Eat your words

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!


Photo of pinto beans

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.


Photo of a bowl of cooked dal.
Photo by Soniya Goyal

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.

Photo of pieces of muktuk, whale skin and blubber.
Photo by Lisa Risager.

Here’s a recipe I found for muktuk—pickled, not raw.


Photo of a
Photo by Carl D. Howe.

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

Photo of lidded glass jar with sauerkraut, beside a bowl with sauerkraut.
Photo by Stephen G Pearson.

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.


Photo of limes
Photo by Steve Hopson.

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

Photo of spiny-tailed lizard
Photo by Adrian Pingstone.

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.

Coloured illustration of a drunken Englishman being carried on a soldier's back. The caption reads

Here is a classic recipe for roast beef with potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.

14 thoughts on “Eat your words

  1. Ben Zimmer January 6, 2019 / 2:02 pm

    “Beaner” was the subject of a recent controversy involving the New York Times crossword puzzle. More here.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Patrick Collins January 6, 2019 / 2:05 pm

    I have read somewhere that the English sailors got most of their vitamin C from pickled cabbage rather than the more expensive and short shelf-lifed citrus fruit.

    Captain Cook took 100 pounds of sauerkraut and 25 pounds of pickled cabbage per head on a voyage on the Resolution in 1772. He only had a few gallons total of “rob of oranges and lemons” (“rob” is a boiled-down sugary syrup) between 200 crew, so not enough to make much of a difference. I am not sure if the pint of carrot marmalade for each crewman would have helped much. Cook said sour krout “can never be enough recommended”.

    Other ships had used lemon juice preserved with one part in five or seven of brandy.

    The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C
    By Kenneth J. Carpenter (on Goodle Books, horrible urls to paste)

    The Germans probably loved limes as well.

    But the locusts were not a curse for everyone. As Mrs. Dickson recounted, children in Kuwait had a grand time when the flying locusts came through: “They’d take off the kufiyahs – head scarves – and knock the flying ones down and catch them …. When I went calling on ladies here they would always bring a tray of fat boiled locusts and take off the heads and the legs and the wings and then offer them. The Bedu dried them on their tents and kept them all year. The salukis ate them, the donkeys ate them and the people ate them. The Bedu were really happy when they came.”

    The arrival of locusts was also celebrated in Saudi Arabia. Though the practice of eating them has largely died out, many Saudis recall what it was like. Sometimes the locusts were boiled in salty water, or lightly roasted over coals. Sometimes they were spread out to dry, “lined up like clothespins” on the hot steel of the crude-oil pipelines of the Eastern Province. Anne-Marie Weiss-Armush includes a baked-locust recipe from Yemen in her 1984 cookbook Arabian Cuisine – under ‘Appetizers’. In the morning, she suggests, take two kilos (about 4.5 pounds) of locusts, rinse them, and bake them on a tray at 125 degrees Celsius (250°F) for four hours. Then let them dry in bright sunlight the rest of the day, turning occasionally. Snap off the legs, head and wings before serving.

    For all cooking methods, discriminating palates preferred the inaknah, the female locust ripe with eggs, according to several sources. The bright yellow mature males, or ‘usfoor, were also eaten, but were not prized, and most people shunned the daba, or hoppers, if there was a choice.

    Gibali-speaking informants in my research group are aware of and often discuss culinary changes. Some food, such as locusts, are no longer eaten because the nutrition they provided can be easily obtained from other sources; others, such as wild game like gazelle and bustards, are now forbidden to be killed by the government.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stephanie January 6, 2019 / 5:51 pm

    Don’t forget “bagel” to describe Jewish people at least on the east coast US


  4. Patrick Collins January 6, 2019 / 6:06 pm

    You seem to be mistaken in thinking that “limey” was first used of British sailors.

    The OED has “lime-juicer” as a pejorative for a newly-arrived immigrant to Australia (or “new chum”) in 1859. They had just arrived on (presumably British) ships and so had not yet “got the lime-juice off them”.
    The quotes are from pages 49 and 58 of this book:

    In 1884 the OED quote has the “lime-juicer” as a ship. Though the Pall Mall Gazette was published in London, this article was about Australian sailors on ships that plied the Pacific from Queensland to the islands and the evil actions of some of those sailors.
    I have known men who had often been engaged in this business confess that they were not fit for long voyages. They would not go on a ‘lime-juicer,’ they said, for anything. (By ‘lime-juicer’ is meant an ocean-going ship, so called because the crew have salt meat served out to them, and lime-juice with it against scurvy.)
    Pall Mall Gazette, 26th of August 1884: page 11 (you have to register to get three free pages).

    That OED entry you quote for “limey” in 1888 is also about newly-arrived immigrants in Australia. It is from a poem about an Australian gold rush by Alfred T Chandler. The poem was actually first published in Chandler’s collection “A Bush Idyll” in 1886. The goldfield was near Maryborough, Victoria in Southeast Australia.
    “Well, three mornings after, the stringy-bark gums
    All rustled their leaves with further surprise,
    They’d seen old stagers and limey new chums.
    But here were galoots in peculiar guise.”

    The first quote about sailors for “limey” is from 1918 by a sailor in the United States Navy and French Legionnaire, Gunner Albert Depew. He also had experience on a US whaler and a British tramp steamer before the War. He uses “lime-juicer” for the British ships and “limey” for the sailors.
    A little while ago I spoke of a British sailor as a “Limey.” The old British ships used to carry large quantities of lime juice aboard, because they though it was a cure for the scurvy. So, all over the world, British ships are called “Lime-juicers” and their sailors “Limeys.” There is a saying in the merchant marine that the bucko mate of a Lime-juicer is the toughest guy in the world, but they do not think so in the navy.
    There are many references to limeys in Gunner Depew’s memoirs of the War, some quite respectful.

    Apparently oranges and lemons (and green veg) had been known by sailors to prevent scurvy since the beginning of the 16th century. British navy ships benefitted from the instituntional and compulsory use of sauerkraut and citrus, with their opponents often malnourished.

    The specific reference to limey comes from 1845 when the Governer of Bermuda, a British-occupied land, suggested that the standard lemon juice from various unreliable European sources was switched with British Empire limes. A Birmigham entrepreneur set up huge lime plantations in Montserrat in 1852 (as did others later). In 1860 the admiralty contract specified West Indian lime juice. They could only measure the acidity, not the vitamin C content. So they assumed limes were better at combating scurvy.

    Click to access sailors_scurvy-final.pdf

    As an aside, I should note that Captain Cook also supplied his men with the well-known aphrodisiac salep (as “saloup”) made from orchid roots. The names for these plants included many references to testicles such as dogstones and sweet ballocks, from the resemblance of the twin tubers. The name orchid is from the Greek for testicles. It was believed to cure scurvy but was more famous for being an aphrodisiac.


  5. Chips Mackinolty January 7, 2019 / 4:09 am

    In Australia, as elsewhere, successive migrant groups since the Invasion have been deprecated, insulted and worse. From time to time based on their real or assumed culinary preferences. As a child I remember Italians being derided as “garlic munchers” (which puzzled me as our Anglo-Irish family used garlic all the time).

    To this day newcomers from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh are often derided by some as “curry eaters/munchers” or “curries” for short.

    Aboriginal people who share such heritage half self-deprecatingly/half proudly sometimes refer to themselves as “curry murris” (Murri being a word for Aboriginal).

    No doubt other Australian readers of Strong Language can add to the list of culinary-based insults.

    On the other hand, many from north Queensland refer to themselves as “mango munchers”, celebrating a fruit commonly grown in the region. Summed up perhaps best from a local folk band’s song from the early 1980s, “Proud to be a mango muncher from north Queensland” … to the tune of Okie from Muskogee.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John Cowan January 8, 2019 / 2:32 am

    Although Eskimo is a slur in Canada and Greenland, this is not so in Alaska, where it is the only available word that covers both the Iñupiat and the Yup’ik peoples. The language of the Iñupiat (though few of them still speak it) is part of the Inuit dialect continuum that runs from the Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait all the way to Eastern Greenland. But the Yup’ik speak four distinct languages, different from each other and very different from the Inuit continuum. To them, “Inuit” is a foreign word, though Inuit and Yup’ik are cognates, both meaning ‘(real) people’.


  7. sesquiotic January 13, 2019 / 5:38 am

    Two that come to mind:

    “Pepsi” said by an Anglo-Canadian referring to a French-Canadian

    “Mangia cake” (eat cake) by an Italian-Canadian to refer to an Anglo-Canadian

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Late to this party February 12, 2019 / 10:02 pm

    You guys missed “cracker,” in which African-Americans called out poor whites for their shitty bread


  9. David April 23, 2019 / 7:10 pm

    Were gladiators (and maybe Spartans) called hordearii “eaters of barley ” as an insult?


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