by Kory Stamper
published June 26th, 2018
When we use dictionaries, we think that we are getting a pure view of language, one uncluttered by spin, by misuse, by shifting context. But, lexicographers like me will tell you that language is context. Every meaning in a dictionary is written based on the contextual uses of a word—and context, like people, can get confusing and messy. In these columns, I’ll do a deep dive into a word, giving you some history, some analysis, and some context, so you can navigate our topsy-turvy language the way a lexicographer does.
Trump and Pocahontas
One of the notable features of Donald Trump’s language is his predilection for giving his political opponents nicknames. Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Li’l Marco Rubio, Crooked Hillary, Low Energy Jeb, Little Rocket Man (though now that Trump is currying favor with Kim Jong-Un, he’s swapped out this older nickname for the more sycophantic Great Leader). But, few have gotten as much attention as the name he’s given to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren: Pocahontas.
Trump’s appellation actually finds its origins in the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race, when Warren was facing Republican Scott Brown on the ticket. Brown released a campaign ad stating that Warren had dishonestly claimed she had Native American heritage when applying to a faculty position at Harvard. Warren explained that she claimed Cherokee and Delaware heritage based on the stories passed down to her from her family.
The rumors that Warren lied about her heritage to gain a hiring advantage continued to dog her, but it wasn’t until she began campaigning for Hillary Clinton during 2016 that Trump called her Pocahontas:
@elizabethforma Goofy Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas because she faked the fact she is native American, is a lowlife!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 25, 2016
He used that introduction—“Goofy Elizabeth Warren, who is sometimes called Pocahontas”—five times in May and June of 2016, and has called Warren Pocahontas dozens of times since. And, he used it again quickly in June 2016 … which even led to a spike in searches for the term by 150% on Dictionary.com
Pocahontas is at it again! Goofy Elizabeth Warren, one of the least productive U.S. Senators, has a nasty mouth. Hope she is V.P. choice.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 10, 2016
He didn’t come up with Pocahontas on his own though: Warren had been called Pocahontas by right-wing Twitter users since the 2012 election.
Hilarious piece on U.S. Senate wannabe Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren. See Howie Carr http://t.co/HcTRLDTl
— Steve Forbes (@SteveForbesCEO) May 3, 2012
Trump’s own use of it was most sharply criticized in November 2017 when he called Warren Pocahontas once more—this time at a White House event celebrating and honoring the service of the Navajo Code Talkers.
Reaction from the Native American community was swift and lexically specific. The National Congress for American Indians condemned Trump’s use of Pocahontas “as a slur to insult a political adversary”; the Native American Journalists Association condemned Trump’s use of the word “in a derogatory manner”; the Alliance for Colonial Era Tribes spoke out against Trump’s use of Pocahontas by noting that “the name becomes a derogatory racial reference when used as an insult.”
And then there was White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders who denied that Pocahontas was a slur, saying that it was a “ridiculous response” to think so.
Dictionary.com users were clearly unsure about the use of the term. Searches for the meaning of Pocahontas jumped 20,733% that day in November.
Was it just a nickname?
There is a difference between a nickname and a slur. A nickname is “a name that is used in place of or in addition to a person’s name, and can be positive, neutral, or negative.” Nicknames in this mode are generally tied to a characteristic about that particular individual, even if they are mean-spirited names. For example, Trump called Jeb Bush Low Energy because he thought that Bush’s comparatively staid demeanor on the campaign trail was, well, low-energy.
A slur, on the other hand, is “a word or phrase intended to be both offensive and disparaging by erasing the individual personhood of the target.” Racial or ethnic slurs, in particular, are intended to dehumanize the target by reducing them to a stereotype associated with their ethnicity or race.
The history of Native and Indigenous “nicknames” is fraught and complex. Some non-Native or non-Indigenous people don’t think nicknames like Chief (or Pocahontas) are offensive because they are rooted in ideas of heroism or courage, or are taken from titles of respect used within Native and Indigenous communities. But to many Native and Indigenous people, these seemingly harmless nicknames are actually offensive. They reduce individuals to a stereotype of a Native American that is based primarily on Hollywood depictions of Native and Indigenous peoples: buckskin-wearing, double-braid bearing, war-mongering savages; the silent, wise ally who speaks in broken English and proffers the peace pipe to any cowpoke who rides through their land; the shy Indian maiden who understands the settlers’ intentions and helps them despite her own tribe’s distrust.
