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Q From Wil Neill: I once heard that the Early French explorers used a term that sounded like squaw in a derogatory fashion to refer to the native American females as if they were harlots. The term somehow reminded the explorers of a French word. My research has not turned up anything along these lines. Have you ever encountered such a word?

A It was actually settlers in New England who first came across the word in various Algonquian Indian dialects, for example as squa, a woman, in Massachusetts dialect, or its equivalent squaws in Narragansett. It is recorded in English as early as 1634, in a book by William Wood called New England’s Prospect.

Although it started out in English with the same neutral sense as it had had in its Native Indian dialects, it quickly took on negative undertones, often appearing in humorous or disparaging contexts. That is the situation that prevailed until 1973, when Thomas Sanders and Walter Peek published an anthology called Literature of the American Indian, in which they said that it “probably” came from a French corruption of the Iroquois word otsiskwa, female sexual parts, and suggested that it was therefore more insulting than anyone had previously thought. This is presumably your French connection. Their statement has been widely believed — despite that “probably” — though the early English settlers had no contact with the Iroquois, who lived a long way away, and it is extremely unlikely that their word could have been clipped to make the English squaw, even via French, a route that is highly improbable in any case. The false derivation was given wide public airing on the Oprah Winfrey television show in 1992.

As a result, the word is now widely regarded as deeply offensive, especially among those who are not native Americans, and there have been proposals, for example, to remove it from place names such as Squaw Mountain and Squaw Lake. I hold no torch for the word — as commonly used it is indeed derogatory — but suggest that attitudes to it ought to be based on evidence rather than misinformation.

[I’m indebted to Professor Laurence Horn for his help with researching this answer.]

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 December 2000.