March 31, 2011

Curious Ethnic Slurs From the Left Coast

Forgive me for the off-color post, but dirty words are the first things one looks for in a dictionary. 

Lexicographers used to be prudish when it came to including sexual, excretion and slur words in their dictionaries, writes Henri Béjoint, Tradition and Innovation in Modern Dictionaries (p. 129, Oxford 1994).  (He also reports one study that shows foreign learners’ second-most searched kind of term is the dirty ones, p. 144)  Béjoint describes his study of whether large American dictionaries of the 1970s neglect or avoid defining fourteen ethnic slurs.  The slurs he searched the dictionaries for are all the typical ones, most of which I won’t mention (I will mention “squarehead,” which I get a kick out of and because its targets can speak for themselves).  Among the words were “skibby” and “gu-gu.” None of the six large dictionaries he studies contains them—not even the dictionaries that contain all ten other slurs.  I’m not surprised—I’ve never heard of these either.  The meanings of skibby and gu-gu are not even vulnerable to quick Google searches.  What’s a skibby?  Am I a skibby?

I doubted I am a gu-gu, at least.  A trip to the local university library has revealed that I am not a skibby—“skibby” is a slur for a Japanese person (from a Japanese word for lewdness that was transferred to Japanese prostitutes and then more widely applied, according to Webster’s Third and the Dictionary of American Regional English).  DARE says it’s “chiefly CA, Pacific NW.”  According to Webster’s Third, a gu-gu or goo-goo is a Philippine islander, chiefly in the speech of Hawaiians.  It’s not in DARE, but is covered in Wentworth and Flexner’s Dictionary of American Slang; the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says it’s pre-1900.

So there you have it—all Béjoint’s dictionaries were written by easterners.  Perhaps they hadn’t heard of those words any more than I had.  Strange utterances from the land of “hella-cool.”


  1. Haolie was one of my favorites to learn. Did you ever find anything that proves or refutes the derivation of the term Gook a Korean friend once told me? (Supposedly, during the Korean war, Korean kids would chase after American soldiers yelling "Miguk, miguk!" which means "America!" but dimwitted soldiers thought they were referring to themselves, a la "Me=gook!"

  2. Y--the "miguk" derivation isn't right. It's pretty old military slang, from the 1920s or earlier, and maybe from "gu-gu." The slur on Koreans had been used as a term of abuse by U.S. personnel against Central Americans during the 1920s, and I think is cited from the Phillipines too.