Saturday, November 04, 2006

Before the election is over...

... and now that the furor has died down about Macacagate, I'll contribute my belated opinion on the origin of the term "macaca."

Or rather, what I'm sure it isn't. When I first heard about this scandal, I was told that it was a Tunisian French slur against native Tunisians. I bought this explanation. But then it turned out

1) Okay, that term is actually "macaque," pronounced basically the same way as the English word. Furthermore,

2) It was used in the Belgian Congo against Congolese natives (and perhaps North African immigrants to Belgium).

A fair amount of smushy thinking is involved to make the Belgian colonial slur into the likely etymon of "macaca." The steps, as I see them, go like this:

1) So "macaque" is a kind of monkey, the latin name of which is Macaca. And

2) French Tunisia, Belgian Congo -- it's all Francophone colonies in Africa, after all.

But these are both stretches, and are only plausible to someone who really wants to how that George Allen used a known epithet. The problems are obvious - Tunisia and the Congo are nowhere near each other, and though they may speak French in Belgium (at least in parts of it), Belgium ain't France. So how, in short, would a francophone Tunisian crypto-Jew learn a Belgian slur against Congolese natives, and then transmit it to her son as the Latin name of the monkey from which the slur may come?

This bothers me not because I like Allen. In fact it bothers me because I do suspect him of being a barely closeted racist, and I think that this specious etymology 1) weakens the case against Allen with its leaps of logic 2) hides the real story, which I think is far worse.

I take Allen at his word when he says that he "just made up" the term on the spot (you can watch him claim this here). This, to me, does not excuse it -- if anything, it suggests that S. R. Siddarth's South Asian ancestry made him so ridiculous to a crowd of rural Virginians that Allen could make up a vaguely "primitive" sounding name for him, one that wouldn't seem out of place coming out of Johnny Weissmuller's mouth. This, to me, is much more plausible. And much more offensive.


V Smoothe said...

I don't know anything about French Tunisia or the Belgian Congo, or even Virginia for that matter, but where I grew up in South Louisiana, macaque is used as an ethnic slur to describe blacks, or at least was by elementary school children in the mid-1980s.

It is also the word French speakers in that area used for monkey (all monkeys, not a particular kind), and that we learned for monkey in French class in school, rather than the more normal singe.

I've definitely missed your blog! I hope you return to posting regularly again soon.

Ben said...

No kidding - that's fascinating. Say, I'm really curious - how much French did you hear before you moved, particularly among kids your age? I've heard such wildly divergent facts about the status of French in southern Louisiana that I've been dying to get some info on the subject from someone I trust.

Thanks for the kind words - I'll post when I can, but since I'm trying to get some actual work done it won't happen that regularly. This is where you RSS subscribers luck out!

Benjamin Feldman said...

I continue to be amazed at how I can read in your blog about something that I am totally unfamiliar with, and exit being so well-informed ! Yashkekoyakh !!

Ben Feldman

Ben said...

Thanks, Ben - that's what I strive for. Glad you think I succeed!

Anonymous said...

This is an old thread, but as a French speaker from Southern Louisiana:
- In my mothers generation (those born in the 50s), most children in her small town, along the western bank of the Mississippi halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, heard French as children from their parents, but were encouraged to not speak it outside of family because of the social stigma; however, her cousins in the more central areas of Louisiana spoke French with their friends and family constantly -- the stigma wasn't there for them.

- In my generation (those born in the 80s), we again only heard French around our family -- but this was mostly when our parents were with our grandparents; French slang, however, was still rife. (In my case, my sister and I learnt French because my grandmother came to live with us and she didn't like how "American" people in the city were. She also taught us some amazing cooking.) My cousins in central Louisiana (who, like their parents, still have not moved~) speak using much more code-switching than their parents, and are probably more likely to speak English first amongst friends, but French amongst family.

I should state that my mother's family is French Creole, but her cousins are Cajun. My mother married a metise man whose French family is Creole, but most of her cousins married Cajuns. My father understands French (and uses it differently than my mother -- he tends to use it more in set phrases and short sentences, whereas she's more likely to code switch or go as far as to make up English words based on the French ones that she knows), but not fluently as she does, and his syntax is less influenced by French (more typically New Orleanian syntax) than hers.

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