American slang is among the most elaborate, fanciful, and colorful in the world, reflecting the social diversity, rapid change, and complexity of American society. Perhaps the most frequently occurring topic in historical American slang is ethnic slurs. Well over a thousand abusive nicknames aimed at more than one hundred different American ethnic groups have been recorded in dictionaries and other studies of our popular speech. Nearly every ethnic group--majority and minority alike--has slurred nearly every other group in the country. The profusion of these words speaks to one of the most troublesome aspects of our national social history. Yet the terms of abuse themselves can yield a special insight into the social workings of American society and culture, both past and present.
Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans have seen an upsurge of popular interest in ethnic origins, ethnic identity, and the workings of the plural society. People of all ethnic groups rediscovered their ethnicities and those of others. Scholars of American society, especially historians and social scientists, began to dredge up the dark side of our national past to help understand why we are the way we are. The history of our popular speech has proved