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Definition of 'Redskin' has evolved

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

File photo: The Washington Redskins NFL franchise has been accused of having a disparaging nickname for years.

In May 2016, the Washington Post commissioned a poll of Native Americans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia asking if the name of the local NFL franchise offended them. Nine in 10 respondents said it didn’t.

Yet, the dictionary definition of the word “Redskin” lists it as a slur. How can these two facts be reconciled? It’s easy. The English language has evolved to a point in which the word is no longer used in a pejorative manner.

Redskin is an old-timey term that, with the exception of its use as a sports nickname, doesn’t really mean much of anything to anyone anymore. In 45 years, I have never heard one, single person use the word to denigrate a Native American. Not in person. Not in popular culture. Not anywhere.

What I have heard over the last four decades, however, is a famous fight song from the NFL franchise with the lyric, “Hail to the Redskins; Hail Victory." As in, we love everything about you.

As any etymologist could tell you, languages evolve over time. Frequently, the meanings of words change, and sometimes it happens within our lifetimes. Redskin was an insulting term in the 19th century, but in today’s vernacular, with regard to the most famous football team that uses its name, it is clearly an expression of pride, respect and admiration, not one of hatred.

To see how easily and quickly a word can evolve, one only needs to take a relatively recent example from the sports world. Anyone who grew up in Boston in the 1980s would have referred to Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner as a goat for letting a groundball slip between his legs during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. That error eventually enabled the New York Mets, and not the Red Sox, to win the championship.

For many years, the term “goat” referred to an athlete who made the mistake that caused his or her team to lose. It was the worst possible outcome for an athlete.

The same Bostonians who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s today proclaim former New England Patriots QB Tom Brady to be the G.O.A.T, or Greatest of All-Time, after he led the franchise to six Super Bowl victories. In other words, in the span of  just 35 years, the definition of the word “goat” in sports has flipped from being “the guy who blew it” to being “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there will ever be.”

There are several other examples of words whose definitions have evolved over the centuries. Words like silly, flux, fudge, leech and stripe all had completely different meanings at one time, according to the BBC. "Gay," which in the early 20th century primarily meant happy or cheerful, and was at one time a fairly common baby name for girls, is a more contemporary example of a word that means something entirely different 100 years later.

In 2014, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ran a segment mocking Redskins’ fans as they clumsily and ineffectively attempted to explain why the franchise name wasn’t offensive. The irony is that in the very first episode of The Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart after he took over for Craig Kilborn in 1999, the word “Redskin” is used matter-of-factly, twice, to describe a Native American.

Nobody at The Daily Show thought the word was derogatory then, because clearly nobody involved with the program had ever heard anyone use the word in a disparaging manner. That’s because virtually nobody, if anyone at all, has used the word derisively in decades.

It is no secret that there is a segment of the population that seems to be making somewhat of a cottage industry in the outrage business, and this is a perfect example. If 90 percent of the people who are supposed to be offended by the word aren’t, and nobody is using the word negatively, then what exactly is the problem? 


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