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

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sun Dec 9 09:37:48 UTC 2007

Makes sense to me, Mark, although I'd call it more "unpopular than
"pejorative," mainly because it's been rare in my experience - I've
seen it in print; I *may* have heard it very rarely when I was a
child, but it wouldn't have had any special meaning. Besides, to the
extent that I remember it at all, it was used about as often for
cartoon, po'-white, hillbilly types as for blacks in literature of the
day. I've known "nigger," well, "nigguh," since I was four or five
years old, when it packed less than the emotional weight of, perhaps,
"dumbbell." Being called "nigger" by another nigger wouldn't send
anybody home crying, but being called "dumbbell" by someone else who
wasn't one might. It was only when it was used against me by white
people that it became truly hurtful. E.g. I was waiting for the bus in
Central Square Cambridge to go visit my girlfriend in Boston, so you
can imagine where my mind was. I vaguely noticed a white man walking
toward me. As he passed, he sneered at me, "You Goddamned nigger!" and
continued on his way as though nothing had happened. I was caught
completely off guard and totally discombobulated, not knowing whether
to shit or go blind. Had I been a child, I might well have broken into

Then, when I got over to my girlfriend's house, she was in a foul mood
and, with the down-so-low-that-I- had-to-look-up-at-my-feet mood that
I was in, it killed the relationship.

But, speaking from the point of view of dialect, I'd read somewhere or
other that, back in the day, the Irish referred to blacks using a
pronunciation that sounded to the authors like "naygurs." The white
man of whom I speak said what sounded to me like "naygah" [ne:ga].
(Unforunately, this wasn't the first time that I had heard this
pronunciation. I've merely supplied a sample anecdote.) Supposedly,
Boston is the most Irish of American cities. So, WAG, perhaps this
pronunciation is a cross between the old-time Irish pronunciation and
the ah-less New England pronunciation.


On Dec 5, 2007 1:42 PM, Mark Mandel <thnidu at gmail.com> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Mark Mandel <thnidu at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and Loose Like" (1917))
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> (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!) kne=
> w
> 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 littl=
> e
> 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 th=
> e
> sentence "During the period of [[American slavery]], it was common practice
> for owners to give their slaves historical, and particularly Biblical,
> names."
> The article <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rastus> now reads in part (latest
> revision: 00:01, 5 December 2007; lists of examples snipped; emphasis
> added):
> 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, an=
> d 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. **Contrar=
> y
> > 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=97as any happy black man, not as a particular person=97be=
> came a
> > familiar character in minstrel shows (...), in books (...), in popular so=
> ngs
> > (...), on radio, and in films, most notably the Rastus series of short fi=
> lms
> > (...).
> > (usage for Cream of Wheat )
> >
> m a m
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