Wog is a racial slur used to refer, in British English, to black and south Asian people, and, in Australian English, to people from the Mediterranean region such as Southern Europeans. Whilst it is extremely derogatory in British English, in Australian English it may be considered non-offensive depending on how the word is used, due to reclamation and changing connotations.
In the United Kingdom, it has usually been employed against people from the Indian subcontinent and maritime Southeast Asia and less typically to North Africans and those from the Middle East. It is generally considered similar to other racially abusive terms such as dago for Italians and sometimes Spaniards, spic for Spaniards or wop for Italians.
In Australia, wog exclusively refers to Mediterranean people and Australian residents of Mediterranean, Southern European, Southeast European or Middle Eastern ethnicity, descent, and appearance. The slur became widely diffused in Australia with an increase in immigration from Southern Europe and the Levant after the Second World War, and the term expanded to include all immigrants from the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. These new arrivals were perceived by the majority population as contrasting with the larger predominant Anglo-Celtic Australian people. In contemporary times, the word has lost some of its negative connotations in Australia in certain contexts due to reappropriation by the intended targets of the slur, though this is still considered a point of controversy.
The origin of the term is unclear. It was first noted by lexicographer F.C. Bowen in 1929, in his Sea Slang: a dictionary of the old-timers’ expressions and epithets, where he defines wogs as "lower class Babu shipping clerks on the Indian coast." Many dictionaries say "wog" probably derives from the golliwog, a blackface minstrel doll character from a children's book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg by Florence Kate Upton, published in 1895; or from pollywog, a dialect term for tadpole that is used in maritime circles to indicate someone who has not crossed the equator.
Use in British English
"Wog", in its modern usage in the UK, is a derogatory and racially offensive slang word referring to a dark skinned person, including people from the Middle East, North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and other parts of Asia such as the East Indies, but usually not those from the Mediterranean area or Southern Europe. Historically, the term also encompassed Southern Europeans and other such people with slightly darker skin tone than ethnically British people. A similar term, wop, has historically been used to refer to Italians.
The saying, "The wogs begin at Calais", which implies that everyone who is not British is a wog, appears to date from the First World War but was popularised by George Wigg, Labour MP for Dudley, in 1949 when in a parliamentary debate concerning the Burmese, Wigg shouted at the Conservative benches, "The Honourable Gentleman and his friends think they are all 'wogs'. Indeed, the Right Honourable Member for Woodford [i.e., Winston Churchill] thinks that the 'wogs' begin at Calais."
In 1969, the term was used on official police paperwork by Leeds City Police officers to describe the Nigerian British man David Oluwale; two officers were later found guilty of his assault and are also believed[who?] to be responsible for his death. This inspired the title of Kester Aspden's book on the case, Nationality: Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale.
In popular culture
In Season 1 Episode 6 of Fawlty Towers, "The Germans", Major Gowen specifies "wog" as meaning any person from India when speaking to Basil Fawlty about the India vs England cricket game at The Oval.
Use in Australian English
In Australia, the term "wog" refers to residents of Southern European, Southeast European or Middle Eastern ethnicity or appearance. The slur became widely diffused with an increase in immigration from Southern Europe and the Levant after the Second World War and the term expanded to include immigrants from the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. These new arrivals were perceived by the majority population as contrasting with the larger predominant Anglo-Celtic Australian culture.
Today, "wog" is used particularly in places in Australia with substantial numbers of Southern European Australians, as well as non-European Middle Eastern populations, such as in Sydney and Melbourne. As with other slang and profanity used in contemporary Australian English, the term "wog" may be employed either aggressively or affectionately in different contexts.
