Words in the News: Thugs

Originally the Word Meant Something More Specific

Originally the Word Meant Something More Specific

In our current mode of excessively violent policing, the word “thug” has come to mean a reprehensible person, usually black. Rather than adding my own two cents to the problems of Ferguson and Baltimore, I thought I’d shed some light as to how the word came into the English language from its remote origins in India.

Thuggee was the practice of waylaying travelers by usually family-related gangs, taking them to remote places known to them, and strangle them as in the above illustration. As early as 1356, Ẓiyā-ud-Dīn Baranī mentioned them in his History of Fīrūz Shāh. Under the rule of the East India Company, these gangs were targeted by the British forces for eradication.

As described in Wikipedia:

The Thugs would join travelers and gain their confidence. This would allow them to then surprise and strangle their victims by pulling a handkerchief or noose tight around their necks. They would then rob their victims of valuables and bury their bodies. This led them to also be called Phansigar (English: using a noose), a term more commonly used in southern India. The term Thuggee is derived from the Hindi word ठग, or ṭhag, which means “deceiver”. Related words are the verb thugna, “to deceive”, from Sanskrit  स्थग sthaga, “cunning, sly, fraudulent“, from स्थगति sthagati “he conceals”.This term for a particular kind of murder and robbery of travellers is popular in South Asia and particularly in India.

Now that  you know about all about Thuggee, you might want to refrain from using the word “thug” to describe a lower class person of race who is acting in an uppity way against your white values.

A related term is dacoity, which is yet another term for describing the same sort of thing. The East India Company ultimately enacted the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts between 1836 and 1848 which made a dent in this kind of organized criminal activity.

You might also want to read this article which appeared in Newsweek for additional background.