On The Etymology of Macaca

Here's Mike Scherer:

George Allen may well have been the only one at the rally whose family background would have introduced him to the word "macaca."

Though he doesn't like to use it, the senator's full name is George F. Allen. He gets the middle initial from his grandfather, Felix Lumbrosso, a French-Italian who was incarcerated by the Nazis during World War II. Felix raised Allen's mother, Etty, in Tunisia, a French protectorate in North Africa. As a child, Allen's grandparents lived near the family home, and Etty spoke five languages around the house. Allen makes no secret of his heritage on the campaign trail. "I have my grandfather's bloodlines," he said at a recent swing through a suburb of Richmond. "My grandfather is French-Italian. I have about one-sixteenth Spanish in me."

In North Africa, the word "macaca," often spelled "macaco" or "macaque," is far more than a string of random syllables. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dates back to the mid-1600s, as a Flemish approximation of the Bantu word for monkey in the Congo and southern Gabon. The word migrated north, taking on all the racist connotations that followed African colonization. By the early 1800s, Jacko Maccacco, a famous fighting monkey, could be found on display in Westminster Pit, a notorious London arena for dog fights. The word had entered the common vernacular, and it eventually became a racist shorthand for blacks.

Today, the word is used mainly by two groups of people: scientists studying African and Asian primates, and bullies looking to insult others for the color of their skin. An online dictionary of ethnic slurs lists "macaque" as a French and Belgian word for black North Africans. In the Oxford Spanish Dictionary, "macaco" and "macaca" carry the colloquial meaning of "little devil," "Chinaman" and "ugly person." Anthropologists who study Brazilian street slang have noted that the police will call the local kids "macaco," or monkey, in reference to their African heritage.

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