In recent past the word thug has been receiving quite a lot of attention, following its use to describe rioters, looters, and occasionally, non-violent protesters in Baltimore last year. Thug has been poked and prodded, argued over ad nauseam, and written about quite extensively. At issue is the question of whether or not it has become a euphemistic code word for people of color, generally men, used in place of another, more outright racist, word.
When one begins to delve into this matter it quickly becomes apparent how difficult it can be for lexicographers to fully define a word such as thug. On the one hand there are people who use the word in a manner that intends no bias. But then there are others who are clearly using it with racist intent. And then there are others, who do not use this word, but are offended by its use in some cases, but not in others, and so on. If one tries to define such a semantically drifting word completely, it is easy to see how the definition could end up with an absurd number of qualifiers (“a term, which, when used by X to indicate Y, in the situation Z, may cause some to feel maligned, while others will take no offense…”).
So what do we know about thug?
We have a good idea of where it comes from: the Hindi word thag, which refers to a cheat or a rogue. We are fairly certain of when it began to be used, which is the beginning of the 19th century. Currently, the earliest known citation is from 1809, when the word was used in the September 1st issue of The Monthly Magazine, in an article titled Narrative of a Recent Tour in India: “…[T]hey were unanimous in declaring that I had been attacked by two Thugs.” The earliest uses of thug referred specifically to a group of professional thieves in India (who may or may not have been organized), and within several decades the word had broadened its meaning to be applied to any sort of rough criminal.
After that things get a bit fuzzier.
It is certain that some have taken to using thug in a racially charged manner, although it is not obvious at what point this began (intent is not something that can be easily interpreted when reading decades-old sources). But thug may also be used in a wide variety of non-racially charged ways (jackbooted thugs is one of the common ways that thug is used, and primarily has connotations of authoritarianism, rather than race). It is also certain that thug has been appropriated and, in some ways, celebrated by musicians and rappers beginning in the early 1980s.
However, the fact that thug has been glamorized in rap music, a medium with African-American roots, does not negate that it might be considered offensive in other circumstances. There are a number of words in English which, when used to describe a group are considered offensive, but which when used within the group itself are not.
For example the first recorded use of the word yid (which is generally considered highly offensive) occurs in the 1874 edition of John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary. In his definition for this word (and for its variant, yit) he notes that “The Jews use these terms very frequently.”
Words do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are shaped by the context surrounding their evolving use. What was once innocuous might now carry offensive connotations. Such is the case with thug.