May 25, 2005

Mascot Names and Etymology

Frank Deford had an excellent piece today on NPR's Morning Edition praising the NCAA's decision to review its policies regarding the use of Indian names for team mascots. As I mentioned in a post some time ago, I served as the expert for the Indians who challenged the Washington Redskins' trademark on the grounds that the Lanham Act prohibits the registration of marks that are "disparaging" -- a petition upheld by the Trademark Board but ultimately reversed by a Washington D.C. district court judge. So I was naturally glad to hear a sportswriter as influential as Deford condemn the Redskin as "the most offensive" of all Indian mascot names.

But Deford made one assertion that needs correcting. "Redskins," he said, "does not refer to skin color. . . A redskin was a scalp taken by Americans as bounty. The red in redskin is blood red." Not so.

True, that tale has been around for a while, and has been widely repeated by opponents of the use of the nickname, including many Indians, among them Susan Harjo, who as it happens was one of the petitioners in the case I worked on. It makes for effective propaganda for a just cause -- I think we made an unimpeachable case that the term is and has always been racist, whatever the District Court judge may have ruled.

I don't know where the "scalp" story originated, but it isn't very plausible. The OED gives the first citation for redskin from 1699, well before the date of any of the stories about paying bounties for scalps. Some people have suggested that the phrase derives from the European and Algonquian name for the Delaware Indians, whose men would streak their faces and bodies with red ocher and blood-root. Could be, though I'm not aware of any contemporary evidence for that claim, either.

In any event, even if one of those tales were a true account of the first use of the term, neither would account for its spread and persistence in English. "The public has a feeling for utility," Michel Bréal wrote in his Essai de Sémantique, "but does not trouble itself over history." No, Indians don't really have red skin, no more than other perceived racial groupings are really white, black, or yellow, but the color names reflect an urge for synaesthesthetic categorization that runs very deep in cultures, reducing racial groups to elemental primaries. Even if the scalp story happened to be true, it wouldn't explain terms like redmen.

Linguists pooh-pooh the idea that the original meaning of a term can somehow persist in the collective unconscious after it has been lost to individual recall. But that picture still has a pervasive hold in popular thinking about language. I'm of two minds about the "scalp" story about the origin of redskin: as a linguist I feel obliged to correct it, but it's doing good work, and part of me is inclined to let it pass. Se non è vero. . .

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at May 25, 2005 10:13 PM