Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Etymology: Hottentot is a Bad Word

In an earlier post I quoted President Truman describing his disgust with modern art: "If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot," he said. What is a Hottentot? Truman invoked the term to disparage American modern art, but he didn't seem to intend any ill will toward Hottentots themselves. It was a comparison: 'it's just as self-evident that that is not art as it is self-evident that I'm not a Hottentot.'

I was oblivious to the etymology of the word. My friend Sarah told me it's the South African equivalent of the "N-word," so I consulted some reference books.

Here's what my Oxford dictionary said:
1. member of a SW African Negroid people. 2. their language. (Afrikaans)
That doesn't sound so pleasant. Here's what Merriam-Webster's said:
Ok, so here's what M-W said about Khoikhoi:
1. a member of any group of Khoisan-speaking pastoral peoples of southern Africa. 2. the group of Khoisan languages spoken by the Khiokhoi.
That's not much help. I need a dictionary to tell me whether it's naughty or not.

Wikipedia tells me that the Oxford Dictionary of South African English classifies the word as offensive. I can't find a South African English dictionary online to verify this though.

Another search brought me this definition from a course resource page at West Chester University of Pennsylvania:
"The group commonly referred to as 'Hottentots' were a tribal group that resided in Southern Africa, near the Cape of Good Hope and Namibia. The name 'Hottentots' was given to them by Dutch Settlers who made contact with them in the 17th century. The name could be derived from the Dutch word for 'stammerer' or 'stutterer', a description they would apply to the unusual language of click sounds that the Hottentots spoke. It also could have been adapted from a word they often used in tribal songs 'hautitou', that sounds similar to 'hottentot'. The Hottentots did not call themselves by this name, but rather were named the 'Khoikhoi', meaning 'men of men', or 'a pure race'. The word 'hottentot' was extended to be a descriptive term, defined by the Shorter Oxford Dictionary as 'one of inferior culture and intellect.'"
As Sarah said. Many Internet searches for the term "Hottentot" lead to academic pages about a Khoisan woman named Sara Bartman or Saarjite Baartman, a woman who was exhibited in Europe in the nineteenth century like an animal. They called her the "Hottentot Venus." A page from Emory University in Atlanta says this:
"Saarjite Baartman, a young Khosian woman from Southern Africa whose body was the main attraction at public spectacles in both England and France for over five years, is perhaps the most infamous case of a Khosian body on display. Baartman, who became known as the Hottentot Venus, was brought to Europe from Cape Town in 1810 by an English ship's surgeon who wished to publicly exhibit the woman's steatopygia, her enlarged buttocks. Her physique, particularly her steatopygic appendage, became the object of popular fascination when Baartman was exhibited naked in a cage at Piccadilly, England. When abolitionists mobilized to put an end Baartman's public display, she informed them that she participated in the spectacles of her own volition. She even shared in profits with her exhibitor."
Note the different spelling of the word Khoisan. Seems to be a typo on the part of the illustrious Emory U. The BBC reported in 2002 that Ms. Baartman's remains were finally being returned to South Africa:
Baartman was born in 1789 into the Khoisan tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in the southernmost tip of Africa and were also known as Hottentots, which is now considered a derogatory and offensive term.

In 1810 a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop, noticed what seemed to him, her unusual shape.

He took her to London, hoping there was money to be made by exhibiting her and showed her off to a paying audience as a freak of nature.

She was then sold to a French entrepreneur who took her to Paris where she seems to have fallen into alcoholism and prostitution and was dead by 1816.

Baartman was then dissected as a scientific specimen.

Parts of her were preserved and put on display along with her skeleton and could be seen in a Paris museum, right up until the mid 1970s.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this in the Oxford English Dictionary Online:
1b. transf. A person of inferior intellect or culture; one degraded in the scale of civilization, or ignorant of the usages of civilized society. (This derogatory sense, which was based on a failure to understand an alien culture, appears now to be very rare.)

Also, yay Twin Cities!

4:01 PM  

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