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Inspired by this question.

What is the etymology of the phrase "stone-throwing devil"? Is there any evidence that it has been used as either a racial or religious slur historically or in modern times?

Googling the term leads to results related to the controversy being discussed in the thread linked above; however, I can find no hard evidence of the term actually being used as a slur. Various theories pop up (and I'll list some here), but none of them provide citation.

A user on TappedOut claims that it is a derogatory allusion to the Stoning of the Devil. A search through Twitter finds similar claims like this one asserting the term's origin in the Victorian era, but the linked Wikipedia article doesn't include any references to Muslims who participate in the Stoning of the Devil being characterized as "devils" themselves or to the insinuation that participating in the ritual is considered barbaric by outsiders.

This tweet claims that it is a slur for Palestinians. My preliminary research on this proposed origin would suggest that "stone thrower" is often used in news reports about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to refer to (usually children) literally throwing stones, but I was unable to turn up any derogatory uses. Obviously, the word "devil" has been used to refer to non-white people historically, so the combination could conceivably be used in a racist manner.

Other allusions can be found - such as Lithobolia, a 17th Century story about what is now New Hampshire - which are clearly unrelated to Islam. Additionally, MTG Wiki suggests that it is a direct quote from an English translation of "One Thousand and One Nights," but again, no reference seems to be provided. This tweet asserts that literal stone-throwing devils appear on an island in one story but doesn't specify which story that is.

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    @Robusto The alternative is that it isn't an historical, natural-language phrase at all. The implied alternative hypothesis of this question is that the phrase carries no historical baggage whatsoever, and therefore, the perception of it as a slur is based on something other than it actually being used as a slur in the real world.
    – Geoffrey
    Mar 4 at 2:50
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    @Robusto The phrase is used to describe literal devils literally throwing stones in its controversial context in a game. The accusation is that the phrase exists in the real world as an insult and that the game co-oped it as a play on words (either intentionally or unintentionally). I can find no evidence that any one has ever referred to another person or group of people as "stone-throwing devil(s)" in the real world. Ergo, the question.
    – Geoffrey
    Mar 4 at 3:22
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    You may find that no one had ever used the phrase "stone-throwing devils," but I'm not sure that would tell you anything interesting about this Magic card. That string of words may not have any historical baggage, but the concept it describes definitely does. The phrase "usury chargers" returns virtually zero results on Google, but we could guess pretty easily which ethnic group "usury charging devils" was insulting. I've tried to give a little information about Palestinian stone throwing in my answer on the Board Games site.
    – Juhasz
    Mar 4 at 4:19
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    @Juhasz, being able to guess what ethnic group you mean with "usury charging devils" requires knowing that some particular group has been historically associated with that sort of thing, and that there even exists a group that has been. So if one doesn't know a similar connection wrt. stone-throwing, the question seems quite valid. The association must have come from somewhere, right? (And, I can guess what group you hint is commonly associated with usury, but without the discussion on the card banning, I wouldn't have known any problems with stone-throwing.)
    – ilkkachu
    Mar 4 at 16:47
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    @PurpleP You're relying on a single English translation of the text to find something probably paraphrased by designer Richard Garfield. So it's likely the card name isn't a direct quote, but inspired by something like Sinbad encountering giants who throw rocks during his third voyage. Mar 4 at 21:22
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@DavePhD's excellent answer reviews the provenance of the phrase at issue. His research suggests that it is a known English phrase that is overwhelmingly used in reference to a paranormal event from New England in the 17th century. The conclusion would appear to be that it is not (or at least was not for a long time) a slur towards Muslims or anyone else.

However, as any student of language knows, context matters. Perhaps, the context in which this phrase is appearing (a Magic the Gathering card from a set called Arabian Nights which was released in 1993) is enough to elevate an otherwise innocuous phrase to the level of ethnic slur. Indeed, it begs the question: What would possess someone designing an Arabia-themed card game to reference a little-known event from 17th century New England? Many people have suggested that the name is actually a derogatory reference to Palestinian "stone throwers" especially given the timing of the set, which was nearly contemporaneous to the First Intifada. Even barring an intentional allusion, the slight towards Palestinians might reasonably be inferred from the context (i.e the Arabian Nights set) since Palestinians generally consider themselves Arab.

These poor optics might be enough to err on the side of caution for a company whose product is under scrutiny; however, I believe that there is further missing context which makes good sense of this card without reference to any pejorative. Specifically, in Arab mythology, djinn are widely understood to throw stones as a way to pester (and sometimes kill) passersby.

