I’m lucky enough to live in a multicultural city where I can walk a block to a restaurant advertising “poke sushi burrito,” so a lot of food-based ethnic slurs seem almost quaint to me—though that’s not to diminish the hurt they’ve caused. I thought I’d dig into the origin of some of these slurs and look at how their power has shifted.
By food-based slurs, I’m not referring to words like banana, used to describe people of Asian descent in Western countries who are “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” I’m focusing on expressions attacking foods that people choose to include in their diets.
Food is an integral part of culture, yet it seems to be one of the easiest, most accessible ways to cross cultural boundaries. Othering cultures based on what they will and won’t eat certainly still goes on, as we see from perennial jabs at Asian cultures as dog eaters and White nationalists’ bizarre obsession with milk, but with our access to a greater variety of ingredients than ever before, insulting someone based on what they use to nourish themselves comes off as especially lazy. It’s the ill intent and the othering that causes the harm, but food-based slurs feel particularly flaccid because their primary effect is to shine a light on the unworldliness of the speaker.
What food-based ethnic slurs do you have in your culture? Share them in the comments!
Beaner originated in the US as a way to refer to a person from Mexico or Central America, where beans make up a regular part of the diet. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Detroit Free Press in 1965:
All eyes must be alert for ‘greasers’ (motorcyclists) who are trouble-makers, and not much good can be said about ‘beaners’ (Mexicans) either.
Before then, beaner actually had a positive connotation. The 1911 Dialect Notes define Beaner as “a term of appreciation or compliment; equivalent to fine or excellent.”
This insult as an obvious classist edge: beans were considered peasant food—something you’d eat if you had no source of animal protein.
With the growth of vegan and vegetarian diets, and the recognition of the environmental impact of too much meat consumption, beans have risen in status and now regularly appear on lists of superfoods. Not only are they packed with protein, but they’re also an excellent source of dietary fibre and minerals like potassium and magnesium.
If I ask you to imagine Mexican beans, you’d probably think of pinto or black beans, but Mexican cuisine features dozens of other varieties, like the creamy mayocoba (native to Peru) or the bright Flor de Mayo.
While we’re doing fun bean-related language facts: as big a fan as I am of Mitch Hedberg’s bit about refried beans, the term is a calque of frijoles refritos, which simply means “well-fried.” This recipe shows there’s no need to cook ’em twice.
Dal-khor—“dal eater”—is a Persian term to insult people on the Indian subcontinent, especially those in rural areas of Pakistan and the Punjab. It disparages their mostly vegetarian diets, so, like beaner, it’s got classist undertones. Overtones? Tones. It’s tonal with classism.
Dal comes from the Sanskrit dala (“to split”), and it originally referred to split pulses like peas, beans, and lentils but now applies to all pulses, split (dhuli dal in Hindi) or unsplit (sabūt dal). Whole dal, with husks intact, are higher in fibre and healthier than split dal, but the latter are still an important source of protein in vegetarian diets.
Dal (sometimes spelled daal, dhal, dahl, or doll) has appeared in English texts since the 17th century. The OED’s earliest citation is from John Fryer’s 1698 A New Account of East India and Persia: “At their coming up out of the Water they bestow their Largess of Rice or Doll (an Indian Bean).”
There are many ways to prepare dal, but a common treatment is to boil washed dal in salted water until soft, then adding a tadka of aromatized spices and flavourings before serving. Here’s a recipe for dal panchmel, featuring five different types of dal.
This entry will probably be controversial, but I had to include it. Although some people think the word Eskimo comes from the Innu-aimun (Montagnais) word ayas̆kimew, meaning “snowshoe lacer,” others believe it comes from the Cree askamiciw, “he who eats it raw.”
Whatever the word’s origin, it’s not what Inuit call themselves, and so continuing to use it (looking at you, Edmonton Eskimos) reflects a cultural ignorance or insensitivity at best and a perpetuation of colonial oppression at worst.
Inuit do eat meat raw—as well as boiled, fried, dried, and pickled. Inuit country foods include raw seal or raw whale skin and blubber (muktuk). Muktuk is a critical source of vitamin C for Inuit, whose Arctic landscape isn’t conducive to growing plant sources of that nutrient, and heating it would destroy the vitamin. In the North, where food security is a massive problem that contributes to diabetes, suicide, and other poor health outcomes, making sure Inuit have a way to continue or resume their traditional lifestyle of harvesting country foods is a matter of physical and cultural survival.
According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, frog had a negative connotation as early as the 14th century, when it was used in England to refer to “a contemptible or offensive person.” In the 17th century it was applied to the “marsh dwellers” of the Netherlands—at that time England’s national enemy.
When France assumed the role of chief rival to England shortly afterward, French people became frogs, a dig at their fondness for eating frogs’ legs. The word-initial fr- of both France and frog probably helped the epithet stick.
The term even followed French immigrants across the pond, and French Canadians and Cajuns have endured the slur from their English-speaking neighbours.
Today, frogs are a common food in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the United States, as well as in France, leading to fears of overharvesting. The common water frog, Pelophylax esculentus, was the traditional source of French frogs’ legs, but restrictions on its harvest have prompted the French to import Fejervarya and Limnonectes species from Indonesia to fulfill demand.
One species not currently at risk of overharvesting is the aggressively invasive and prolific American bullfrog. Try to use those if you want to make these French-style garlic and herb frogs’ legs or these deep-fried Cajun frogs’ legs.
Kraut or cabbage eater
People in both Britain and the United States used Kraut (sometimes spelled Krout) as early as the 1830s to describe a German or Austrian. For the rest of the century, “cabbage eater” was applied to Russians as well as Germans, and not necessarily pejoratively:
The common cabbage soup of the Russian soldier—the great cabbage-eater of modern human races—is not so bad as it looks.
