Saturday, October 27, 2018

What does it mean to be called a “wop” or a “dago”? Is it offensive?


Every Italian-American knows what wop means. It stands for “without papers (or passport),” right? It’s because Italians who came to America in the early 1900s didn’t have proper work documents, but some employees still hired them and paid them in cash. My Italian-American cousins and friends taught me this when I was a boy growing up in the 1950s and 60s, and we sometimes used the term when speaking to each other. We also called each other dago, and this, I was told has a similar story. Italian laborers would be paid daily, or “as the day goes,” instead of with salaries or weekly paychecks. Almost every Italian-American I know swears by these explanations.

It turns out these beliefs can’t be traced to any reliable source and are almost certainly not true. It’s kind of like the statement that we all need to drink eight glasses of water a day, a commonly held belief which also has no historical or medical source to confirm it.

Why are linguists so sure that these ethnic labels, which many Italian-Americans consider offensive, originate from different sources?

First, linguists point out that acronyms themselves did not come into common use until the mid-1900s, while the word wop is thought to have first been used in the late 1800s. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com), “The word acronym itself wasn’t coined until 1943. The lack of need for such a word suggests the degree to which acronyms previously were not a part of daily life.” Since then, some have coined an even newer word, backronym, to describe the common acronym misconceptions that have been promulgated and that have now been debunked by linguists.

Historians also have had their say on the subject, pointing out that papers were not needed to obtain a job during the heaviest years of Italian immigration. “Before World War I, we had virtually open borders,” writes Mae Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. “You didn’t need a passport. You didn’t need a visa. There was no such thing as a green card. If you showed up at Ellis Island, walked without a limp, had money in your pocket, and passed a very simple (intelligence) test in your own language, you were admitted.”

This 2004 book tells about the Guappo in
history, art and dress.
OK, so where did the word wop come from? The most plausible explanation and the one which most linguists now hold, is that it was a distortion of a word that Italian immigrants themselves used (and Southern Italians still use today). The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that wop originates from the Southern Italian dialectal term guappo, roughly meaning “dandy,” “dude” or “stud.” It was often used to describe powerful and well-dressed men in the Camorra, a gang in Napoli.
1978 film: The Last Guappo
The Spanish have a similar word, guapo, which can mean “good-looking” or “dandy.” It is often used in a playful or humorous way to address one’s friends. Southern Italians pronounce it “wahp-po,” and they also are prone to unaspirated stops (meaning they swallow or skip the last syllable of a word). When Americans overhead immigrant workers addressing each other as guappo, or wop, they eventually began using it as a derogatory word to describe all Italians.

The original caption for this: The guappo Enzo Turco (left),
in the shoe store Il Turco Napolitano. 
As for dago, this word also predates the Italian diaspora of the early 1900s. Dave Wilton, writing for wordorigins.org and citing both the Oxford English Dictionary and Historical Dictionary of American Slang, states, “This derogatory term did not originally refer to Italians, which is its chief sense nowadays. Dago comes from the Spanish given name Diego, and over time has extended in meaning to include Portuguese and eventually Italians. It dates to the 1830s.”  Diego was an oft-used Portuguese and Spanish name. In similar fashion, British sailors are called Jacks, and Irishmen are called Paddies (for Patrick).

Wilton further points out that in E.C. Wines’ 1833 book, Two Years in the Navy, there is a reference to the natives of Minorca: “These Dagos, as they are pleasantly called by our people, were always a great pest.” The application of the term to Italians dates to at least the 1870s, from Francis Henry Sheppard’s 1875 book Love Afloat: A Story of the American Navy: “Our band is all broke up. Arrowson has got every Dago, and Greaser, and nigger against me.”

I was actually disappointed to read that “without papers” has been debunked, because I had once considered using wop as part of my book title. I worked for a year in Italy in 2001 without a visa or work permit, so I considered using the title: “An American Wop in Italy.” When I discovered the real origin of wop, I threw out the idea and settled on An American Family in Italy: Living la dolce vita without permission.

Cover of a 2017 album from Southern Italy.
Of course, I was also worried that my fellow Italian-Americans would find it offensive if I had used wop in my title, so I was inclined to discard it anyway. Why do some people find wop and dago offensive? It all has to do with the disparaging way these words have been used in the past. They were spoken as insults, and people got the idea and were justifiably insulted. In the same way, African-Americans now avoid the word Negro (which means black in Spanish) and, of course, its even more degrading derivations. Some Irish-Americans now say that being called a Paddy in America is an insult, even though it is common for the Irish in Ireland to use that term in describing themselves. If the word is used as an insult in some contexts, it comes to be seen as demeaning in most contexts.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in an age and community where it was considered cool to be Italian, thanks to famous singers, celebrities, politicians and sports stars of Italian origin. Most of my non-Italian friends had never even heard the terms wop or dago, so for those of us with Italian blood, these were words spoken with a smidgen of pride, showing that we belonged to a special ethnic group. And we did, of course, and indeed still do.



1 comment:

  1. Wonderful..I never used those words, as 1/2 of my family came from Sicily. I learned that every thing centered around family, faith in God, and meatballs with sauce that must be simmered for three days.

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