7 Ethnic Names with Figurative Meanings

By Mark Nichol

Names of ethnic groups have inspired nonliteral associations, many of them derogatory designations for the “other.” Here are seven such terms based on such names.

1. Bohemian: This word for one who adopts an unconventional lifestyle derives from the name of a historic region of Europe that now constitutes much of the present-day Czech Republic. Because many of the Romani people (see gypsy, below) had lived for a time in this area before settling in France, they were called Bohemians. In turn, this designation was attached to artists and writers who, because of poverty (voluntary or otherwise), often lived in city neighborhoods where the “original” Bohemians had concentrated.

Words derived from the term include the abbreviation boho and the neologism bobo, the latter from “bourgeois bohemian,” referring to an affluent person from a mainstream background who affects nontraditional attitudes and habits.

2. Goth: This designation for a modern subculture distinguished by somber attire and demeanor and a fascination with death and the supernatural has its roots in gothic literature and horror imagery inspired by German expressionism. Gothic literature, in turn, derives its name from the standard setting of stories in this genre: castles or monasteries of the Gothic architectural style.

This style, meanwhile, takes its name from a pejorative use of Gothic to mean “barbaric”; the Goths were a loose confederation of tribes from Scandinavia responsible for the conquest of Rome and other centers of civilization in the early Middle Ages.

3. Gypsy: The Romani, members of a far-flung ethnic group originally from the Indian subcontinent, were long believed to have come from Egypt, and their informal name, now sometimes considered pejorative, derived from Egyptian. The term has also been used to refer to people with nontraditional, nomadic lifestyles and is employed loosely in such terms as “gypsy dancer.” The truncation gyp, meaning “cheat,” in both noun and verb form, results from an association of the Romani with fraud and thievery.

4. Lesbian: This name for a person from the Greek island of Lesbos acquired a connotation of female homosexuality thanks to a resident named Sappho, a woman who wrote poetry expressing love and passion for both men and women. Here name also led to the use of the adjective Sapphic to describe female homosexuality.

5. Philistine: Influenced by biblical references to a people of the Near East called the Philistines as archenemies of the Israelites (the land they had lived in was later called Palestine), the term came to be used to refer to uncivilized people; later by extension, a philistine was a person lacking refined artistic or cultural tastes and values.

6. Tartar: Though the term is now used rarely, a tartar is an irritable or violent person. The name comes from a variation of Tatar, the designation for an ethnic group originating near what is now Mongolia and now found in Russia and nearby countries; the Tatars, long allied with the Mongols, were stereotyped as being ruthless.

7. Vandal: This Germanic tribe, originating in Scandinavia, came to be associated with looting and pillaging because, after migrating throughout Europe and settling in North Africa, the Vandals conquered Rome in the early Middle Ages. However, recent historians have argued that the Vandals did not destroy the late Roman civilization but rather adopted the culture. Nevertheless, the word still refers to someone who damages property.

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2 Responses to “7 Ethnic Names with Figurative Meanings”

  • Treathyl FOX

    Fascinating read!
    Although if a group of people in real life truly are ruthless, I’m not so sure you can call it a stereotype. I mean if I called a gang of organized criminals are ruthless and they just happen to all come from the same place, you wouldn’t say I was stereotyping them. Would you? 🙂

  • Sally

    Seen on a T-Shirt:

    “You say you’re a Goth? Then where were you when we sacked Rome?”

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