This open-access edition of One Thousand and One Nights contains an historical note about djinn, including this observation:

I have mentioned in a former work, that malicious or disturbed Jinnees are asserted often to station themselves on the roofs, or at the windows, of houses, and to throw down bricks and stones on persons passing by. When they take possession of an uninhabited house, they seldom fail to persecute terribly any person who goes to reside in it.

The translator here is referencing this quote from his own 1835 book Modern Egyptians:

It is commonly affirmed, that malicious or disturbed genii very often station themselves on the roofs, or at the windows, of houses in Cairo, and other towns of Egypt, and throw bricks and stones down into the streets and courts. A few days ago, I was told of a case of this kind, which had alarmed the people in the main street of the metropolis for a whole week; many bricks having been thrown down from some of the houses every day during this period, but nobody killed or wounded. I went to the scene of these pretended pranks of the genii, to witness them, and to make inquiries on the subjects; but on my arrivals there, I was told that the “regm” (that is, the throwing) had ceased. I found no one who denied the throwing down of the bricks, or doubted that it was the work of genii; and the general remark, on mentioning the subject, was, “God preserve us from their evil doings!”

This source (which itself is quoting Majmoo’ Fataawa al-Shaykh Ibn Uthaymeen (v. 1, p. 287-288)) attests to this history as well:

Undoubtedly the jinn can have a harmful effect on humans, and they could even kill them. They may harm a person by throwing stones at him, or by trying to terrify him, and other things that are proven in the sunnah (prophetic teachings) or indicated by real events.

This website which aggregates paranormal activities in Arabic countries claims to report a news story describing djinn throwing stones in Morocco in 2010.

As an additional aside, there are also instances in which djinn have stones thrown at them (presumably as a dramatic reversal of roles). The open-access translation of One Thousand and One Nights linked above includes the observation that some Arabs have believed that shooting stars are stones thrown from heaven to kill evil djinn. This could potentially parallel the Stoning of the Devil (an allusion to the djinni Iblis) referenced in the original question. Also, one of the first stories in One Thousand and One Nights is "The Story of the Merchant and the Jinnee" which begins with a man throwing the pit of a date (called a stone) over his shoulder and accidentally killing a djinni's son.

Clearly, djinn are well-documented stone throwers. It seems apparent that the Magic card "Stone-throwing Devils" is referencing this. One might ask why "devils" is used instead of "djinn" since Magic the Gathering is no stranger to the word. I suspect that the designers were trying to reserve "djinn" (a rather uncommon word in English) for exceptional and rare creatures since only 4 "djinn" appear in Arabian Nights. The term "efreet" is also used a few times in the set - again in reference to rare creatures. With this goal in mind, using the word "devil" makes sense. "Devil" would also help to emphasize the obvious Biblical pun in the flavor text of the card.

Contextually translating "djinn" or "efreet" as "devil" or "demon" is not such a strange idea. This journal article argues in favor of using different English words to describe both the different levels of and different motivations of djinn. Both "devil" and "demon" are addressed specifically. This article admits that "djinn" has no direct English equivalent, so while transliterating the word might be acceptable, it doesn't seem beyond the pale to find a common English word that conveys the relevant meaning in context.

To summarize: "Stone-throwing devils" is not a slur as such, and historically, it has no immediate connection to Islam. However, when put into a modern Arabic context it can begin to carry some contextual baggage. In the specific context in which the phrase is used here (namely, an Arabia-inspired fantasy setting), it seems clear that that baggage has been misplaced.

EDIT: @TaliesinMerlin tracked down this article from 2002 in which the designer Richard Garfield explains the origin of this card's name:

"An interesting story," said Garfield of the origins of this card name. "One island was occupied by stone-throwing devils in one of the stories. But some people were upset with me for its use, because apparently 'stone-throwing devil' is a derogatory term for someone. I suspect that 'stone-throwing devil' has been an expression for a long time, and its meanings have changed or been applied to different people."

This would suggest that the controversy has existed for a rather long time already. Additionally, the description he provides is in keeping with the stone-throwing djinn hypothesis proposed above. I have attempted to locate the story in question but have been unsuccessful. It is possibly a misremembered reference to Sinbad's Third Voyage in which giants kill Sinbad's crew by hurling stones at them.

