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Prior to the 17th century 'Saracen' was the name given to a Muslim, whether of Arab or Turkish origin. It originates from the Crusades, from a region called Sarakene in the northern Sinai peninsula.

The name survives on pub signs across the country. There are many called 'The Saracen's Head'. One, of which I am aware, changed its name to 'The Turk's Head', and then to something completely different.

What I am wondering is whether or not it is considered an offensive term among Arabic or Turkish people.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Drew, Brian Hooper, Mitch, ab2, tchrist Feb 5 at 10:29

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I'm guessing probably yes, that it's at least as uncomfortable as calling people dated ethnic terms like Negro or Oriental or Chinaman. But I could be surprised. – Bradd Szonye Mar 9 '14 at 1:24
Define offensive. To whom? In what context? The question should be closed because it is primarily opinion-based. – Drew Feb 3 at 2:32
up vote 2 down vote accepted

According to a number of historians whose books appear in Google Books searches for Saracen + pejorative, the term Saracen was indeed a pejorative term back in the (medieval) days when English Christians widely used it. Hunt Janin & Ursula Carlson, Mercenaries in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (2013) offers this brief discussion:

"Saracen" is a loosely-defined historical term for a group of Arab Muslims, and its meaning has shifted over time. Initially, in early Greek and Latin, it referred, apparently non-pejoratively, to the peoples living in the desert areas in or near what the Romans called "Arabia." By the Early Middle Ages, however, this term was being used in a more negative sense to describe all the Arab tribes.

From Frederick Quinn, The Sum of All Heresies: The Image of Islam in Western Thought (2008):

The origin of the word "Saracen" is uncertain; by the Christian Middle Ages it had become a sweepingly pejorative term applied to almost all Arabic-speaking populations. "Saracens" was also a play on the Greek word sarakeonoi, meaning "easterners." The word Islam was unknown in these centuries and did not appear in English until the seventeenth century in works like Pilgrimage (1613), an early survey of peoples of the world and their religions by Samuel Purchas (1577?–1626), a chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury and compiler of early travel accounts.

From Debra Strickland, "Monstrosity and Race in the Late Middle Ages," in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (2013), which draws a parallel between Saracen and Tartar in medieval usage:

It is an equally short conceptual step from walking, talking, well-dressed (if cannibalistic) Dogheads to medieval Christian characterizations of Muslims, known pejoratively as "Saracens," and characterized by some Christian chroniclers as "a race of dogs." How this thought pattern might have colored perceptions of the Mandeville author's polygamous and idol-worshiping "Tartars," the pejorative medieval designation for Mongols, is suggested in one English copy of this work, ...

From Jerold Frakes, Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse (2011):

If "Saracen" does not mean "Muslim," does it mean "Arab"? Indeed, when it is first used by Greek and Latin authors of late antiquity, it is used principally to designate nomadic Arab tribes living along the southern and eastern borders of the Roman Empire. The term was not, originally, used to refer to the settled Arabs living within the empire. Yet over the centuries, the term came to designate Muslims (including non-Arab Muslims), though it never completely lost its ethnic overtones. Arab Christians are never called Saracens. After all, according to Jerome, the Saracens were the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham and his slave Hagar: if they call themselves "Saracens," it is because they try to usurp the heritage of Sarah, Abraham's legitimate wife. This pejorative etymology was echoed by countless medieval authors, though of course it ignored the fact that the "Saracens" in fact did not call themselves "Saracens."

And finally the entry for Saracen in Michelle Sauer, The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry Before 1600 (2008), which brings us up to the "early modern" period:

SARACEN The word Saracen is an English adaptation of the Greek word sarakenos (easterner). It was used commonly in medieval and early modern British literature to refer to any non-Christian, non-Jewish person, usually from the Middle East but also possibly from North Africa or even Spain; Arab or Muslim are rough synonyms. The use of the term is usually pejorative and indicates an opponent of Christianity. It is seldom attached to actual cultural knowledge; instead, most literary depictions of Saracens involve simple behavioral stereotypes (treachery, greed,cowardice), either for comic effect or as part pro-Christian propaganda.

