[Ads-l] antedates for "thuggery," 'thug'= ruffian

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Sat May 9 17:24:12 UTC 2015

In doing a piece on ‘thug’, I’ve been trying to track its adaptation as as a general term for a hired ruffian or tough. 

For “thuggery,” the OED has “=THUGEE, n.; also transf.” and gives as its first cite Carlyle’s 1839 mention in “Chartism”: “‘Glasgow Thuggery’, ‘Glasgow Thugs’; it is a witty nickname.” This is also given as the first cite for ‘thug’ in the sense, "A cutthroat, ruffian, rough.” The reference is to the cotton-spinners accused of forming a secret society with the purpose of intimidating strikebreakers (“knobsticks”) in the strike of 1837. (They were ultimately convicted only of “conspiracy to raise the wages of labour,” an infraction that is now being recriminalized in several juridictions.) 

There’s an antedate for the literal sense of “thuggery” (= Thugee) in the Spectator, 1838. More interesting is this, from the London Morning Post, Jan. 16, 1838. The article is credited to the Glasgow Courier, but I can’t find that earlier source:

The objects of this committee were nakedly and literally murder, maiming, assault, or willful fire-raising… 20l were given for a murder or fire-raising, and 10l or 15l for lesser injuries, such as throwing vitirol, violent assaults, or breaking of limbs. It does not appear, however, that any of the three who constituted the “select committee” were necessarily the executors of this new system of Thuggery…. Their proper office was to hire assassins, or incendiaries, to "do the job”...  

There’s a prefiguration here of the right’s modern use of “union thugs” to denote the union movement in general — the phrase is more frequent in the media now than at any time in the past, even though labor is flat on its back and the number of major strikes is less than a tenth what it was a few decades ago. (Some union members have reclaimed the epithet and sport “thug proudly” buttons, reprising a rare use of the word as a verb). Coincidence? Perhaps, but ‘thug’ has had proletarian overtones ever since. 

Also antedating the Carlyle cite, “thug” in its transferred sense occurs in a letter in The Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Sept. 1, 1837. “I will confine myself to the mere matter of accusation pressed so venemously against me by the hired Thugs of the Conservative newspapers….” My guess, though, is that inasmuch as the literal use of “thug” is attested as early as 1810, the transferred use is probably older than 1837.


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