Vol. 48 No. 3 (2000)
Research Article

The Sociolinguistics of the “S–Word” : Squaw in American Placenames

Published 2000-12-01



Placenames containing the word “squaw” are numerous throughout the United States, but have recently become controversial. American Indian groups and individuals have presented three kinds of argument against the use of the term. The first argument is that it is derived from an Mohawk word for the female genitalia. Linguistic data show, however, that it is actually a New England Massachusett word for ‘woman'. A second argument presented is that “squaw” has been, and is still, used derogatorily by whites toward Indian women. This argument is supported only weakly by literary documents, but more strongly by frontier memoirs and journalistic writing. The third argument is that “squaw” is offensive to Indians, in the same way that “nigger” is offensive to African Americans. This raises, then, the question of “politically correct” vocabulary, or in broader terms, the sociolinguistic question of the ideological values associated with words; in this context, subjective associations are as .important as objective ones.


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