Like many other etymologies contained in these pages, this pejorative American Slang term for an Italian is not certain, although most authorities agree on the likely origin. It probably derives from the Italian dialectal guappo, or thug. This in turn derives from the Spanish guapo, meaning a dashing braggart or bully, and which eventually derives from the Latin vappa, meaning flat wine or scoundrel.
The earliest usage, spelled wap, in the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1912 and is in Arthur Train’s Courts, Criminals, and the Camorra:
There is a society of criminal young men in New York City...They are known by the euphonious name of “Waps” or “Jacks.” These are young Italian-Americans who allow themselves to be supported by one or two women...They form one variety of the many gangs that infest the city.
The more familiar spelling appears by 1914 in Jackson and Hellyer’s A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang:
Wop, noun. Used principally in the east. An ignorant person; a foreigner; an impossible character...Example: “You couldn’t find a jitney with a search warrant in this bunch of wops.”
Like wog, wop is often mistakenly thought to be an acronym. In this case, standing for With Out Passport, supposedly used on Ellis Island to designate immigrants without proper papers.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton