Origin of thug
usage note for thug
In American English, the word is disproportionately applied to nonwhite perpetrators of violence or crime. White teens disturbing the peace at a party with loud music are more likely to be called troublemakers or hooligans. Their Black peers are more likely to be labeled thugs for the same offense. And following this common racialized usage, thug is used by some and interpreted by many as a code word for Black. In extreme cases, thug is chosen as a dog whistle to imply that Black people are generally prone to violence or criminality.
However, there is also a reclaimed sense of thug within the Black community, and particularly in the hip-hop community, one that acknowledges the violence implicit in the label while also celebrating toughness and street smarts.
Because thug has many implied connotations that may change depending on who is using the word and who is being described by it, it’s important to critically consider the context and tone around each particular instance of its use to truly understand what is being communicated.
OTHER WORDS FROM thugthug·ger·y [thuhg-uh-ree], /ˈθʌg ə ri/, nounthug·gish, adjective
Words nearby thug
ABOUT THIS WORD
What does thug mean?
Thug is a term for a violent, lawless person, especially a man.
The word was originally used in the 1800s as a name for members of a group of men in India said to be professional criminals and murderers. In this use, it is sometimes capitalized.
Since then, thug has come to have a more general meaning similar to its more old-fashioned synonym ruffian. The act of behaving as a thug is known as thuggery. The adjective form of thug is thuggish. In this sense, thug often refers to someone who acts as a bully or is a professional and violent criminal, as in The mafia sent hired thugs to intimidate store owners.
However, in the U.S., the word thug has a history of being used by racist white people who specifically apply it to African American men to portray them as violent criminals. When used in this way, it is often thought to function as a substitute for a racist slur.
For this reason, some African Americans have reclaimed the word as a positive identifier. It is especially used in hip-hop, particularly in the phrase thug life.
Where does thug come from?
The first records of the word thug come from the early 1800s. It comes from the Hindi word thag, meaning “rogue,” “thief,” or “cheat.” This derives from the Sanskrit sthaga, which means “scoundrel” and comes from the verb sthagati, “to conceal.”
During the British colonization and rule of India in the 1800s, Thug was used to refer to members of the so-called Thuggee Cult. These Thugs were said to be professional criminals and assassins who robbed travelers and murdered them by strangulation. The British arrested and imprisoned thousands of Indians that they identified as Thugs, executed many of them, and claimed to have eliminated the entire organization. However, some historians believe that the British exaggerated the presence and methods of the Thugs as a means of suppression.
The word thug itself, however, entered the popular imagination and eventually came to be used in a general way to refer to bullies and violent criminals. Gangsters and armed robbers are often described as thugs. The word almost always implies a tendency for violence.
Sometimes, though, it’s used to conceal a racist implication: labeling a Black man as a thug is often a way to imply that all Black men are thugs—that they’re all prone to violence and crime. For this reason, use of the word, such as in journalism and by politicians, is often criticized as promoting these racist stereotypes.
The reclaimed use of the word thug by Black people is intended to highlight and counter these stereotypes. This use of the term was popularized in hip-hop by 1990s rapper Tupac Shakur, who characterized thug life as a struggle against racism and injustice.
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What are some other forms related to thug?
- thuggish (adjective)
- thuggery (noun)
What are some synonyms for thug?
What are some words that share a root or word element with thug?
What are some words that often get used in discussing thug?
How is thug used in real life?
The word thug is usually (but not always) applied to men. Its racist use makes its other uses controversial.
I wish media would treat Batman a bit more like Sherlock Holmes and less like a violent thug. Actually solving mysteries, making deductions from tiny things and such.
— Mike Bentley🏳️🌈 (@PsychoticDreams) December 10, 2018
Remember this when protesters are all blanketedly called "thugs" 👇 https://t.co/DDGJ4eanX8
— Kavontae Smalls (@KavontaeSmalls) May 31, 2020
The police arresting CARE TAKERS. What message are you sending to your citizens when the most compassionate among us are treated like thugs!
— Jack Slack (@mostly___carbon) September 2, 2017
How to use thug in a sentence
Mike has busted broncos, been tossed by bulls, alienated his former wife with his stoicism and, most recently, taken on various thugs.What Clint Eastwood can teach Americans about the lost art of persuasion|Alyssa Rosenberg|September 27, 2021|Washington Post
To do so, he had to lie that these prisoners hadn’t really wanted better conditions, that they were just violent thugs.50 Years After Attica, Prisoners Are Still Protesting Brutal Conditions. Will America Finally Listen?|Heather Ann Thompson|September 8, 2021|Time
Starting in 1997, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Roth held a series of hearings that portrayed IRS agents as menacing thugs.Lord of the Roths: How Tech Mogul Peter Thiel Turned a Retirement Account for the Middle Class Into a $5 Billion Tax-Free Piggy Bank|by Justin Elliott, Patricia Callahan and James Bandler|June 24, 2021|ProPublica
A militia group called the Kenosha Guard last year created a Facebook event page that encouraged people to “take up arms” and defend the Wisconsin city from “evil thugs.”Civil rights groups flagged dozens of anti-Muslim pages and groups to Facebook that stayed up, lawsuit alleges|Elizabeth Dwoskin|April 8, 2021|Washington Post
Today’s vision of these ancient relations is as distant from old views of Neanderthals—unintelligent cave thugs, the losers of our family tree—as modern astronomy is from the idea of a universe bounded by the Milky Way.Much of What We Thought About Neanderthals Was Wrong. Here’s Why That Matters|Rebecca Wragg Sykes|October 27, 2020|Time
In his infamous deposition video, you can clearly see that the “thug life” façade is stripped away.Method Man Talks Wu-Tang Clan Reunion, Fake Rappers, and the Suge Knight Shooting|Marlow Stern|September 15, 2014|DAILY BEAST
Maybe the thug even used to be you, until you went straight.
Women would refuse to go near any man with thuggish associations, for real—barely a thug could expect to get any action.
I also made a thug chase movie with a bunch of my friends in high school.How ‘Transcendence’ Director Wally Pfister Became Christopher Nolan’s Secret Weapon|Andrew Romano|April 17, 2014|DAILY BEAST
The Kremlin loses a useful propaganda tool, but it also eliminates a thug with a lot of Russian blood on his hands.Who Killed One of the Most Notorious Right Sector Leaders in Ukraine?|Oleg Shynkarenko|March 27, 2014|DAILY BEAST
If we risk ourselves against these fellows, and are victorious, will not every Thug in the land cry Shabash!
After all, Sahib, cannot you now understand the excitement which possesses the soul of a Thug in his pursuit of men?
We hear so much of him, that, by Bhowanee, perhaps an unlucky old Thug like myself may pick up something new.
The old Thug and myself had been bound together, and we were in this state thrust into one of the narrow cells of the jail.
I and another Thug were directed to watch their movements, while the main body went on.