The pejorative sense persists into the late eighteenth century—in a comedic setting, at least—as we see in these lines from Thomas Holcroft, A Knave or Not?, second edition (1798):

Sir Job Ferment [to his son]: Do you forget that I have a right to knock you down when I please? Bombs and gunpowder, get out of my sight. (Aside) You may follow me——Begone, you vile—— what shall I call you?——See to the settling of that account with Paywell and Co. Five hundred nineteen seven and six in our favour. Get about your business you, you, you Saracen Turk!

But Karim H. Karim, Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence (2000) [combined snippets] uses Saracen in its old terror-fraught sense in describing modern Western views of Islam:

Violence committed by militant Muslims is usually placed within journalistic frameworks whose cultural roots are hundreds of years old. For example, editorial cartoons draw on images such as the bloodthirsty Saracen wielding "the sword of Islam" embedded in medieval European literature. Such depictions tend to hinder the understanding of violence as well as of Islam.

So what we have with Saracen is a term that for centuries was used in a highly pejorative way to demonize an ill-defined category of people centered on Muslim Arabs, but that gradually fell into disuse as English speakers adopted more-precise terms to differentiate among members of the broader class formerly labeled "Saracens." I get the impression that the main survival of Saracen in the UK is in the form of references to pubs and inns styled The Saracen's Head that dot English literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth century; the wording seems rather quaint in that setting. In the United States, Saracen is hardly known or used at all.

But any attempt to dust the word off and use it today in a neutral sense must deal with (or overlook) the fact that it served in the West as an exceedingly hostile epithet that, ethnologically speaking, was very poorly defined anyway. I can't think of any good reason to try to rehabilitate it, given that its meaning was so negative for so long, and so vague in the first place.

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All I can say is thanks for your research and excellent presentation. – WS2 Feb 3 at 10:10

Well, I will take an intellectual stab at this:

I would doubt it has enough currency outside of tavern signs to be offensive on the face of it.

But …

Calling all members of any group by a word that inaccurately or only describes a small portion of them is typically considered offensive. (Not straight-razors in the parking lot offensive, but still mildly insulting.)

For example, it would be offensive to Pakistani Muslims to be called Arabs on the basis of their religion. It would be offensive to Turks and Persians to be called Arabs on the basis of their religion and Middle Eastern heritage.

I think when it comes to using names for groups, it makes sense to either use their own preferred name or at least that which has been widely accepted.

I do think that the usage is perfectly acceptable in historical context, however. If you are writing a book on medieval Europe, it would be inane not to use the term that was widely accepted for the time. It might be worth noting in a footnote the origin and disambiguation of the term for clarity, but otherwise let fly with all the Saracens you like. I won't tell.

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Another one I am unsure about is Spaniard. Any thoughts about that? – WS2 Dec 19 '15 at 9:35
@WS2 I've seen Spaniard in modern, presumably not wildly offensive, publications. The major caveat with the term is making sure to only apply it to those from Spain, and not Hispanic or latino/a people generally. Like Saracen, it makes a lot of sense in historical writing about historical figures, but may invite a raised eyebrow or at least sound anachronistic when talking about people alive today. – Josh Rumbut Feb 3 at 1:57
The offensive component of Saracen, like @Sven points out, is that it was a term imposed on the group rather than created by it. – Josh Rumbut Feb 3 at 1:58

Actually, "Saracen" was used at one time by the Romans (Roman Empire) to describe Arabs who lived in the desert around Syria. Later in the Crusades it re-emerged as a word to describe any Arab who fought against the crusaders. It is not directly a name given to all Muslims as such. However, the Crusades were Roman Catholic Christianity versus Islam so naturally a Saracen would also be an Arab Muslim.

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This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. - From Review – macraf Feb 2 at 22:22

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