September 22, 2006

Macaca-watch continues

The uproar over Sen. George Allen's use of the peculiar word macaca last month to refer to a young Democratic campaign worker of South Asian descent just won't go away. (See here and here for previous Language Log coverage.) Some have claimed that macaca, as a variant of macaque, has been used as a French racial epithet in North Africa. And since Allen's mother is French Tunisian, the argument goes, Allen himself must have picked it up from her. But the senator's mother, Henrietta "Etty" Allen, put the kibosh on that claim in a Washington Post interview:

Etty Allen said Wednesday that she had never used the word "macaca" before and had to go to a dictionary to look it up when she heard of the controversy. She said the word did not exist in her dictionary.
"I swear to you, I have never used that word," she said. "I must have used a lot of bad words, but not that word."

That seems like a reasonable disavowal, particularly since it has never been proven, to my knowledge, that macaca really has ever been a racial slur in common use in North Africa, despite many bloggers and reporters treating this claim as fact. (Josh Marshall, for instance, wrote that "in Colonial-era North Africa, particularly the Francophone areas, 'Macaca' is a rough equivalent of 'N-ger'." Sez who? So far the only evidence I've seen is for macaque as a slur for dark-skinned people, not macaca.) Etty Allen's profession of ignorance would seem to support her son's recently proffered excuse for using macaca, which is that it was a completely meaningless word he made up on the spot — this despite earlier explanations that it was somehow a blend of Mohawk and caca.

But now comes yet another rationale. As reported on Wonkette, George Allen told World Magazine about a different provenance for macaca:

Allen actually had a pretty credible defense for what he said. No one — including The Washington Post, which featured the story repeatedly for several weeks — ever demonstrated that "macaca" really has such murky racial connotations in any language. But in northern Italy, where Allen's mother had close family connections, "macaca" does seem to mean "clown" or "buffoon." Allen says now that's what he was trying to communicate.

I don't know if this latest explanation will hold any more water than previous ones, especially given the fact that Etty Allen is on record as saying she had never heard of macaca before. But does macaca actually mean 'clown' or 'buffoon' in some northern Italian dialect? I checked out the reasonably comprehensive Dizionario della Lingua Italiana and found this "figurative" definition for macàca (listed after the zoological sense of the monkey genus):

fig., donna goffamente brutta e sciocca

If I'm translating the Italian correctly, this means that monkeyish macàca gets extended in some varieties of Italian to mean "a clumsily ugly and foolish woman." That's the feminine form of macàco, glossed as "uomo goffamente brutto e sciocco" ('a clumsily ugly and foolish man'). So if Allen is sticking by the Italian motivation, he'll next have to explain why he was referring to S.R. Sidarth, the (male) campaign worker, as a female buffoon. Doesn't look like Allen is getting out of this morass of macaca any time soon.

[Update: As for French derogatory uses of macaque, Chris Waigl provides a link to the word's entry in Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, where one definition is "personne trés laide" ('very ugly person'). Still no firm evidence for the Francophone use of macaca, though.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at September 22, 2006 07:57 PM