Brand language, tone of voice and verbal identity.

Wordtrees: Bigot

Ah, there’s that word popping up in the news again. It wasn’t so long ago that the then prime minister Gordon Brown was caught on microphone calling a pensioner a “bigoted woman“. Now, a story has surfaced that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s aides had to remove the word “bigots” in the draft version of a speech.

Politics aside, where does our favourite word to describe intolerant people come from?

It’s hard to say

I’m sorry to report that it’s not entirely clear where the word bigot comes from. In the end, an Oxford University Press’s blog post written by professor Anatoly Liberman proved most helpful.

He says that the word “does not owe its origin to a proper name” – some think bigot stems from Nathaniel Bigot (1575-1660) an English Puritan preacher, who was notorious for his intolerant zeal.

An ancient story offers no help either

In 911, Rollo, a viking, received Normandy in fief from King Charles the Simple (an event that caused lasting enmity between the French and the Normans) but refused to kiss the king’s foot at the ceremony.

Rollo allegedly said: “Ne se bigod,” that is “Never, by God.” From that time, as the story goes, the mocking nickname begod, later bigot, stuck to the Normans.

Liberman goes on to say, “Although many eminent etymologists still think that such is the origin of bigot, they are probably wrong.

“If Rollo had been foolhardy enough to rebuff the king, he would have done so in either Old French or Old Norwegian. No Scandinavian language ever had the preposition bi; to make matters worse, got in bigot sounds German rather than Old Norse. The anecdote must have been invented to explain the otherwise incomprehensible word.”

Other theories that may or may not be correct

  • “Ethnic slurs often become popular terms of abuse, so it’s been suggested that bigot is an alternation of Visigoth(us). Bigot is an alternation of Visigoth(us). The Goths were Arians and thus ‘heretics’ and ‘bigots’”
  • Several verbs and adjectives with the root big- or bic- have been cited as possible etymons of bigot, but Liberman sees no connection
  • “In French dialects, there are many words derived from big- or bic- ‘goat.’ Goats’ crooked legs occasionally give rise to words meaning ‘walk awkwardly,’ so that the bigot turned out to be someone deviating from the straight line and, as a consequence, preaching fanatically the views he finds correct. Many other nouns and verbs with this root can, with some effort, be traced to the ‘goat metaphor.’”

So the answer is, “Who knows?” Or as Liberman says, “‘ultimate origin unknown’ should be our verdict”.

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