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I RECOGNIZED that the word “thug” had to do with Hindi thugees, but that was where my knowledge ended. Now that we have a thug in our country’s highest office, I thought it appropriate to learn more about the word’s etymology, as part of my seemingly inexhaustible series of Etymology for our Times.
Ask an Authority. Merriam-Webster is succinct in its “thug” definition: “a brutal ruffian or assassin: GANGSTER, TOUGH.”
It gets rather more verbose in a list of thug synonyms, among them “bully, gangster, goon, gorilla, hood, hoodlum, mobster, ruffian, toughie (also toughy), yob [British], yobbo [British].”
Upon reflection, I identify a couple of these closely related to our chief of state. Do you identify the same ones?
M-W says the first known use of “thug” was in 1810. It evolved from the “Hindi and Urdu word thag, literally, thief.”
I am also corrected in my misunderstanding the word “thuggee.” It’s not a Hindi doer of dastardly deeds. Rather, according to M-W, it’s the system of “murder and robbery by thugs.”
The OED View. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, offers more details: It defines a thug as “One of an association of professional robbers and murderers in India, who strangled their victims…. Their suppression was rigidly prosecuted from 1831, and the system is now practically extinct.”
Well, yes, maybe the literal strangling part. But if one thinks metaphorically….
The OED offers an 1810 origin cited in Hist. & Pract. Thugs, 1837: “It having come to the knowledge of Government, that several Sepoys… have been robbed and murdered by a description of persons denominated ‘Thugs,’ who infested the districts of Dooab and other parts of the Upper Provinces.”
A political reference comes in the OED’s citation of the January 1895 Westm. Gaz.: “They even engage ‘knockers-out,’ who… belabour and disable voters as they are entering the booths…. They are called ‘election Thugs.’ ”
The OED also confirms the Merriam-Webster definition of “thuggee” as “robbery and murder practiced by the Thugs.” The Edin. Rev. reported in January 1837, “If a single civilian or military man had been thugged, thuggee would have been abolished long ago.”
Lamentably enough, and a comment on colonialism, apparently a Sepoy, an Indian soldier serving under British orders, was considered neither civilian nor altogether military.
Thug Flipping. Thug Behram was considered a most prolific serial killer. When captured, he turned Crown Evidence, ratted on his compatriots, and beat the Government rap, only to die later when a fellow named Singh hanged him.
There’s a moral here, but a cloudy one.
Bloodless Violence. A charming tale explains why thugs preferred strangling as their principal means of mayhem: Their patroness, the Goddess Kali, once had an epic battle with the demon Raktabija. Every drop of the demon’s blood begat another demon, so Kali wisely concluded that strangling was called for.
Other Etymology. Variations of thug include thuggism, thugdom, and thuggess, this last one describing a practitioner of the fair sex, oxymoronic though this may sound.
I hope our national thugdom ends soon. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019