GEORGE ALLEN'S MONKEY-GIRL. The Washington Post this morning reports that Sen. George Allen's campaign has apologized for calling an Indian-American Jim Webb campaign staffer "macaca":

Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) apologized Monday for what his opponent's campaign said were demeaning and insensitive comments the senator made to a 20-year-old volunteer of Indian descent.

At a campaign rally in southwest Virginia on Friday, Allen repeatedly called a volunteer for Democrat James Webb "macaca." During the speech in Breaks, near the Kentucky border, Allen began by saying that he was "going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas" and then pointed at S.R. Sidarth in the crowd.

"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great," Allen said, as his supporters began to laugh. After saying that Webb was raising money in California with a "bunch of Hollywood movie moguls," Allen said, "Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." Allen then began talking about the "war on terror."

Depending on how it is spelled, the word macaca could mean either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa. In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants, according to several Web sites that track ethnic slurs.

I have a simpler explanation, based on having lived in Mexico and New York and having heard this word used before. Macaca is used in Spanish to mean monkey or a fool, and because Spanish is a gendered language, it is the female form. (The main noun for monkey is el mono.) To Spanish-speaking ears, Allen said: "Let's give a welcome to joker/monkey-girl, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

The word is used slightly differently in the various Spanish or Portuguese-speaking nations. In Portugal,"Joco de Macaca" is a children's game -- the "Monkey Game." Other Spanish speakers use Macaca colloquially and jokingly to mean someone who is acting like a monkey. There's even a whole series of Spanish-language children's books about the adventures of "Paca, la macaca" -- i.e., Paca the girl-monkey. Yahoo's Spanish dictionary says it's an adjective that means "ugly, misshapen" when used in America and "foolish, silly" in Puerto Rico (in the same way we say someone is "monkeying around" when they act a fool, or use the phrase "monkey business" to describe silly actions). A typical Spanglish usage would be, "That's macaca!" and would mean something like, "That's a bone-headed/crazy/outlandish idea."

The reason "makak" is a slur in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, as Atrios noted yesterday, is that it means "monkey" and is used to insult Moroccan immigrants. According to this word origin site, "macaque" is French for a kind of monkey, and is a word derived from the Portuguese "macaco," used to describe a kind of Congolese monkey, and which itself most likely comes from "makaku" in Fiot, an African-language, where it means "some monkeys."

Even if the word is not always insulting when used in Spanish, it's always insulting for a white politician to single out a brown-skinned person and call him a monkey -- especially a female monkey. But that's what Allen did yesterday. No wonder he apologized so quickly.

--Garance Franke-Ruta