—Times, October 19, 1867
Kraut is the German word for leafy or herbacious plant—similar to the Chinese choy to describe a generic leafy vegetable. In the case of sauerkraut, the vegetable is usually cabbage, or Kohl in German; we see the same root in coleslaw and kohlrabi.
Not surprisingly, Kraut as a slur peaked in both world wars:
But he always loved a soldier, be he ‘Krout’ or ‘Mick’.
—G.E. Griffin, Ballads of Regiment 34, 1918
The men just said things like, ‘Well, the Krauts are done for.’
—Daily Herald, May 8, 1945
The sauer part of sauerkraut undoubtedly played a role in other cultures’ disdain for the food and the people who made it. Not only were the Germans eating cabbage—already considered unrefined peasant food—but they ate smelly, spoiled cabbage.
As we know now, that controlled spoilage reflects extreme resourcefulness, exploiting naturally occurring Lactobacillus bacteria to convert the vegetable’s sugars to lactic acid and create an environment hostile to other microbes, preserving the cabbage for long-term use.
Over the past several years, the benefits of lacto-fermentation—to gut flora and to the flavour of our food—has spurred an interest in all sorts of fermented foods. If you want to get in on the fermentation action, here’s how you can make your own sauerkraut.
Limey, referring to a British person, is a fascinating slur for historical reasons. On one hand, it’s tantamount to making fun of someone for needing vitamin C to live. The term was applied to British sailors who warded off scurvy with regular doses of lime or lemon juice, after Scottish physician James Lind’s famous experiment in 1747 proved its effectiveness at treating what had been a debilitating and often fatal disease for seafarers.
On the other hand, limey has an undeniable colonial flavour. The antiscorbutic properties of the citrus made the British sailors stronger than their counterparts from other countries, allowing them to carry out colonization on behalf of the British Empire more effectively.
Add the fact that not all naval officers were voluntary—press gangs were key to keeping the Navy staffed—and you have yourself a complex web of power relations in one word. Yet it was considered so innocuous, it readily appeared in American newspapers and magazines in the 1940s and ’50s.
Some online sources claim that lemon and lime were used interchangeably to describe all manner of citrus, but by the time limey was coined (OED’s earliest citation is from 1888) lemons and limes had been distinct in English for centuries, at least since 1638, when Thomas Herbert wrote in Some yeares travels into divers parts of Asia and Afrique:
The Ile [Mohelia] inricht us with many good things;..Orenges, Lemons, Lymes.
Limes have only about half the vitamin C that lemons do, so lemon juice would have been the better choice to battle scurvy, but lemony seems considerably less punchy as a slur.
To get a (modernized) taste of what the sailors may have drunk, here’s a recipe for lime grog made with water, rum, and mint.
Malakh-khor and soosmar-khor
Anti-Arab sentiment is behind these two Persian slurs, malakh-khor meaning “locust eater” and soosmar-khor meaning “lizard eater.”
The lizard in question is the Uromastyx microlepis, the spiny-tailed or dhab lizard. These desert dwellers escape the harsh heat in underground burrows, where expert hunters find them, sometimes flushing them out with water.
The spiny-tailed lizard is a threatened species, and it’s now protected in the United Arab Emirates, although its decline is probably more from habitat destruction for development rather than overhunting.
So, um, maybe don’t eat them, but in case you want to know more about how they’re prepared, here’s a recipe I found.
Locusts, which are grasshoppers (the Vulgar Latin locusta means grasshopper) that enter a swarming phase under the right conditions, are known, of course, for their biblical crop-devastating plagues. One way to exact revenge is to eat them, as several cultures in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia do. They’re a delicacy in many parts of the world but are looked down upon as a survival food by some cultures—hence the slur.
In 1820, James Grey Jackson wrote about locusts being eaten in Morocco, in An Account of Timbuctoo and Housa: Territories in the Interior of Africa:
The poor would go out a locusting, as they termed it: the bushes were covered; they took their (haik) garment, and threw it over them, and then collected them in a sack. In half an hour they would collect a bushel. These they would take home, and boil a quarter of an hour; they would then put them into a frying-pan, with pepper, salt, and vinegar, and eat them, without bread or any other food, making a meal of them. They threw away the head, wings, and legs, and ate them as we do prawns. They considered them wholesome food, and preferred them to pigeons. Afterwards, whenever there was any public entertainment given, locusts was a standing dish; and it is remarkable that the dish was always emptied, so generally were they esteemed as palatable food.
I’ve also found Israeli recipes for locusts but couldn’t find any specific to the Arabian Peninsula, so if you know of one, please comment below.
People have proposed turning to insects like locusts and crickets as sustainable protein sources that create less of a climate impact than eating larger animals. Some residents of the Arabian Peninsula have petitioned their governments to stop using pesticides to control locusts so that they can be safely eaten.
From sheer envy, they hooted, hissed, hustled, and called me ‘rosbif’ and ‘goddam’.
—Frederic Reynolds, Life and Times, 1826
Just as the English called the French frogs, the French labelled the English with an equally mild insult, rosbif. In the Middle Ages, the English gained a reputation for being big meat eaters, and the French saw roasting as a particularly English way to prepare beef. They even applied the term to other meats cooked in the same way—so they’d refer to roast lamb and roast mutton as rosbif d’agneau and rosbif de mouton.
In 1727, satirist Louis de Boissy’s one-act play Le François à Londres featured a caricatured Englishman named Jacques Rosbif, popularizing the use of rosbif to describe the English.