Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and Loose Like" (1917))

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Wed Dec 5 18:42:58 UTC 2007

(thread in ADS-L; cc to ANS-L)

On Dec 3, 2007 2:38 PM, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at csli.stanford.edu> wrote:

> check out the wikipedia on Rastus, which suggests that the name Rastus
> was from Erastus and was given by slave-owners to their slaves -- and
> quickly became generalized as a pejorative term used by whites for
> blacks.  (the Cream of Wheat guy is named Rastus, by the way, though i
> suspect that the company no longer uses the name.)

On Dec 4, 2007 12:39 AM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> replied:

> I pretty much agree with "Rastus" as being derived from "Erastus." But
> "Erastus" is a Latinization of Greek "Erastos." This is derived from
> _era-_, love (in the sexual sense). Would a slave, especially a male
> one, have been given such a name? It seems unlikely, from the
> contemporary impression of what that period was like. But, who really
> knows, nowadays?

That argument is based on the assumption that the namer (owner, blech!) knew
the Greek etymology. ISTM just as likely that many knew it only as a Latin
name, and some may have known that it came from Greek, but very few would
have known the origin within Greek.

And for that matter (I continue with WAGgery), all it would have taken was
one or a few masters applying the name, and others picking it up with little
or no knowledge of its antecedents. Does the historical documentation allow
any inference on diachronic spread?

The article has been modified since Arnold's post, including deletion of the
sentence "During the period of [[American slavery]], it was common practice
for owners to give their slaves historical, and particularly Biblical,

The article <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rastus> now reads in part (latest
revision: 00:01, 5 December 2007; lists of examples snipped; emphasis

Rastus is a pejorative term traditionally associated with African Americans
> in the United States. It is considered highly offensive
> The name is sometimes given as 'Rastus, and it is likely a shortening of
> Erastus, a disciple of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 19:22, Romans 16:23, and 2
> Timothy 4:20. "Rastus" has been used as a generic, often derogatory, name
> for Black men at least since 1880, when Joel Chandler Harris included a
> Black deacon named "Brer Rastus" in the first Uncle Remus book. **Contrary
> to popular belief, however, "Rastus" has never been particularly popular as
> a Black name.** For example, the 1870 census reported only 42 individuals
> named "Rastus" in the United States, of whom only four were Black or
> mulatto. Rastus—as any happy black man, not as a particular person—became a
> familiar character in minstrel shows (...), in books (...), in popular songs
> (...), on radio, and in films, most notably the Rastus series of short films
> (...).
> (usage for Cream of Wheat )

m a m

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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