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Culture History

The Most Common Italian American Slurs and their Meaning

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).

14 comments

  1. Yet; these terms were not directed at Italian Americans. They were directed towards SICILIANS! Why are people calling themselves, Italian, when we are not Italian. The unification of Italy is barely 150 years old. But we are still our own individual people. