Wog is a chiefly British word is a holdover from the days of the Empire and is a disparaging term for a non-European, especially someone from India, an Arab, or any other Asian. The origin is not known for certain, but it is widely thought to be a clipping golliwog, the name of a black-faced doll in Bertha Upton’s 1895 book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog:
Then all look round, as well they may
To see a horrid sight!
The blackest gnome
Stands there alone,
They scatter in their fright.
With kindly smile he nearer draws;
Begs them to feel no fear.
“What is your name?”
Cries Sarah Jane;
“The ‘Golliwogg’ my dear.”
By 1907, Golliwog was being used adjectivally to refer to native peoples overseas. From the Westminster Gazette of 28 May:
A clever golliwogg dance received the enthusiastic applause it deserved.
James Joyce’s Ulysses of 1922 has this:
Madcap Ciss with her golliwog curls.
And it also has this use of wogger:
She called him wogger.
She may have noticed her wogger people were always going away.
By 1929, the clipping to wog was complete. From Frank C. Bowen’s Sea Slang of that year:
Wogs, lower class Babu shipping clerks on the Indian coast.
Use of wog to mean any non-Englishman can also be found; the wogs begin at Calais is a common catchphrase. More recently, wog has even been used to refer to anyone from outside the greater London area.
The word is often mistakenly thought to be an acronym. What the acronym supposedly stands for, however, varies in the telling:
- Westernized Oriental Gentleman
- Worthy Oriental Gentleman
- Wily Oriental Gentleman
- Wonderful Oriental Gentleman
- Working On Government Service
This last comes with a legend that wogs was stenciled on the shirts of workmen along the Suez Canal. The story and the acronymic origin, however, are false.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton