direct association with the Jewish people during an era rife with anti-Semitism soon inspired images of a deceitful, unclean, and ultimately dangerous kind of person. These deeply negative stereotypes that had been around long before ghettos were not replaced but reinforced by the new one regarding their lack of money during this period. The affiliation with poverty only came about as a result of finances and possessions being stripped from Jewish citizens, leaving them isolated in an impoverished community without access to personal comforts or formal education.

The modern association of “ghetto” with predominately African-American communities undeniably relates, in part, to a lack of wealth. But the grimmer connotation of an undesirable minority meant to be feared, living apart from the valued majority, is also very much alive. Not the least of reasons for this is the continuing impact of long-standing segregation laws in America that mirrored the concurrent isolation of Jews before it escalated to their genocide during World War II. This parallel was so strong that several African-American athletes encouraged the US to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Jews were forbidden from entering, while they were themselves barred from entering any number of facilities in their own country. To say that finances are the only reason the word “ghetto” has expanded to include African-American communities is oversimplifying the issue at best. Sanitizing a word with such a complex, debasing history allows it to be employed casually without consideration or consequence, regardless of whether the speaker’s intent is derogatory or simply thoughtless.

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s