When Italian immigrants began arriving to the US in large numbers from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, they were subject to a long list of pejorative slurs meant to make them feel inferior and inconsequential. Epithets like eyetie, guido, and greaseball were not unpopular when describing people of Italian descent. Still, three of these terms stand out as the most commonly used ethnic slurs meant to disparage the Italian American community:
#1 – Dago
Merriam-Webster defines dago as “an insulting and contemptuous term for a person of Italian or Spanish birth or descent.” However, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes that the term also extends to those of Portuguese origin as it was meant to target dark-skinned Europeans. Since Italians were commonly confused with Spanish and Portuguese sailors due to their similar language and appearance, they began to be referred to as dagos, derived from the Spanish name Diego. Some also believe that the ethnic slur could be an abbreviation for the term “dagger-wielding,” existing as a reference to the stereotypical idea that Italian Americans are prone to violent behavior.
Despite its disparaging connotations, the term dago has been featured in the names of food establishments like Dago Joe’s, Lil Dagos’ Café, and the Wandering Dago food truck. Its use can also be seen in period pieces like Boardwalk Empire and Vendetta, in addition to the following scene from Do The Right Thing by Spike Lee:
#2 – Wop
Another slur that was used to ostracize Italian Americans was the term wop. It originates from the Southern Italian dialectal term guappo, meaning “swaggerer” or “thug.”
Originally, guappo referred to Neapolitan criminals who were flashy and dandy in nature. It was commonly associated with a mafia-style organization known as the Camorra before its meaning evolved in the US when Italian immigrants began to use the term to refer to one another in a friendly way. As it became commonplace for southern Italians to cut the vowel from the end of a word in everyday conversation, guappo became guapp’, which was essentially pronounced as wop. However, it wasn’t long until native-born Americans picked up on this usage of the phrase among Italian males and started to deploy it as an insult when describing the ethnic group.
It is also worth noting that some high-profile Italian Americans such as Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo have been documented describing this slur as an abbreviation for “With Out Papers,” but this etymology is incorrect.
#3 – Guinea
Martin W. Lewis from the Department of History at Stanford University believes that guinea is ‘‘the most vile racial slur that can be used against an Italian-American.” The derogatory term is derived from the phrase “Guinea Negro,” comparing darker-skinned Italians to the natives of Guinea in West Africa.
Due to the dark complexion of southern Italian immigrants from regions like Calabria and Sicily compared to their northern counterparts, they were often thought to be “uncivilized” members of a criminal class and were treated as such by various groups in American society. This term was used to signify their inferiority and resulted in Italians having to endure the penalties of blackness that existed in the United States over a century ago. Perhaps the best example of this is the 1891 lynchings in New Orleans, where nearly a dozen Italian Americans were murdered by a lynch mob for crimes that they did not commit.
One example of guinea being used to describe Italian Americans can be seen in the movie Goodfellas. During the introduction of American gangster Jimmy Conway, he states that “The Irishman is here to take all you guineas’ money” (0:54s-0:59s).