Some of us have seen the Richard Sherman pre-SuperBowl interviews where he accuses the media of racism by using the term "thug" to describe him/his actions.
He suggests that it is being used to replace the n-word.
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The word thug has a long history in English usage dating back to at least the mid 1800s.
It has been extensively used in US vernacular to mean a violent criminal.
To the extent that the term thug has a current association with race, it may date back to the African-American hip-hop group Thug Life that issued albums (including a song entitled Thug LIfe) beginning in the early 1990s. The group was disbanded when one of the members, Tupac Shakur was killed.
At least one source claims that the choice of the group name was based upon certain mainstream reactions to hip hop music.
During the early 1990's, several politicians, including Bob Dole had characterized rap artists as Thugs. Indeed, this was taken as an attack on the hip hop community as a whole. Many, including the late Tupac Shakur, had rejected the criminal implication. It was clear to those in the hip hop community that anyone who attempts to rise from despair would be labeled a Thug. Hence, Thug Life became a phrase meaning "the life one must lead in order to rise through the everyday struggle"; understood by those "in the know" and misunderstood by all others.
Mr. Sherman's reaction may reflect this pattern of characterization of hip-hop and a belief that the negative associations are extended to the African-American community as a whole.
The History Channel detailed the origins of the word "thug' recently. Most people think of a thug as living in a poverty stricken or crime-ridden urban area in the United states. However, the word thug originates from an 800 year old cult called Thuggee in India. Thuggee were known for befriending travelers and killing them with the ultimate intention of robbing them.
The Indian Cult and its practices were popularized and introduced to main stream Western Culture through books such as Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor (1839). Thuggee was also popularized by British Culture as Great Britain Ruled India from 1858 to 1947.
Is it racist? One African American blogger writes,
In a way it bothers me that such a negative word like thug is largely associated with Blacks when it should be associated with Indians. How is it that we get the bad rap when they've been "thuggin" for 800 years!
I have no doubt that people play the racism card when deflecting from their actions, just as Italian Americans played the "false stereotype" card while engaging in (familial) organized crime, claiming The Godfather was a total fabrication.
From my British English perspective 'thug' has no racist overtones. If someone said he had seen two thugs beating a man up, I would automatically assume he was talking about white criminals: that's unless he gave extra information to the contrary. I wouldn't normally associate it with another race, although I know the word's historical origin.
I have recently wondered about a shift in its US usage though. For example there's a site called Thug Notes which specialises in giving the plot synopses of literary classics in African American street slang. The informative host, Sparky Sweets PhD, ('You might have seen my ass on reddit') wears a great deal more gold jewellery than the average lecturer.
As other answerers have pointed out, thug traces its origin to a cult in India. But of course how people use it in the modern day isn't bound by its past associations. In film noir, thug was commonly used interchangeably with goon, and referred to gangsters who provided the brute force for a protection racket or other criminal enterprise.
To find a connection between thug and real or imagined African-American outlaw behavior, I think you have to look to the evolution of gangsta rap. In the 1980s, gangsta rap emerged from so-called "hardcore hiphop," and the term gangsta became specifically associated with black gangs and organized criminals. In 1992–1993, two influential groups appeared that adopted thug in their post-gangsta self-description: Thug Life (whose most famous member was Tupac Shakur) and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (a Cleveland group whose first big hit was "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" and whose first EP for Ruthless Records was, according to the Wikipedia article about the group "focused almost entirely on violent criminal activity").
The Urban Dictionary has an interesting definition posted by a user, widely approved by its voting members:
As Tupac defined it, a thug is someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them. That person is a thug. and the life they are living is the thug life. A thug is NOT a gangster. Look up gangster and gangsta. Not even CLOSE, my friend.
From the sound of it, Tupac Shakur defined thug much the way an earlier generation of African-Americans might have defined ghetto—dangerous, hardened by struggles, and living on the edge due to an extremely hostile environment. But what he and his fans might have in mind by thug isn't necessarily what people outside his milieu might make of it. And in the non-hiphop precincts of the United States, it seems safe to say, thug is not used sympathetically.
I don't know how widespread the association of thug with African-Americans is in U.S. culture; until now I hadn't thought of the two as particularly connected. But code words (where speakers signal a racial or ethnic identity without overtly spelling it out) have a long history in English and probably many other languages, and I wouldn't be surprised if at least some people use thug pejoratively to refer to specifically African-American people who behave in an aggressive or otherwise scary way.
One of the common applications of the word 'thug' at a political level is to the Nazis. The SA and the SS, of the Hitler period merit quintessentially the term 'thugs', especially for the genocide that was carried out against Jews, Russians, Gypsies and others. And the Nazis were people with especially obnoxious racist views. So that is the very opposite of what has been suggested here by the OP.
I think a lot of people are not seeing the forest for the trees. Calling a black football player a thug just for rather everyday pro-athlete behavior, when within days nobody thinks to do so when a white congressman threatens to break a journalist in half and throw him off a balcony. Yes, it does seem to be part and parcel of employing negative stereotypes in an undeserved way that is little different from using other offensive words.