Gook: The Short History of an Americanism

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"The Haitians, in whose service United States Marines are presumably restoring peace and order in Haiti, are nicknamed |Gooks' and have been treated with every variety of contempt, insult, and bestiality." So wrote Herbert J. Seligman in the Nation in 1920. The contempt and bestiality will scarcely surprise those who have much studied American imperialism, but hearing the term gook applied to black people may. In the last forty years, gook has chiefly slurred Asian but far from exclusively, those actively opposing American presence in Korea and Indochina. But the broader pan-racist past of gook provides almost a short history of modern U.S. imperial aggression and particularly of the connections between racial oppression and war.

The origins of gook are mysterious, but the dictionary-makers agree that it is an Americanism. The authoritarian 1989 Oxford English Dictionary counts the word "orig[inally] and chiefly U.S." and identifies it as "a term of contempt; a foreigner; a coloured inhabitant of (south-)east Asia." It offers a 1935 first usage, applied mainly to Filipinos, and notes use by U.S. troops in Korea and Vietnam, without considering that such usages in fact applied to natives in lands where Americans were foreigners. The OED adds "origins unknown" as its verdict regarding scholarly knowledge on the coining of the term.

If gook did originate in the Philippines, it likely did so far earlier than 1935. Irving Lewis Allen, in The Language of Ethnic Conflict, refers to goo-goo as "originally a Filipino in the Spanish-American War, 1899-1902" and some scholars of American English suggest that gook itself found usage during the same conflict. If so, gook developed among troops who were probably connecting contempt for natives with contempt for "promiscuous" women and for poor people generally. An 1893 citation from Slang and Its Analogues finds gooks to be "tarts" and particularly camp-following prostitutes or "barrack hacks" catering to the army. A 1914 source similarly defines a gook as "a tramp, low."

Another explanation--and it is surely preferable to think of the various possible sources of ethnic slurs as overlapping rather than as alternatives--is that gook developed from goo-goo, which, as Stuart Flexner suggests, may have been a mocking imitation of Filipino speech. If so, the origins would square with the roughly contemporaneous "spik," the derivation of which, H.L. Mencken held, came from Spanish-speakers' alleged attempts to say that they did not "spik" (speak) English. One account from the 1930s specifically identifies gooks on language grounds, as Spanish-speakers. Finally, the use of gook in the Philippines had a specifically racial dimension, with the term applied particularly to those natives who had no mixture of European "blood"--a particularly despised (or pitied) category which imperialists freely predicted would die out as "progress" occurred.

By the 1920s, gooks were French- and Creole-speaking black Haitians and Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans. Marines, as we have seen, made the Haitians into gooks. They also, after the 1926 invasion of Nicaragua, were responsible for so naming "natives" there. Into the 1930s in Costa Rica, goo-goo described the citizenry, at least to Americans. Such a term, in the Philippines or Latin America, could hardly have failed to conjure up an image of an infantilized subject population.

By the time of the Second World War, the identity of the gook expanded again. The West Coast's brilliant amateur student of language, Peter Tamony, took notes on radio commentator Deane Dickason's 1943 comments on gook--the Marines' "word for natives everwhere" but especially for Arabs. The latter of Dickason's conclusions is likely closer to the mark than the former. "Natives" of France, or of Britain, or of Holland, were not gooks, but people of color were. In particular, the mainly Arab population of North Africa acquired the status of gook. …