July 8, 2008

A thug by any other name

One thing I have noticed cropping up from time to time in the Wisconsin blogosphere is some controversy over the word "thug" and its application.

For example, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Patrick McIlheran reminds us that a local police captain once produced an internal memo using the word several times and was subsequently disciplined.

The thug memo was deemed not to be promoting good relations between the police and the neighborhood in question. "Call them like they are," advises McIlheran, and I have to agree.

That's what words are for and if somebody is a violent malefactor, then they are a thug, by definition. And I think it's safe to say that shooting four people to death at a house party certainly qualifies and whoever did it is a thug. And much worse.

Of course when the police, or anyone else, refer to an entire Milwaukee neighborhood or aldermanic district as being inhabited by thugs, that's a different story. The offensive implication, I presume, being a racial one, because "thug" has been appropriated practically as a term of endearment by hip hop culture (I'd be more careful where I pointed that gun, young fella).

In that context, thug is constructively a compliment.

But even so, when Captain Glenn D. Frankovis was referring to the thugs of Metcalfe Park, he wasn't talking about the non-thugs of Metcalfe Park. Only the thugs. I don't think he meant that everybody in Metcalfe Park is a thug, simply that there are thugs in Metcalfe Park. Which is kind of a blinding glimpse of the obvious because there are thugs, and potential thugs, everywhere.

Another J-S columnist, Eugene Kane, is occasionally taken to task for describing criminal ne'er-do-wells as "knuckleheads." Evidently his detractors would prefer that he use stronger language, because knucklehead sounds like something out of The Three Stooges.

Maybe one man's thug is another man's knucklehead but somebody can be a knucklehead without being a thug. See, e.g., Ben Stein.

So in the spirit of compromise should the topic arise at this blog, the preferred usage shall be "ruffian." I'm slightly more partial to "blackguard," but given the apparent racial implications for some of "thug," that's likely not the best choice either.


capper said...

As for me, I prefer miscreant.

illusory tenant said...

Miscreant is good. Or tortfeasor, in the non-criminal context.

Display Name said...

Here's a little thought-experiment. Imagine that you heard the word "thug" in 1980. What sort of picture appears in your mind? When you hear it today, what sort of fellow pops up in your mind's eye?

Yeah. I thought so. That's why they like the word.

Of course, the pedant in me can't resist the history of the word. To me, the word connotes a certain physicality of the criminal acts they commit. For that reason, it seems imprecise to apply it to run-of-the-mill corruption like McGee's unless of course he physically threatened someone along the way.

Tom said...

The word goon isn't as sexy as thug. I doubt any thug would refer to themselves as a goon.

illusory tenant said...

I understand it's sometimes used as a coded reference, and you're right, John, "Alderthug" is a perfect example of that.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of The Editors' classic exegesis on "wanker."

Anonymous said...

Kind of unwieldy, because they almost have to be used as a pair, but: ne'er-do-wells and reprobates.

Emily said...

Hoodlum, I think, is also good.

Jim Bouman said...

Royko, always pitch-perfect in describing streetlife, used "mope".

And when the mope got ugly and violent, it was "aggravated mopery".

3rd Way said...

My friend's boat is named "Ruffian". He thinks of it as a term of endearment, and an homage to a famous racehorse.

My grandfather's favorite term was "ruffy-tuffy". It sounds like the name for a CareBear with a doo-rag.

McIlheran seems partial to "evil-doer".

I will stick with "hoser", eh.

illusory tenant said...

Aggravated mopery ... I love it.

3rd Way said...

I have never heard of "mopery", that is one bad-ass word.

I checked wiki and found this gem:

In discussions of law, "mopery" is used as a placeholder name to mean some crime whose nature is not important to the problem at hand. This is sometimes expanded to "mopery with intent to creep."

I can think of a few people that should be charge with "intent to creep".

Anonymous said...

In discussions of law, "mopery" is used as a placeholder name to mean some crime whose nature is not important to the problem at hand.

You mean like if Jeffrey Dahmer refused to return a library book?

Anonymous said...

And then there's the Journal Sentinel editorial board:


capper said...

Reprobate is a good one too.

And lest we forget, the classic "brigand".