As language evolves, names change

The football team in our nation’s capital has had, since July, a strangely literal name: the Washington Football Team. It is not that the people of Washington lack imagination – this plain moniker is a placeholder, until the team formerly known as the Redskins can figure out what it will be called going forward. Protests by Native American activists and pressure from sponsors forced the team and other businesses whose names are increasingly considered offensive, such as Squaw Valley Ski Resort in North Lake Tahoe, California, to reckon with their legacy and their future.  

The football team’s leadership had resisted changing its name for decades, arguing that “Redskins” in fact honored Native people. Its owner, Dan Snyder, defended the name in 2013: “It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect – the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history.” 

A pro-Redskins website (now defunct) cited the work of linguist Ives Goddard, who studies Native American languages. Dr. Goddard argues that a 1725 French account of the Taensa from present-day Louisiana records that “they call themselves in their language Red Men.” A century later, Native people in the area were referring to themselves as peaux rouges (“red skins”). Thus, Dr. Goddard asserts, the term’s origin is “entirely benign.” 

But etymology is not destiny. The connotations of words change over time. Some words that were once inoffensive – that were indeed the default terms for what they represent – are now obscenities. Dictionaries today seem to agree that redskin is on the same trajectory. Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both call it offensive. 

The ski resort announced that it would change its name about a month after the Washington Football Team’s step. Squaw has also become a derogatory term today. Originally, however, the word squa simply meant “woman” in Wôpanâak. Colonists quickly applied the word to all Native women regardless of how they referred to themselves in their own language or how far away they were from Eastern Massachusetts.  

The management of the football team and of the ski resort understand that many people have strong attachments to the old names, having grown up watching the games or skiing at the resort. But, as the resort’s president, Ron Cohen, acknowledges, “We recognize that our love of this place and our cherished memories do not justify continuing to use such a divisive and hurtful word.”

The resort has assembled a team to come up with a new name in 2021. For the Washington Football Team, though, it’s easy – how about the pugnacious, the powerful, the Washington Politicians?


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