As the unrest continues in Baltimore, President Obama has been criticized for referring to the looters in Baltimore as thugs. In recent times the word thug has been synonymous with ruffian, hoodlum or vandal. Thug has its origins in India where followers of Kali – thugs - robbed and killed travelers in a ritually prescribed manner, a practice that was eliminated by the British in 1830.
In most recent times the word has been used by bigots as a synonym for black males, taking the place of even more unacceptable words. While there was never another acceptable use of the “n” word, the word thug had a perfectly good and acceptable place in English.
Thug in its usual sense may go the way of gay and queer. At one time gay had a perfectly good place describing a happy mood or festive apparel. Now, saying someone is a queer fellow, or predicting that we will all have a gay time may cause confusion.
Recently, I was preparing to buy tickets for a movie and the cashier asked, “Pardon me. Is that your partner?” I was confused until I realized that he was talking about my wife. The young man simply wanted to tell me that the movie we wanted to see was in the upstairs theater and that there was no elevator for my “partner” who was on a knee scooter at the time. So, now we have to differentiate between “life partners” and “business partners”. That’s OK. We can still use the word.
If the President was white referring to black teens breaking into and looting businesses I could understand that there might be confusion about exactly how he was using the word, thug. Surely, there is no confusion in this case.
Maybe the objection was raised because the person raising the objection believes that teens who burglarize and burn businesses aren’t thugs if they are protesting police brutality. In that case I have to side with the President. A person who robs and kills travelers in the name of the consort of Shiva is still a criminal, a thug.
We shouldn’t have to give up a word because white bigots misuse it.