I was listening to an old episode of This American Life today called Thugs. I didn’t listen to the whole thing, but it got me wondering about the word itself and where it comes from. Then I was reading this article about Timothy Olyphant and Justified, and the word popped up again (“‘Not much call for cowboys these days,’ the thug says in a syrupy, menacing drawl”) and I knew I had to write about it.
A thug is commonly known today as “a cutthroat or ruffian; a hoodlum,” but originally the word referred specifically to “a member of a confraternity of professional assassins and robbers formerly infesting India, chiefly in the central and northern provinces.” Here’s more from Century Dictionary:
The thugs roamed about the country in bands of from 10 to 100, usually in the disguise of peddlers or pilgrims, gaining the confidence of other travelers, whom they strangled, when a favorable opportunity presented itself, with a handkerchief, an unwound turban, or a noosed cord. The shedding of blood was seldom resorted to. The motive of the thugs was not so much lust of plunder as a certain religious fanaticism. The bodies of their victims were hidden in graves dug with a consecrated pickax, and of their spoil one third was devoted to the goddess Kali, whom they worshiped. About 1830–35 the British government took vigorous measures for their suppression, and thuggery, as an organized system, is now extinct.
The word thug comes from the Hindi thag, meaning “cheat, swindler,” which comes from the Sanskrit, sthagaḥ, “a cheat.” Sthagah may come from sthagayati, “(he) covers, conceals,” which has the Proto-Indo-European base of (s)teg, “cover” (Greek stegos). (S)teg gives us stegosaurus, so in a roundabout way, you could say that stegosauruses are the thugs of dinosaurs.
Thuggee is “the system of mysterious assassination carried on by the thugs,” meaning the thugs of old India, and is also known as thuggery. A thugocracy (a combination of thug and the Greek root –cracy, meaning “rule or government by”) is “government by a group of thugs,” of which the Word Spy cites the earliest citation as being from 1982. The term thug life seems to have originated with the music group Tupac Shakar formed in 1993, and now commonly refers to, according to the Urban Dictionary, “when you have nothing, and succeed, when you have overcome all obstacles to reach your aim.”
An offensive synonym for thug is Apache. Apparently it was used to refer to a “Parisian gangster or thug” in the early 20th century. Another one is goon, “a thug hired to intimidate or harm opponents.” The word also refers to “a stupid or oafish person” as well as a “cheap or inferior cask wine.” Goon comes from gooney, English dialect for a simpleton, and, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, was “applied by sailors to the albatross and similar big, clumsy birds” around 1839. In the movie The Goonies, the title refers to the birds in the seaside town, as well as the goofy, gooney-like kids. But where gooney originally came from is unknown, at least as far as I could find.
Goon in the sense of “hired thug” was first recorded 1938, “probably from Alice the Goon, slow-witted and muscular (but gentle-natured) character in ‘Thimble Theater’ comic strip (starring Popeye).”
I remember Alice the Goon from the Popeye cartoons. She always creeped me out.