False Origins of the Word Wog
Now, wading boots and Wellingtons pulled on our feet, let us wade into the turbid fen of false etymology,where every word’s origin is an acronym. Here lurk spurious origins offered by unlettered hoi polloi. The word wog has many. For example, wog is considered to be an acronym, standing for such phrases as:
- Wily Oriental Gentleman
- Worthy Oriental Gentleman
- Westernized Oriental Gentleman
- Wonderful Oriental Gentleman
- Working On Government Service
That last unproven doozy was supposedly printed on the back of shirts worn by Suez Canal workers. Yet no proof, not a scrap of evidentiary historical residua exists to support these claims. No Suez shirt bearing such a phrase has ever come to auction. In all the files about all the various insulting names under which oriental persons have laboured throughout western history, there is no record whatsoever of documents, letters, memorabilia with such phrases short-formed. No person has ever brought forward and presented as evidence a single item with Worthy Oriental Gentleman stamped upon it. Not once.
Therefore be suspicious whenever you are offered a word origin involving a short form or an acronym. The illiterate and the unread don't seem able to imagine language being passed through history, so acronymic pseudo-etymology is often the only path they are able to posit. These are the folks who think that the f word (whose roots are at least 4,000 years old!) is an acronym representing in English "for undue carnal knowledge." No, it is not. And, if you think so, you are an illiterate booby.
Formal Extensions & Derivatives of Wog
Wogland is a derogatory reference to any foreign country. In James Joyce Ulysses (1922) we read “She called him wogger.” He was not Irish. In London in the fall of 2002 I heard, “He’s a woggy little bugger.”
There are, however, alternative ideas about word origin that are worth consideration. Here is one of them written by my friend Keith Thomas, of interest because it reveals an exotic bit of naval history and sparks questions about the formative relationship between the words pollywog and golliwog? Was Florence Upton, when she coined the name of her character, Golliwogg, influenced by pollywog?
I liked your piece on the origin of “wog.” Your version seems more plausible than the folk etymology I heard years ago, notably that wog was short for “pollywog” and came from Victorian-era Royal Navy slang for people native to equatorial regions.
In both the RN and the USN, sailors used “slimy pollywogs,” “pollywogs,” or more often just “wogs,” to mean sailors who haven’t yet crossed the equator. They become “shellbacks” after an initiation ceremony at zero degrees latitude by King Neptune and his court.
Some sources claim the origin of the ceremony is “lost in the mists of time,” but the earliest European references of which I’m aware are from the mid-fifteenth century and mention a religious ceremony, asking God’s blessing, performed on Portuguese ships when crossing the equator.
In the early eighteenth century, based on a 1708 account, the irreverent British merely dunked the uninitiated or required them to pay a fine. But by the end of that century King Neptune had become the key figure, along with his wife, Amphitrite, a writer (naval jargon for a clerk), a barber and various bit players done up in costume.
This is an oral tradition, never formalized in naval orders, so it varies, but nonetheless seems to have had a relatively persistent form from the Revolutionary War until navies got politically correct in the last couple of decades. King Neptune and his retinue arrive with nautical pomp and circumstance and the pollywogs are summoned one-by-one. The writer reads the “charges” and Neptune orders the punishment, which often comprises the barber lathering the pollywog with some foul mixture, shaving him with a large wooden razor and finally dumping him backwards into a large tub of water.
But, at least as often, the punishment involves embarrassment and hazing tailored to individual personalities, especially junior officers. At the end, the writer provides each new shellback with a certificate of initiation, which usually includes commands to Neptune’s various subjects—sharks, sea serpents, etc.—to treat the holder kindly, and to landlubbers and the like to treat the holder with due respect.
The entire court, including Neptune ’s Queen, sometimes with her own female attendants, were played by sailors, of course. One relatively contemporary account from an American sailor says: “The King, behind his locks of hempen hair and beard, looked suspiciously like the ship’s Supply Officer. A retinue of “Wog Queens,” female sailors, who had avoided our fate by dressing in a most provocative manner, attended him. Some of them looked pretty damn cute, actually.
Which was strange, because this was 1987, and there were no females at sea on warships, in those days.
And it occurred to me on closer observation that these were not females at all. There were far too many Adam’s apples, among all those Eve’s.
One of the things I never figured out (because I was afraid of what the answer might be) was how it came to pass that these Wog Queens, in exchange for avoiding the more uncomfortable aspects of the crossing the line ceremony, managed to cruise for four and a half months with brassieres, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels stowed away in the very little space available to a Sailor at sea, while waiting for Just This Day!”
But I digress.
I couldn’t find anything on the web to prove the use of the term “pollywog” in the ceremony in Victorian times. It wasn’t mentioned in an 1870 account of the ceremony on a USN frigate, but it seems to have been established in both the RN and USN before the Second World War. I did find a copy of an RN crossing-the-line certificate from 1944 that mentions both “pollywogs” and “gollywogs” as being Neptune’s subjects, so it seems there was some cross talk at work by then between civilian and naval vocabularies. http://www.geocities.com/valsvisuals/filesfaa
Page 3 of Wog
Page 1 of Wog
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Thursday, June 16, 2005
Carillo piece published in US magazine
AN essay from the English-usage book of Manila Times columnist Jose Carillo is featured in the maiden issue of Vocabula Bound Quarterly, a Massachusetts, United States-based journal about words and language, which came off the press last week.
Carillo’s essay, “The Deadly Game of Corporatese,” from his best-selling book, English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, is published in the book along with essays by J. Epstein, R. Lederer, Mark Halpern, Bill Casselman, John Kilgore and Amalia Gnanadesikan, internationally recognized teachers and writers on English usage.