August 19, 2006

More on Macaca-gate

The story of George Allen's odd epithet for an Indian-American opponent just keeps getting odder, at least linguistically. According to a post at National Journal's Hotline:

Three Virginia Republicans confirmed to the Hotline that several Allen campaign aides and advisers are telling allies that the word was a made-up, off-the-cuff neologism that these aides occasionally used to refer to tracker S.R. Sidarth well before last Saturday's videotaped encounter.

According to two Republicans who heard the word used, "macaca" was a mash-up of "Mohawk," referring to Sidarth's distinctive hair, and "caca," Spanish slang for excrement, or "shit."

Said one Republican close to the campaign: "In other words, he was a shit-head, an annoyance." Allen, according to Republicans, heard members of his traveling entourage and Virginia Republicans use the phrase and picked it up.

Note how mash-up has come into general use as a term for "blend" or "combination". I wonder whether this word was supplied by the two bloggers who signed the post (Jonathan Martin and Marc Ambinder) or the "two Republicans" that they quote.

The Democrats seen to be be lagging in lexicogrphic creativity -- at least there aren't any recent examples of novel name-calling from Democratic politicians. However, on the front lines of sentence structure, the same Hotline post quotes Kristian Denny Todd, James Webb's communications director, as follows:

I don't know what's worse; calling this innocent 20-year-old a "shit head" or a racist slur that was debatable that it wasn't.

Exercise for the reader: explicate the syntax and semantics of that last noun phrase.

[Update -- email from Zeno:

I grew up with the words macaca and macaco. Portuguese-speaking households use them to upbraid youngsters when they're misbehaving (or, more to the point, acting like monkeys). When used as a disciplinary epithet, it's not a particularly big deal. However, I never heard an adult use it on another adult. It would be extremely demeaning and a grave insult. In particular, it would be grievously offensive if used by a light-skinned person against a dark-skinned person, because the racist connotation is unavoidable.

Perhaps the taint of racism in that usage was picked up in the U.S. (where I was born into an Azorean-Portuguese community that was immersed in the dominant Anglo culture), since simian metaphors for black people are considered deeply racist here, but I don't think so. The revelation that macaca is a racist slur in French-speaking north Africa and elsewhere in the vicinity of the Mediterranean suggests that this aspect of the insult is deeply rooted. Since Sen. Allen has a direct family connection via his mother to French Tunisia, no one needs to construct an unwieldy excuse about campaign neologisms to explain how macaca came into his vocabulary. It's an ex-post-facto cover-your-ass rationalization that lacks credibility. Given more time, perhaps they could have come up with a better excuse, but Mohawk+crap is ridiculously lame.

The sensible explanation is that Sen. George Felix Allen is a casual racist to whom race-baiting epithets come naturally.

This "sensible explanation" makes sense to me as well, though I believe that the French word would be "macacque" rather than "macaca". My original reaction was well expressed by Ann Althouse, who (like me) had no previous experience with the term "macaca":

The mere fact that he looked at a dark-skinned man and said "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia" is repugnant. And it turns out that "macaca" is an offensive racial term. It's hard to believe that's mere chance taken in conjunction with the "Welcome to America" stupidity.

It's hard to get around that, whatever influences there might have been from "mohawk" and "caca".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 19, 2006 08:52 AM