April 22, 2015

Case File #015.04.22: THUG

Religious activity is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word thug, so it may surprise you to learn that the term originated in India circa 1810 as the British designation for a group of religious zealots. But these particular zealots were devotees of Kali, a Hindu goddess associated with (among other things) death and destruction, and they thus embraced violent criminal behavior and were especially notorious for waylaying, robbing, and strangling foreigners and unwary travelers. Of course, such behavior was unacceptable to the British, who in the early nineteenth century were already working to subjugate the Indian subcontinent and its people, and they managed to completely wipe out the Thugs by the end of the 1830s. The term thug, however, was here to stay. The Brits had derived the word from the Hindi thag, which means “thief or swindler” and was itself derived from the Sanskrit sthaga-s, meaning “cunningly deceitful.” So after obliterating the religious cult for which the noun was created, the British began to use thug as a general designation for any violent criminal. (Some etymologists give credit for coining this sense of the word to the Scottish essayist, historian, and social commentator Thomas Carlyle, who may have been the first to use it in print when his essay “Chartism” was published in 1839.) It wasn't until the early twentieth century, though, that English speakers in the United States appropriated the noun and used it to mean “a strong, tough minion in a crime syndicate” or, more generally, “a gangster.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

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