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  • NB "djinni" is the singular, and "djinn" is the plural.
    – psmears
    Mar 4 at 22:30
  • @psmears Indeed you are right. My mistake. Thanks for pointing that out. I'll go through and edit them now
    – Geoffrey
    Mar 4 at 22:35
  • Stone throwing and devils has another connotation in Islam, namely the jamraat ritual during the Hajj pilgrimage, where pilgrims throw stones at the devil, represented by three pillars (now walls).
    – Henry
    Mar 5 at 11:13
  • @Henry True. I didn't include that because it was mentioned in the original question and also doesn't appear to be related to either the origin of or the perceived insult in the phrase. If you can find any resources where Westerners refer to the ritual in a derogatory way (implying it is uncivilized, etc.) and call the participants "stone throwers", then that would be highly relevant here.
    – Geoffrey
    Mar 5 at 17:01
  • @Henry Actually, I've decided to edit the answer to include this information along with other related references.
    – Geoffrey
    Mar 5 at 17:38
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"Stone-throwing devil(s)" historically has overwhelmingly been a reference to an actual occurrence in 1682 in New England.

According to the New England Historical Society:

During the summer of 1682, a stone-throwing devil persecuted a Quaker tavern owner named George Walton in what is now New Castle, N.H.

See especially the 1698 publication Lithobolia, or the Stone-Throwing Devil

Dozens of books use the phrase "stone-throwing devil(s)" to refer back to this event.

For example:

Parson Moody's Prayer (1683) as published in Poems (1883)

American Catholic Quarterly Review (1884)

Harper's Weekly volume 37 (1893)

Rambles about Portsmouth (1869)

Myths and Legends in Our Land (1896)

A Pictorial History of New England (1976)

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1981)

However, in the magazine Arab Palestinian Resistance (1995) there is one sentence where Palestinians refer to themselves with this phrase:

The soldiers were extremely happy, because, at long last, they were about to get rid of all these stone-throwing devils in one go;...

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  • Good answer: it appears that the answer to Is there any evidence that it has been used as either a racial or religious slur historically or in modern times? is "No, and if anyone attempted that, they would be wrong."
    – Greybeard
    Mar 4 at 16:48
  • @Lambie all or almost all instances have the hyphenated form "stone-throwing devil" or "stone-throwing devils".
    – DavePhD
    Mar 4 at 17:42
  • @Lambie ok, I'll change to the hyphenated form
    – DavePhD
    Mar 4 at 17:48
  • @Greybeard If you read the 1683 poem, it might be described as a religious slur. Like calling someone a "witch".
    – DavePhD
    Mar 4 at 18:21
  • @DavePhD I would not say that calling someone a witch is a religious slur. Being a witch is not a religion - it tends to be used to indicate anyone who claims magical powers that are not in line with the local god.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 5 at 9:54
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Trebuchet, a possible contender for a 'stone throwing devil'

noun: trebuchet; plural noun: trebuchets - a machine used in medieval siege warfare for hurling large stones or other missiles.

The first clearly written record of a counterweight trebuchet comes from an Islamic scholar, Mardi bin Ali al-Tarsusi, who wrote a military manual for Saladin circa 1187. He describes a hybrid trebuchet that he said had the same hurling power as a traction machine pulled by fifty men due to "the constant force [of gravity], whereas men differ in their pulling force." (Showing his mechanical proficiency, Tarsusi designed his trebuchet so that as it was fired it cocked a supplementary crossbow, probably to protect the engineers from attack.) [5].

He allegedly wrote "Trebuchets are machines invented by unbelieving devils." (Al-Tarsusi, Bodleian MS 264). This suggests that by the time of Saladin, Muslims were acquainted with counterweight engines, but did not believe that Muslims had invented them. Al-Tarsusi does not specifically say that the "unbelieving devils" were Christian Europeans, though Saladin was fighting Crusaders for much of his reign, and the manuscript predates the Chinese and Mongol weapons (Needham p. 218).

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jelltecks/3748847812

In 1285, Qalawun summoned arms from Egypt and enlisted a number of siege experts before setting out from Damascus to besiege the castle. The artillery stored in Damascus, as well as that requisitioned from the surrounding strongholds, was carried on men's shoulders to his camp at 'Uyun al-Qasab before the army travelled by forced marches to Margat, arriving on 17 April. Ibn 'Abd al-Zahir specifies that "three of the great 'Frankish' type, three 'Qarabughas' and four 'devils' [Shaytania]" were deployed against the castle, while Abu'l-Fida' similarly claims that both great and small engines were erected

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