As per this question it seems that the word "thug" has become taboo (in at least some US subcultures) after being allegedly adopted for racist use.

Without going into the merits of the taboo, it seems to have become widespread enough that using the word on the internet may be unwise. Is there a good alternative?

Someone mentioned "goon" in the linked question, but that's not right: in international English, at least, a "goon" works for someone whereas a "thug" is usually acting on his own behalf. "Criminal" is too broad in one sense and too narrow in another, since "thug" was often used to describe someone whose behaviour was aggressive and socially unacceptable but not necessarily literally criminal. "Hooligan" doesn't seem quite right either, though it is close.

As an example of the sort of context the word I'm asking for might be used in, see this 1989 Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.

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    Most people in Britain know the etymology of this word. The original thugs were members of assassin bands in India - hired killers who strangled their victims. The reason it is so well known is that the fact of Britain having ended it was one of the factors which led to the Indian Mutiny. It is said to be similarly the case for Suttee, the requirement of a Hindu widow to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. British liberal imperialism declared it to be barbaric, but when they stopped it the Indians mutinied.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 20:46
  • I wonder if "petty thug" has a racist connotation.
    – Graffito
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 21:08
  • In AusE "thug" still has currency, at least in newspaper headlines and stories, however "lout" is often also used, as is "hoon" (which specifically relates to aggressive and wild driving by young males, but can be used more broadly to cover other young, male anti-social behaviour).
    – Cargill
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 21:17
  • 2
    In the US "thug" was simply a low-class criminal who was apt to hang out with gangsters and do their "dirty work". I never knew of any sort of racial or ethnic connotation -- it was simply the sort of guy you were better off not knowing. I suspect the word largely passed out of use ca 1970 when all the gangsters hired image consultants.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 21:59
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    Of course, the problem with replacing the word is that "thug" has certain reverse onomatopoeia, in that it suggest hitting someone with, eg, a black-jack, and this was the image the word carried. None of the suggested replacements have this attribute.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 22:08

2 Answers 2


The meaning of 'hoodlum' perhaps most closely matches the meaning of 'thug':

hood·lum (ho͞od′ləm, ho͝od′-) n.
1. A gangster; a thug.
2. A tough, often aggressive or violent youth.

thug (thŭg) n.
1. A cutthroat or ruffian; a hoodlum.
2. also Thug One of a group of professional criminals, devotees of Kali, who robbed and murdered travelers in northern India until the mid-1800s.

(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved December 1 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ .)

A number of other words might work:

  • brute ("A brutal, crude, or insensitive person.")
  • heavy ("Slang A mobster.")
  • ruffian ("1. A tough or rowdy person. 2. A thug or gangster.")
  • hood (See hoodlum.)
  • yob ("Chiefly British slang. A rowdy, aggressive, or violent young man.")
  • bully ("A hired ruffian; a thug.")
  • rowdy ("A rough, disorderly person.")
  • gorilla ("Slang: a. A powerfully built, aggressive, and often crude man. b. A thug.")
  • legbreaker ("Chiefly US slang. A violent thug, especially one employed as an enforcer by a criminal organization.")

(All except 'legbreaker' op. cit.; 'legbreaker' from Wiktionary.)

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    In the US a "hoodlum" was apt to simply be a youth gang member, with no especially evil background (though likely moving in that direction), while a "thug" was definitely a bad guy. (This info, of course, based on TV and the movies, vs any sort of first-hand experience.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 22:02
  • I quite like "hoodlum" except that it appears to derive from "hood" so might also be seen as a racial slur. Still, it's the best suggestion so far. Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 19:55

How about punk?

a petty gangster, hoodlum, or ruffian M-W

a criminal or hoodlum OED

  • Yeah, a "punk" was a wannabe -- a young ruffian.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 22:03
  • And then there's the question of how lucky you feel …
    – ralph.m
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 22:15

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