But, wasn’t Pocahontas (as most Americans will tell you) a heroine? She saved John Smith, and fell in love with him, and sang that song about the colors—how can her name be a slur?
Most people are familiar with the Disney version of Pocahontas’s life. She was the daughter of the powerful chief Powhatan, who kidnapped the English settler John Smith and was going to execute him—until Pocahontas threw herself in front of Smith and prevented bloodshed. Later, as she taught Smith about her people, the two fell in love. Though Disney keeps Pocahontas and Smith apart, Pocahontas supposedly married another Englishman, converted to Christianity, and moved to England to join polite society.
The real stories of Pocahontas’s life are not exactly Disney fare. To start with, there are multiple stories: those based on John Smith’s retelling of his captivity (written well after anyone could step forward and correct his narrative, as many historians note, and so suspect); historians’ readings of the few scraps of contemporaneous historical evidence we have about Pocahontas’s life; and those based on the sacred oral tradition passed down through the Mattaponi, one of the nations that was a part of the chiefdom ruled by Pocahontas’s father.
Taking that into consideration, however, there are some agreed-upon points of Pocahontas’s story, and they go well off Disney’s script. First, her name wasn’t Pocahontas but Amonute or Matoaka—Pocahontas itself was a nickname. She was a member of the Pamunkey nation, and though she was the daughter of the paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, she was not called a princess since royalty was a European concept. (Her father’s name was also not Powhatan, but Wahunsenecawh.)
She was still a child when John Smith landed in Jamestown in 1607, and there is a very good chance that she never actually “rescued” Smith from his supposed execution at the hands of her father. Historians know that Smith and Pocahontas did communicate—he likely taught her English, and she taught him Algonquian—but the two did not fall in love, despite Smith’s after-the-fact claim that Pocahontas was totally into him. Pocahontas became a valuable negotiator between the nations of the Powhatan Confederacy and the English.
In 1609, Smith returned to England; in 1610, Pocahontas married Kocoum. He was described as a “private captain” by the English, and was possibly a member of the Potawomeck nation. Relations between the English and the Powhatan deteriorated, and in 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English and held ransom. In 1614, she was baptized (or forced to be baptized) and given the English name Rebecca, then married (or was forced to marry) the Englishman John Rolfe. She and Rolfe had a child, and in 1616, Rolfe returned to England with Pocahontas and their son Thomas. Pocahontas died there in 1617 at the age of 21 and was buried at St. George’s Church.
Her story has been “whitewashed” to fit the dominant narrative of what historian Camilla Townsend calls “the good Indian”: the one who values English culture and society as more important or worthy than their own.
Who decides it’s a slur?
Part of why the reduction of a person to a name associated with their ethnicity or race is offensive and dehumanizing is because it relies on a stereotypical narrative crafted by the dominant culture. In the Alliance for Colonial Era Tribes’ rebuke of Trump’s 2017 remarks, they rightly note that “the right to determine if it [Pocahontas] is a slur belongs to those who have been insulted, not the one who made the insult.” This is the reasoning behind the efforts to change the names of prominent sports teams like the Washington Redskins, which uses a word the majority of Native Americans find offensive, and logos like the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo, who is being retired next year.
There is no logical reason for Trump to use the name Pocahontas when referring to Warren. She isn’t a member of the surviving nations of the Powhatan Confederacy (in fact, she has gone on record saying that she has no registered tribal affiliation). And, Trump certainly isn’t calling her Pocahontas to praise her negotiating skills. In fact, in a 2016 interview, he said “She is one of the least productive senators in the United States Senate. We call her ‘Pocahontas’ for a reason,” sharpening the slur even more by associating Native and Indigenous peoples with laziness.
The consensus among Native organizations was that the use of Pocahontas to demean is a slur. To continue to insist, then, that this use of Pocahontas is not a slur is, to borrow a quote from the White House itself, “a ridiculous response.”
Kory Stamper was a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster for almost twenty years, and she is the author of the best-selling Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles the twists and turns of dictionary making and the English language. She is also the co-host of Fiat Lex, a podcast about dictionaries, and she is working on a book about defining color. She lives in New Jersey with her dog and far too many dictionaries.