When news emerged earlier this month that Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford said he’d been called a racial epithet by an off-duty Leominster police officer before a minor league game in New Hampshire, reaction was swift. After an internal investigation, which turned up additional racist comments, the Leominster mayor fired the officer on Thursday.
But the epithet itself still has sports fans and commentators scratching their heads. Allegedly, the officer called Crawford, who is black, “Monday.” Monday? The day of the week? Is this really an insult, and one that has anything to do with race?
It turns out that the answer is yes—and that it is hardly the only secret ethnic or racial slur in English. Mild-mannered language has long provided cover for vitriolic speech, with everyday words pressed into service to lend a kind of plausible deniability. Such code words require shared recognition among the in-group, while, in principle, leaving the targets of the slurs unaware of the game. In fact, it’s only because the officer was breaking those implicit rules, and allegedly using a “secret” offensive term to address a sports celebrity, that he ended up in trouble—and that the coded use of “Monday” is suddenly out in the open.
After the “Monday” incident came to light in a postgame press conference with Crawford on July 5, local reporters scrambled to figure out the word’s hidden significance. “I can understand how it could become a put-down,” said Michael Holley, co-host of “The Big Show” on the Boston sports radio station WEEI. (Holley, who is black, has lived in Boston for 15 years.) “How did it become a racial slur?”
That remains mysterious. Certainly, the police officer didn’t invent this usage himself: On the Urban Dictionary website, which aggregates user-generated definitions of slang, one entry defines “Monday” as “Another way of saying [the N-word] without getting caught.” Another person even claims it “originated in Boston,” though other online commenters peg it to the East Coast more generally. Finally, a third definition offers an explanation of “Monday” as an insult, though no hint of why it would be connected to race: “Everybody hates Mondays,” the contributor writes.
This usage of “Monday” began to be recorded on Urban Dictionary in 2006, and it first made an appearance in the online Racial Slur Database two years before that. But it was the popular comedian Russell Peters, a Canadian of Indian descent, who put “Monday” on the map. In a January 2008 standup routine for Def Comedy Jam (widely circulated on YouTube), Peters tells of a Bostonian referring to blacks as “Mondays” and giving the same bigoted clarification that “nobody likes Mondays.” “White people are getting real...clever with their racism,” Peters jokes ruefully.
“Monday” is only the latest in a long line of covert racial slurs. In a 2004 paper called “Dining while Black: Racial Rituals and the Black American Restaurant Experience,” the sociologists Danielle Dirks and Stephen K. Rice analyzed “backstage race talk” among white restaurant servers. The most popular code word for black customers, they found, is “Canadians,” typically explained by the stereotype of both Canadians and blacks being bad tippers. Other covert terms for blacks noted by Dirks and Rice include “cousins,” and—for maximal misdirection—“white people.”
Historically, Jewish people have also been a frequent target for hidden insults. “Eskimo” has been one incongruous epithet, though perhaps not so incongruous if you know that another name hurled at Jews was “Ikey Moe,” short for “Isaac Moses.” In South Africa, Jews were enigmatically known as “Peruvians” in the late 19th century. One theory holds that the name is derived from an acronym for the “Polish and Russian Union,” supposedly a club to help new immigrants arriving for South Africa’s gold rush, though the evidence for such a group is sketchy.
Perhaps the true masters of the oblique insult are the Cockneys. On the streets of London’s East End, Cockney rhyming slang has served as a coded language to keep outsiders in the dark. For instance, to allude subtly to Americans in their midst, slangsters might replace the word “Yank” with rhymes like “Sherman tank” or “septic tank”—or, for greater concealment, the rhyming word can be removed, leaving only “Sherman” or “septic.” Similar coded slurs have been hurled at people of just about every conceivable race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality.
Jonathon Green, a leading expert on British slang, compiled a long list of secret Cockney insults for me. “Jew” alone has spawned more than a dozen rhyming slang expressions, including “buckle my shoe,” “five by two,” “kangaroo,” “pot of glue,” and “Sarah Soo.” (Context would presumably help determine that “Jew” was the encoded word and not some other word ending in the “-oo” sound.) For blacks, the N-word can be hinted at with “mechanical digger” or “square rigger.”
Rhymes make an obvious connection between the name of a disparaged group and its euphemistic stand-in; with others, like “Monday,” we may never know how the code word and the disparaged group came to be associated. But regardless of whether a rhyme or something more arbitrary is doing the linguistic dirty work, just about any word can become loaded with nasty insinuations.
The good news is that the same semantic flexibility that allows innocent words to take on hurtful undertones also allows the words to snap back easily to more conventional use. “Monday” is not about to become known as the M-word—it’s not that simple to tarnish such an everyday, useful word. Perhaps the best way to defuse the tension of this verbal attack is just to go back to thinking of Monday as the name of a day of the week. Still, the history of such secret slurs teaches an important lesson: Words can always be weaponized.Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.