Sweet ‘n’ Sour

Following Rio Ferdinand’s Twitter troubles, Mr Slang examines the language of supposed race-betrayal…

Choc-ice. Haven’t touched one since 1989 myself. Forty-one that very day, as it happened, and, hold on Mr G, just want to check your results. Black forest gateau, tiramisu, death by chocolate…the sweet trolley is as off-limits as a LOCOG VIP lane and given the depredations of diabetes – once that super-sugared blood slides over the pancreatic dam, ain’t no way yet of repairing the damage – ever more shall be so. No matter: always had, if such a thing exists, a sour tooth. And as I may have made clear, sport leaves me cold. Football, especially, entered that state known as ‘disrepute’ as soon it managed to drag its knuckles over to the doorway.  This is a world, it appears, where those involved seem to believe that, consigned to a mechanism no more sophisticated than an envelope, a bullet can then be despatched to perform its deadly task. O dear. So I have no dog in this fight. None but the lexicographical.

What we might term the ‘more X than thou’ phenomenon is not – though correct me if as is ever-feasible, I am wrong –  one that bedevils the Caucasian end of the racial market. I am not, for instance, more genuinely John Bullsomely English than are you. We are all in this, beef-bedizened and union jacked, together. (Being a rootless cosmopolitan I ought strictly to step aside here, but for the sake of argument…). Nor am I whiter, other than in the sense of being neither black nor brown. I am white, and for those who think on these lines I have won that particular prize, ’nuf ced. Of course I, being of pinkish skin and blessed with a document purportedly backed by my government’s authority am superior to you who, despite having a near-identical tint, can only offer a document backed by your different government, which may, and while I am sorry you have but yourself to blame, be situated across the Atlantic or, heaven forefend, the Channel. But that is different and a dispute focussed not on fidelity to race, merely cartography.

The problem for those who qualify for Kipling’s infelicitous description ‘lesser breeds without the law’ (and while I am happy to acknowledge his swastika as upside down or inside out and a wholly fab-tastic piece of iconography, please, please don’t tell me this line actually refers exclusively to the Germans or the Boers) is that identity politics – established somewhere around the 1960s – has established a squabbling hierarchy of racial authenticity. And since this is a competitive sport, and the descriptors thus engendered are not congratulatory, its lexis is to be found chez slang.

One might argue that it starts of half a century earlier.  In the use of nigger between American African-Americans around 1900 when it could be affectionate, mocking the standard white pejorative, but it could also be a put-down: you are acting just like the honkies say you do. On the other hand the one addressed, the gangsta in embryo, could term himself, doubtless conscious of the irony, a bad nigger, in which bad means, as it still does in the right context, good. Everyone, of course, can join in. The word sheeny, used regularly of my people by such as Thackeray, also appears to come from within: the sneering self-differentiation between the older-established, German Jews and the immigrants from central Europe who followed them. The later tended to greater religiosity, the Yiddish for these pietists was shayner Yid (lit. ‘beautiful-faced Jew’) . Thus sheeny, used mockingly by those who had long since assimilated. Here the ‘more Jewish than thou’ was turned on its head: it was the antithesis of a compliment, but it is the internal grading at which I am looking.

This is, perhaps, to stretch things. It provides roots but no efflorescence. Cut, as I suggest, to mid-20th-century and even beyond. We have identity politics, we have degrees of identity. These degrees are not calculated by those whom the former slaves had called Mr Charlie or Miz Anne, but one’s dashiki-clad peers.

To go back to the playground vapourings of Messrs Ferdinand, Cole, Terry and their legal teams (which group, I have to ponder, is the most grotesquely overpaid?), we see in the epithet choc-ice the over-riding image on which all such intra-racial pejoratives seem to rest: some kind of fruit or failing that sweetmeat. (Indeed, it is even possible to translate sheeny’s shayner as ‘sweet-faced’). The echt-creation, setting the pattern in the mid-Sixties, is Oreo, sometimes Oreo cookie. It has not crossed the ocean, but suffice it to say that the biscuit in question while black (or at least dark brown) on the outside, is white within. In other words: identity is being betrayed. This is not Mr Ferdinand’s anodyne definition: ‘fake’, but the far more robustly injurious ‘faking it’. Native Americans opt for apple (that is those that come with a rubicund skin and pallid inner flesh; something of the force must be lost among those whose fruit of default is the Granny Smith). There is the banana, aimed at insufficiently race-conscious Asians, and the Bounty Bar, used within the UK black community; the Bounty’s ingredient the coconut, is found in the Caribbean and Australia too. Potato, for once with no reference to the Irish, refers in New Zealand to assimilated Polynesians: brown on the outside but…

As acute readers will have registered; there is another side to choc-ice. And that is the choc. No half-measures, no jibes from within here. Chocolate is generically brown and the link between the sweet and the skin-tone dates at least to 1846. The combinations are inevitable, among them chocolate baby, bunny, chip, drop, malt, and smartie, and all are simple derogatives.  Chocolate city is the ghetto, chocolate deluxe (from a popular brand of ice-cream and thus doubly ‘good to eat’) a sexy black girl, and chocolate sandwich, sex involving one black man and two white women.

Yum yum, as ’Arry would have called it.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

3 thoughts on “Sweet ‘n’ Sour

  1. Worm
    July 19, 2012 at 13:32

    Jonathan your writing is fantastic as always!

    regarding us anglo-saxons not being included in the above topic, I believe there is the transatlantic term ‘wigger’ to mean those who adopt the mannerisms of ‘gangsta’ culture. At my school we also had the term ‘vice versa’, I think after a brand of chocolate popular in the mid 90’s

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      July 19, 2012 at 16:40

      Quite. A co-worker giving me a lift once was baffled by a radio piece on the Uighurs of western China till I explained.

  2. jgslang@gmail.com'
    July 19, 2012 at 14:34

    In my researches, racial slurs, as opposed to nationalist ones, don’t generally target whites. Nor, I suggest, are there competitive gradations of ‘whiter than thou’. Wigga was coined by black bois to denigrate the kind of white fellow-travellers of rap best summed up in the ‘Ali G.’ parody. But it isn’t suggesting that one is white on the surface and black within, which it would were it the equivalent of bounty bar etc. The approximate equivalent of wigga is not choc ice etc. but Jafaikan, which (even if the press misread it as a synonym for Multi-ethnic London English) strictly means a Caribbean from another island pretending to be a Jamaican, i.e. tough / yardie / Trenchtown sufferer, etc. But that’s another ball-game. I don’t think you get slang terms that mean: ‘You fail to promote/represent/embody the characteristics of the white race to the extent that you must if I am to respect you.’ Or not outside the knuckle-dragging far right.

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