The Grammarphobia Blog

An etymology without papers

Q: I’m an Italian-American who’s offended by Jersey Shore, especially the ethnic slur “guido.” But I’m writing about another slur that often comes up in discussions about the show—“wop.” I always thought it was an acronym for “without papers,” but some people insist it means “without passport.” Which is correct?

A. Neither.

You’ll find a lot of etymological bologna if you google the word “wop.” Supposedly it’s an acronym for “without papers” or “without passport” or “works on pavement.” Nope, nope, and nope.

“Wop,” which originated in the United States, has been a derogatory term for an Italian since 1908. But it’s not an acronym and it has nothing to do with immigration documents.

As we point out in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, immigration documents weren’t even required of newcomers until 1918.

The word comes from guappo, a word in Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects that means a swaggering thug. It’s ultimately derived from the Latin vappa, or “sour wine,” a word the Romans used figuratively for a worthless guy.

Many people mistakenly believe that “wop” originated at Ellis Island, where inspectors supposedly used stamps or chalk or placards to identify immigrants without proper papers.

Although chalk markings were used to identify those with health problems (G for goiter, H for heart, L for lameness, and so on), the symbols didn’t include WOP.

Despite the absence of evidence, we write in Origins of the Specious, this myth has persisted even among Italian-Americans, who should know better.

In his autobiography The Good Life, the singer Tony Bennett says many illiterate immigrants arrived without the right documents.

“The derogatory term ‘wop,’ an acronym for ‘With Out Papers,’ would be stamped on the forms of these unfortunates, and officials would call out, ‘We have another “wop.” Send him home.’ ”

Well, he didn’t get his Grammys for etymology.

By the way, we mentioned in our recent posting about “posh” that acronyms were rare before the 1930s. The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has said “etymologies of this sort—especially for older words— are almost always false.”

One final note. Although many other Italian-Americans agree with you about the use of “guido” on Jersey Shore, the term was around long before the TV show.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the March 24, 1985, issue of the Record of Hackensack, NJ: “Russo proudly calls himself a ‘Guido,’ a term used in local discos to describe a guy who is flashy, macho, and cool.”

The OED describes the term as “US slang (usu. derogatory)” and defines it this way:

“A person regarded as socially unsophisticated, esp. one whose attire and behaviour are viewed as typically lower-class and suburban; spec. an Italian-American man, esp. one who is aggressively masculine and vain regarding his appearance and possessions.”

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