Leaving the legal world for a moment, we offer a link to a very strange defense of the use of the word “squaw” by the Oxford Etymologist Anatoly Liberman (here). We could be wrong, but this article seems to be a classic case of an academic wearing blinders, or worse, an etymological ideologue.
In short, Liberman concludes that the etymology of “squaw” is that the word simply means “woman,” and so therefore cannot possibly be an epithet. He mocks advocates for changing place names to eliminate the use of the word.
There are several problems in the argument, especially the tone of Liberman’s writing (just read the article — the part about squirrels is baffling), but we’ll focus on just the most obvious problems.
First, the Oxford Etymologist’s etymology is incredibly superficial, and downright ethnocentric.
We’d like to see an indigenous etymology of this word, which is undeniably an epithet no matter the so-called “science” behind it. Assuming the scholars upon which Liberman relies are correct (and we have no reason to doubt it) and “squaw” derives from an eastern Algonkian language, then merely concluding the word means “woman” is nowhere near conclusive. It is our understanding that the vast majority of words in Anishinaabemowin, the language of many Michigan Indians and an Algonkian language, are verbs. What this means is perhaps the Massachusett word from which “squaw” derives is actually a verb. So-called nouns in many Indian languages are actually verbs, so that the word that non-Indians say means “woman” very possibly means something along the lines of “person who does something.” And likely that “something” will let us know if the word is intended as a respectful word, or not. We don’t see from the sources available online (e.g., here) a serious attempt to provide a proper etymology of the word.
Regardless of the etymology, there is a second important reason to reject Liberman’s position.
Second, Liberman’s arrogant conclusion that “The moral of this episode is that etymology is a science and in serious situations should be left to specialists” deserves a response. Liberman seems angry that there are modern movements afoot to chance place names, blaming it all on Suzan Shown Harjo’s 1992 appearance on Oprah for some maddening reason, as if no one in Indian Country had any idea that “squaw” was an epithet before 1992. Liberman charges:
This is how misspent political zeal turned squaw into an ethnic slur. Place names have been changed in Minnesota and Arizona, Utah did not stay away from the campaign, and there is little doubt that the stone will keep rolling.
Liberman says if you don’t believe him, check his sources. One source, William Bright, from which Liberman derives much of his argument and all of his rhetoric, explains pretty persuasively how and why the word “squaw” — whatever it’s etymological origins — became the ugly, nasty epithet it certainly is today. From Dr. Bright’s paper:
The English word ‘squaw’ belongs to a rather special semantic set. It may be significant that the semantic Indian set ‘buck, squaw, papoose’ is unusual among terms for ethnic groups, in that it has separate lexical items to distinguish male, female, and young; this pattern seems to group Indians with animals (e.g. horse: stallion, mare, colt) rather than with other human groups (cf. Italian: Italian man, Italian woman, Italian child). Note that the word ‘buck’ is otherwise used to refer to various male animals, especially the deer.
Nevertheless, historical examples can be cited. Just as feminists have shown that American men have often imposed a ‘virgin vs. whore’ dichotomy on women, so Green 1975 notes that 19th century American writers tended to classify Indian women either as ‘Indian princesses’ or as ‘squaws,’ the latter being routinely characterized as ugly and whorish. Thus James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826, refers to “the crafty ‘squaw’ … the squalid and withered person of this hag” (1983:239). The memoirs of Lt. James W. Steele (1883:84) referred to ‘the universal ‘squaw’ – squat, angular, pig-eyed, ragged, wretched, and insect-haunted.’ It would seem appropriate to search not only ‘literary’ works and personal memoirs of the period, but popular ‘dime novels’ as well.
Ironically, neither Bright nor Liberman are impressed by this for some reason. Bright demonstrates that “squaw” fits right in with other terms used to dehumanize American Indians, and gives powerful examples in canonized American literature how the word did exactly that.
At least Bright acknowledges that place names with “squaw” in them should be changed.
Liberman, on the other hand, is on a quest to deny that there is anything offensive to “squaw,” and that efforts to change place names should be halted. In that regard, perhaps above all others, he is utterly wrong.