Good golly, Miss Molly

Q: I was reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen when I came across the offensive British term “wog.” I always thought it was an acronym, but my dictionary says it’s probably short for “golliwog.” Can you tell me more?

A: Let’s begin with Officers and Gentlemen (1955), the second novel in Waugh’s World War II trilogy Sword of Honour. During a conversation after a dinner party, Colonel Tickeridge is asked about a brigadier thought to be dead.

“He was lost,” the colonel says. “Not dead. Far from it. He turned up in western Abyssinia leading a group of wogs. Wanted to go with them, of course, but the powers that be wouldn’t stand for that.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the slang term “wog” as a “vulgarly offensive name for a foreigner, esp. one of Arab extraction.”

In an etymology note, the OED says: “Origin uncertain: often said to be an acronym, but none of the many suggested etymologies is satisfactorily supported by the evidence.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say the term is chiefly British. American Heritage adds that it’s probably a clipped version of “golliwog.”

From our experience, British bigots are more inclusive in using the term than the OED suggests. Although we usually read or hear of Brits applying it to dark-skinned foreigners, especially those from the Middle East or the Far East, we’ve noticed it used for Italians, Spaniards, and Latin Americans as well.

If you read much 20th-century British literature, you’ve probably seen “wog” or variations of it. The first two citations in the OED, though, come from an Irish classic, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “She called him wogger. . . . She may have noticed that her wogger people were always going away.”

The OED’s first reference for “wog” itself comes from a 1929 British book on sea slang: “Wogs, lower class Babu shipping clerks on the Indian coast.”

And if you’ve spent much time in Britain or around British expatriates, you’ve probably heard the story that “wog” is an acronym— for “wily oriental gentleman” or “worthy oriental gentleman” or “we oriental gentlemen.”

No, “wog” isn’t an acronym, but it’s sometimes called a backronym, a false acronym created after the fact from an existing word. (There’s a word for almost everything!)

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we discuss the possibility that it might be a short version of “golliwog.”  Here’s an excerpt:

“Where does ‘wog’ really come from? We don’t know for sure, but some lexicographers have traced it to the Golliwogg, a black rag-doll character in the children’s stories of Florence Kate Upton. The American-born British author and artist, who wrote in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was widely successful but failed to protect her creation. The name soon became public property (spelled ‘golliwog’) and inspired dolls, toys, books, and many other products. A golliwog named Golly was featured on the Robertson & Sons jam and marmalade jars from 1910 until 2001. And the popularity of golliwogs may also have inspired a mid-twentieth-century revival of blackface minstrel shows in Britain. The Black and White Minstrel Show ran on BBC television from 1958 until 1978. A stage version of the variety show ran in London from 1960 to 1972, and traveling troupes performed it for another fifteen years.

“Good golly, Miss Molly! Where are the PC police when you need them?”

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