Sunday, September 04, 2011

Racist Bugs (Cartoon Version — Insect Version TBA)

You’d have a hard time arguing that Bugs Bunny didn’t have racist tendencies back in the day. Is this news? Then please examine the old Merrie Melodies cartoons “All This and Rabbit Stew” and “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.”



Yikes, right?

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 Southern 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.
Word nerd? Subscribe to Back of the Cereal Box’s word-related posts by clicking here.


8 comments:

  1. Any idea if quadroon or octoroon has any relation to maroon? It just seems odd that there's a roon family of words.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Etymonline says that "quadroon" actually uses the suffix "oon," the "r" being part of the root. And then "octaroon" mistakenly uses "roon" as the suffix. I guess it should have been "octoon."

    So I'd guess it's just a coincidence that these oons ended up all being racist.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My high school's team name was "the Maroons" (allegedly because the football uniform colors were chosen as maroon and white back in the 1920s, but maybe there were some obscure-etymology-loving racists on the school board at the time…). I don't ordinarily care about sports mascots, but I kind of liked ours: a purple fuzzball thing named Mr. Maroo (http://www.austinhighmaroons.org/school-facts-and-history.html) We never won any football games for some reason.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Maybe it depends on whether you think marroon "A member of a community of black slaves who had escaped from their captivity…" and marroon "A kind of large chestnut" are different words because they have different etymologies, or the same word, because they are spelled and pronounced the same (although the first marroon is often capitalized).

    But I don't see the point in refraining from using the verb marroon because of its etymology. Etymologies are not definitions.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Adam: That's actually not a bad mascot. In high school, I was a Haybaler. I was... less successful.

    Goofy: And I get that etymology doesn't dictate definition, but words that have racist legacies often tend to become unpopular, at least once word gets out that, "oh, didn't you know that's racist?" Personally, I'd be okay with it continuing, but I also would be a lot less likely to say it myself.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Unfortunately non of this applies. Logically, he uses the word 'maroon' as a mispronunciation of moron, since in the same scene (the very next phrase, I believe) he mispronounces the word imbecile as im BEE sill. Sorry - not seeing this particular phrase as an example of racism. Doesn't he also call someone a Nimrod in an episode?

    There is enough overt racism in these cartoons that I really don't think you would have to reach like this...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm more interested in the conversation about how at fault you can be for using a word that has racist connotations that you're not aware of.

      Delete
  7. Anonymous1:27 AM

    I always thought he was slighting the Maroons of Jamaica and using this guise of mispronunciation or moron was hackish and unimaginative. No, lets not promulgate this racism by saying it was some kind of "oversight" by Bugs Bunny's creators.

    ReplyDelete