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What's the Word? - "Thug"

Hanna Shelton


The word “thug” has been the center of public debates, most recently here in Kentucky when Governor Matt Bevin referred to the protesting of pension cuts by public school teachers as reflecting a “thug mentality.” Many teachers responded to this label with memes and on social media, proudly using the hashtag #thuglife. But what about the origins of the word “thug”?


Well, “thug” comes from the Hindi word thugee (toog-gee/toog) and appeared in the mid-14th century; it originally referred to bands of robbers who befriended travelers before killing them. The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the word’s first recorded usage in English came in 1810, and indeed when India was a British colony, the idea of the thugee captivated British and American readers. Mark Twain described the thugee as a “cancerous organization,” and the British writer Philip Meadows Taylor wrote a novel titled Confessions of a Thug (1839). Yet the word came to mean more than simply robber; it was believed that members of these gangs belonged to a religious cult, and this fit European and American stereotypes of India as an exotic and dangerous place. As Lakshmi Gandhi argues on NPR’s Code Switch, some scholars now believe that the British exaggerated or invented aspects of the thugee to justify their control of India.

In the U.S., this original idea of the thug became more well-known with the appearance of child-seizing gangs (“thugs”), in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The word has also been applied to others—political dictators and union leaders, for example—but it is most often used specifically in reference to urban African-American men. Many claim that the word has become an insult equivalent to the “n-word,” an argument made by John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, and by the Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who was repeatedly called a “thug” on social media and television after he criticized another player in a post-game interview.

But there’s more. Thug was reclaimed by American hip hop artists in the 1990s, especially Tupac Shakur who had the name of his group, Thug Life, tattooed on his stomach. Here the word came to refer not to someone lawless or dangerous, but to someone who is fighting an unfair system. The word entered the national public conversation in 2015 during the protests in Baltimore, MD after the African-American Freddie Gray died in police custody. The mayor of Baltimore and then President Obama used the word “thugs” to describe those who looted or destroyed property. So “thug” is not just a racial slur—both the mayor and Obama are black—but calling individuals or groups “thugs” sets them apart from lawful society and effectively dismisses their claims.

Meanwhile, the positive usage of “thug” with its roots in 90s hiphop has become ubiquitous in popular culture, from the food blog/book “Thug Kitchen” to the hashtag #thuglife. In these examples, “thug” is used ironically by people who are not black, from teachers grading exams to babies and animals in funny poses. For example, Thug Kitchen’s creators, though at first unknown, were later revealed to be two white twenty-somethings from LA. This has often been seen as cultural appropriation, taking a term that has specific meaning, and here has been used to denigrate a specific group, and profiting from it.

In all, “thug” has remained loaded with social connotations far beyond its explicit meaning which starts to explain the reasons public figures might use it as an insult, the strong response from those at the receiving end of such an insult, and complex questions of reclamation and re-appropriation.

Learn more about the history of word "Thug" from the reference below from Julie.
Campbell, Bradley. “The Unlikely Origins of the Word 'Thug.'” BBC News, Apr. 30, 2015,

Gandhi, Lakshmi. “What A Thug's Life Looked Like In 19th Century India.” CodeSwitch, NPR,

Nov. 18 2013,

Garber, Megan. “The History of 'Thug.'” The Atlantic, Apr. 28, 2015,

“The Racially Charged Meaning Behind The Word 'Thug.'” All Things Considered, NPR, Apr.

20, 2015,

What’s the word is a new occasional series produced by the Murray State University Department of English and Philosophy that explores issues of the English language that are popping up in contemporary conversations. 

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