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.

Does it?

  • 17
    From my British perspective, I would never connect thug with a black stereotype. I am aware of its origin in India, but in its modern usage it simply means somebody who is violent and not very bright, but not (for me) of any particular race or colour.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 10, 2014 at 20:44
  • 2
    I've always associate the term 'thug' with the image given by Malfoy's 'friends' Crabbe and Goyle in 'Harry Potter'. But that doesn't mean that other people don't hear it as racist.
    – Mitch
    Feb 10, 2014 at 22:40
  • 2
    I agree with the Harry Potter reference. The word Thug always also makes me think of the early 1900s. Like the ones portrayed in Gangs of New York.
    – Eli
    Feb 10, 2014 at 22:49
  • 2
    This is extraordinarily subjective, at no point in my life have I ever connected the term "thug" with race. That said, I have never connected the term "gay" with something having undesirable characteristics or used "epic" as an adverb. Popular culture misuses language all of the time, ask this question again in 5 years to see if this new use of the term "thug" has any sticking power. Until then, any perceived racial undertones are a case of fringe usage rather than the norm. Feb 11, 2014 at 1:31
  • If I heard someone described as a thug, the image that would come to my mind would be a burly white guy threatening to break knees for a white loan shark.
    – Marc
    Feb 11, 2014 at 2:52

7 Answers 7


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.

  • This is what I first thought. I hear it used for mob/mafia when younger, then brought into mainstream by rap, and then becoming very common usage. I have had football teams say "We are going to thug it up this game." Meaning they are going to look at putting the heavy hits on the other team.... Really not getting the racism involved. I see thug as a underdog bully. Feb 10, 2014 at 20:08
  • Good answer. Thug Life as referenced by Thug Life Volume 1 was actually an acronym for "The Hate U Gave Little Infants F*** Everyone". In my opinion, it was originally intended to be a contemptuous term, that was later adopted by the hip hop community. Similar to the "N" word.
    – SSH This
    Feb 11, 2014 at 17:15
  • To add to this, a reference showing that the word was in innnocent use as least as recently as 1989: gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1989/07/01 Dec 1, 2015 at 20:22

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.

  • My informal (FaceBook) sources completely concur with your answer and those friends of color do indeed take "thug" as a racial slur. Feb 10, 2014 at 19:25
  • 1
    @KristinaLopez - So when my black athletes are calling a non-black player a thug, I should take that to mean the n-word? Can you ask your FB friends if that is true too? Also when I have made fun of something a player wears in practice (old shirt/old whatever/ugly clothes) sometimes the players (black/white) say "I'm just thuggin' it up coach" - I thought this is funny... weird I am hearing they are saying they are the n-word. Feb 10, 2014 at 19:37
  • I like the blog. But I am pretty sure the rise of the word "thug" comes from rap culture - which is not all black but certainly predominant. I mean in the modern context we have 2Pac and a ton of followers using it to describe "their" life. google.com/search?q=thugs+life - I am trying to figure out how a word goes from accepted, to advertised, to banned. Feb 10, 2014 at 19:42
  • 5
  • 2
    @KristinaLopez - I understand, especially outside of the sports-dome, the negative connotation. However I have a hard time wrapping my head around its being categorized as a racial term when I hear it so much and hear it used so lightly by EVERYONE. When I am around high school kids it is used much like the word "ghetto". When I hear these words I might think deviant, destructive, or whatever but I certainly don't attach it to a race. This seems to open the door to any negative term being construed as racism. Some people would argue that black society labeled themselves as thugs. Feb 10, 2014 at 20:04

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.

  • "I would automatically assume he was talking about white criminals" seriously suggests racist overtones to me.
    – Mr Lister
    Feb 11, 2014 at 9:13
  • 1
    @MrLister afraid that is down to your ignorance. Europeans are predominately white so the traditional thug stereotype would be a white bodybuilder in a white vest and flat cap. The guy isn't saying that a thug has to be white, just what his first thought was.
    – JamesRyan
    Feb 11, 2014 at 13:04
  • @JamesRyan Sorry, but I am anything but ignorant in all matters European.
    – Mr Lister
    Feb 11, 2014 at 13:05
  • 3
    The reason I would assume the thugs spoken of were white is because I live in a small English town with a fairly low proportion of non-white residents. Non-whiteness in thugs would be remarked upon as outside the norm. I have to say, a reading of the local paper strongly suggests the average thug hereabouts is white.
    – slam
    Feb 11, 2014 at 14:18

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.

  • 1
    Ghettos weren't defined by Blacks. They've existed since the 1500s. Every minority goes through them, Polish, Jewish (throughout history), Hispanic, Black, Irish, Italian, all. The most famous ghetto in history was in Poland. Your story is interesting but merely a thin slice of reality. People are afraid of thugs because they are sociopathic, not because of a color. Growing up, the people I was afraid of were entitled, unpredictable, violent sociopaths. "Thug" = "criminal", not "black". Sherman was playing a race card. Feb 11, 2014 at 2:47
  • 1
    @Susan: The meaning of language is defined through usage, not historical analysis. And if "thug" and "ghetto" are widely used in the USA to describe specifically black people, then this usage does have racial overtones. Feb 11, 2014 at 10:01

The word derives from 'thugee', a group of miscreants in India that waylaid travelers and strangled them for their goods. So you'd think that a racial angle would involve Indians.

I have heard it applied to criminals of other descriptions in the past. To me it implies criminality, not race.

  • 1
    Personally I see mob/mafia hit men when I see the word thug. I coach football in a very mixed community. I hear the word sometimes but is used for everyone. Wonder if Sherman's rant is him using racism to deflect his behavior or if there is a slight evolution of the word... I can tell you that I doubt I am allowed to say the word "thug" now in front of my players. Feb 10, 2014 at 19:02
  • Etymological fallacy? I doubt many people know the derivation of the word.
    – TRiG
    Feb 10, 2014 at 19:09
  • Certainly their could be a two step process equating black -> criminal -> thug partly due to the higher crime rates in low income urban areas populated largely by blacks. Separating out a racial component from the crime component seems impossible.
    – Oldcat
    Feb 10, 2014 at 19:21

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.

  • I agree with peabody3000, although Susan is right that it's better as a comment. Feb 11, 2014 at 3:42
  • 1
    I also agree with this answer. The issue is not about the etymology of thug, which is well known, but about the rather curious use of it to describe Sherman. He's a graduate of Stanford, one of the few universities where even the football players get educated. I tend to agree that he was called a thug because it is no longer acceptable to call him, well, you know… Feb 11, 2014 at 7:58
  • 1
    Daily Beast race-baiter Jamelle Bouie declared that thug is the new n-word, and that when conservatives use the word it is a coded racial epithet. But when Michael Grimm (white, NY Rep.) threatened a reporter, everyone called him a thug, including the Washington Post. How could Bouie be correct? Feb 11, 2014 at 12:37

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.