These cartoons don’t get a lot of airplay today, and for good reason. But upon reading a post on the blog Shakesville, I was surprised to learn that one of Bugs’s not-edited-for-TV catchphrases has some rather nasty implications. It’s my word of the week.
maroon (ma-ROON) — noun: 1. a dark red or reddish-brown. 2. a kind of sweet chestnut produced in Souther Europe and known elsewhere as the French or Italian chestnut. 3. a person who is marooned. 4. (when capitalized) a fugitive black slave of the West Indes and Guiana in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; also a descendant of such a slave.Guess which one people find offensive? Of course, when Bugs comments “What a maroon,” he’s most likely not using that fourth definition of the word but instead just mispronouncing the word moron. I think.
Even if the writers who first put that word in Bugs’s mouth understood the connotations, the later ones who re-used the catchphrase most likely didn’t any more than the kids who watched the show. But it brings up a question I’ve never thought about before: Are you any less at fault for using an offensive word if you don’t understand the meaning? I’m feeling the answer is no. It’s a sticky swamp to tread through by defending yourself with “Oh, I had no idea,” since you then seem ignorant and ignorance breeds racism. And in the practical sense, if your child made up a word that he then began showing off to his friends, and the syllables he put together just happened to be penisfucker, you’d probably tell him to stop saying it, even if he chanced upon it innocently. Right? Given that Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. temporarily banned Speedy Gonzales after allegations of racism and stereotyping, I’d guess that “What a maroon!” has been yanked from the arsenal of insults that Bugs Bunny can use in future cartoons, just to be safe, just to stop a controversy before it has a chance to happen.
Thinking how we most often use maroon today — in the color sense — I might guess that the racist definition refers to skin color. It doesn’t. Weirdly, it is the racist maroon from whence we get the the verb sense of maroon — “to put ashore on a desolate island or coast and leave to one’s fate.” (So… I guess we shouldn’t use that one either?) According to Etymonline, the racist maroon comes from the Spanish cimmaron, meaning “wild, untamed,” which in turn comes from the Old Spanish cimarra, “thicket.” To complicate matters just a little more, cimmaron is also where we get the Native American tribe name, Seminole.
So now this makes me wonder if the logic I applied to the Bugs Bunny situation. Should we also take pains to avoid maroon the verb? How might the Seminoles feel about the etymology of the name we English-speakers call them? Should Bugs Bunny still be discouraged from uttering “What a maroon,” even in the face of Elmer Fudd’s idiocy and independent of any kind of racial context?
Previous words of the week after the jump.
- acné excoriée des jeunes filles, adulterine, ageusia, ambeer, anosmia
- barrack, bissextile, bloofer, breastsummer
- catholicon, cecaelia, cephalophore, cherpumple, chilver, cockernonnie, coprolalia, couvade, cranberry morpheme, crwth, culaccino, cummingtonite
- deasil, decussate, deuteragonist, dingbat, dingle
- eidolon, epeolatry, epopt, espalier, etui, exoterica
- fabiform, Feghoot, fissilingual, Föhnkrankheit, folderol, froward
- gallinipper, grandgore, grue, guilloche, gyaru
- hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, hogo, honorificabilitudinitatibus
- ignivomous, iracund, isabelline, itaiitai
- jabroni, jamais vu, jehu, jumentous
- kaffir, kakopygian, kayfabe, knipperdollin
- lagniappe, leman, lemniscate, limnovore, linsey-woolsey, longicorn
- malacia, malison, milt, mongo, mooncalf, morepork, muzjiks
- narrenfreiheit, nef, nihilartikel, nobiliary particle, nosism
- ochanee, ogonek, ombré, ooglification, orchidectomy, ordured, orf
- pace, pareidolia, pavonated, perendiate, perigee, petrichor, pettifogger, pettitoes, phlegmagogue, pismire, pogonip, pong, pruniferous, puggle, pulveratricious, purse
- quacksalver, quagga, qualtagh, quidnunc, quiff
- ronion, roynish, rubirosa, rumpsprung, runcible
- salmagundi, scrutator, seneschal, sharrow, shebang, sinople, slubberdegullion, stan, stevedore, suovetaurilia
- tappen, teratogenesis, tergiversate, tetromino, thagomizer, thon, tiffin, tittery-whoppet, tmesis, toby, tutoyer, tyro
- ucalegon, ultramontane, umiaq, umquhile
- veneficial, verdigris, vespertilionine, vinegeroon
- weeaboo, widdiful, williwaw, witzelsucht, wooper looper
- xenodocheionology, xyster
- yazoo, ypsiliform, yoink
- zanjero, zenzizenzizenzic, zinnober, zugzwang
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