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The true origin of the word 'spic,' the racist insult aimed at Hispanics

As hate incidents are on the rise and anti-immigrant rhetoric intensifies, the word 'spic' has come into focus. The term actually dates back to the construction of the Panama Canal at the beginning of the 20th century. From there it traveled north to the border between Mexico and the United States.
8 Jun 2017 – 10:56 AM EDT

"You motherf**king spic, you oughta go back to your country," a man yelled recently at a Puerto Rican speaking Spanish with his mom at the Reno, Nevada, airport. Then, a woman snapped at a Hispanic man in Manassas, Virginia: "I ain't scared of no f**king spic."

As videos surface showing hate incidents against Hispanics, the word "spic" is often used as a derogatory way to refer to Latinos. But many may not know what this word means or where it came from.

Although there are several theories about its origin, the origin of the term usually goes back to Panama at the beginning of the 20th century. This was how the American workers who worked on the Panama Canal referred to the Panamanian labor force. As the journalist Samuel G. Blythe explained in 1908 in the Saturday Evening Post:

"All Americans are alike. They do not bother to learn foreign languages when they go to a foreign country, but they force the natives to learn American. So, when the Panamanians presented themselves, if they could talk English, they prefaced their attempts to cheat the Americans out of something—it really made little difference what—with the statement, accompanied by eloquent gestures: 'Spik d' English.' If they couldn't they said: 'No spik d' English.' One or the other was the universal opening of conversation, and those early Americans soon classed the whole race of men who could or could not 'Spik d' Eng.' as 'Spikities,' and from that grew the harmonious and descriptive 'Spigotty.'"

"It's not that clear how 'No spik d' English' sounds like 'spiggoty,'" Frances Negrón-Muntañer, a professor at the Center for Ethnic and Race Studies at Columbia University, told Univision. "But the word spiggoty turned into spig and later spic," she added.

From there the term traveled north until it reached the border between the United States and Mexico. By 1916, "a writer for Scribner's magazine heard border troopers at Fort Bliss, just north of El Paso, use 'spicks' as a derogatory term for Mexican men," according to writer Juan Vidal in this NPR article.


Three other unofficial hypotheses on the etymology of the term are listed on Urban Dictionary, a huge collaborative and digital repository of American jargon:

1) It's used to describe a person who does not speak English well and who pronounces "spic" instead of "speak."

2) It's a contraction of the word Hispanic. According to Negrón-Muntañer this theory is not very convincing because the term "Hispanic" was not generalized until after World War II, when the word "spic" was already being used.

3) "Spic" was the word police used to refer to Hispanics who had been arrested, as an acronym for "Spanish-speaking person in custody" or SPIC. "It's probably an invention," says Negrón-Muntañer.

A term not claimed by Latinos


Despite its offensive connotations, the word 'spic' has often appeared in popular culture, such as in an exchange during the film 'West Side Story' in which Anita tells Bernardo: "says the spic."

"Beginning in the 1970s, Puerto Ricans began to use the term in numerous literary and theater works as a way of criticizing racism and, sometimes, as a way of consolidating a group identity," says Negrón-Muntañer. For example, John Leguizamo's 1990s 'Spic-O-Rama' story told the story of a dysfunctional New York family in which Miggy, the nine-year-old boy, called himself "spictacular."

"I'm spictacular. I'm, I'm spictorious. I'm indespicable," the boy said.

However, the word continues to generate debate for its offensive nature, even when the Hispanic community uses it: in 2009, the Latin cultural institution El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem was forced to rename a poetry series entitled "Spic up/Speak up" after protests from the community. Organizers told the New York Times at the time that the title was intended as a postmodern take, "inviting dialogue and debate over issues of identity."

"Unlike blacks with the word 'nigger', or the LGBT community with 'queer', the word 'spic' has never been appropriated by new generations of Latinos as a word over which they can exercise control, using it instead of forgetting it: it would be interesting to figure out why," Negrón-Muntañer says.


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