In popular culture
More recently, Southern European-Australian performing artists have taken ownership of the term "wog", defusing its original pejorative nature. The popular 1980s stage show Wogs Out of Work, created by Nick Giannopoulos and Simon Palomares, and its sequel Who Let the Wogs Out? are early examples. The original production was followed on television with Acropolis Now, starring Giannopoulos, Palomares, George Kapiniaris and Mary Coustas, and films such as The Wog Boy and Wog Boy 2: Kings of Mykonos, and parodies such as those of Santo Cilauro (Italian), Eric Bana (Croatian-German), Vince Colosimo (Italian), Nick Giannopoulos (Greek), Frank Lotito (Italian), Mary Coustas (Greek), comedy duo Superwog (Egyptian and Greek), comedy troupe Sooshi Mango (Italian) and SBS Television's offbeat Pizza by Paul Fenech (Maltese) and later Here Come the Habibs. TV series have continued this change in Australian cultural history—with some even classifying a genre of "wogsploitation" of pop culture products being created by and for a proudly "wog" market. More recently, a popular production, 'Superwog' - created by Theodore and Nathan Saidden - has begun streaming on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The series began as a YouTube sketch series and has since become very popular among Australian teens. Recent works of the genre have been used by Australians of non-English speaking backgrounds to assert ethnic identity rather than succumb to ethnic stereotypes. Upon the release of Wog Boy 2, Giannopoulos discussed the contemporary use of the term "wog" in the Australian context:
I think by defusing the word 'wog' we've shown our maturity and our great ability to adapt and just laugh things off, you know... When I first came [to Greece] and I started trying to explain to them why we got called 'wog' they'd get really angry about it, you know. They were, "Why? Why they say this about the Greek people?" You know? But then when they see what we've done with it—and this is the twist—that we've turned it into a term of endearment, they actually really get into that...
Thus, in contemporary Australia, the term "wog" may, in certain contexts, be viewed as a "nickname" rather than a pejorative term—akin to the nicknames ascribed within Australian English to other historically significant cultural groupings such as Australians ("Aussies"), the English ("Poms"), the Americans ("Yanks") and New Zealanders ("Kiwis").
Central Intelligence Agency
Duane Clarridge, a former CIA officer, explained that the term "wog factor" was used by the CIA "to acknowledge that the motivations that shape decision-making in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent are very different from our own."
The word "wog" is used by Scientologists to refer to non-Scientologists. Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard defined wog as a "common, everyday garden-variety humanoid ... He 'is' a body. [He] doesn't know he's there, etc. He isn't there as a spirit at all. He is not operating as a thetan."
- Clark, Andrew (12 October 2005). "A bad word made good". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 30 July 2017.
- Bowen, Frank Charles (1929). Sea slang: a dictionary of the old timers' expressions and epithets. London, England: Sampson Low, Marston & Co.
- "Definition of 'wog'". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 16 September 2019.
- "Definition of wog". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 16 September 2019.
- "Wog". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 16 September 2019.
- "Wog". Yourdictionary.com. 24 October 2017. Retrieved 24 October 2017.
- Wilton, David (2008). Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199740833.
- Dave Wilton (24 February 2007). "Wog". WordOrigins.org. Archived from the original on 12 October 2007. Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- "Africa". Hansard. House of Commons 5th Series. 467. col. 2845. 29 July 1949.
- Grant, Linda (2009). The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel. London, England: Hatchette Digital. "It started at once, [Ophir] said, with the geography teacher, 'who we used to call Bullet, who had a map on the wall where Israel appeared as Palestine and to my face he called Jews and Israelis 'terrorist wogs'... As for calling Jews 'wogs,' Ophir was to understand that there was nothing derogatory in the term, it simply meant Western Oriental Gentleman."
- "Remember Oluwale". Rememberoluwale.org. Retrieved 25 March 2022.
- "The tragic tale of Oluwale". Yorkshire Evening Post. Leeds. 5 May 2008. Retrieved 6 January 2016.
- Farrar, Max (20 January 2009). "Why we still need a memorial to the ordeal of David Oluwale". The Yorkshire Post. Leeds. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
- Lawson, Mark (23 January 2013). "Fawlty Towers isn't racist. Major Gowen is". The Guardian.
- "Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms". Australian National University. Retrieved 22 March 2015.
- [Who let the wogs out? (stage show) : programs and related material collected by the National Library of Australia]
- Dale, David (17 May 2003). "Wogsploitation makes its mark in mainstream". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 30 July 2017.
- "Life as a pizza : The comic traditions of wogsploitation films | UB Online Repository". Archived from the original on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 23 May 2011.
- Clarridge, Duane (13 August 2002). A Spy For All Seasons: My Life in the CIA. Scibner. p. 105. ISBN 978-0743245364.
- Saint Hill Briefing Course-82 6611C29
- "Sail Away; song by Randy Newman"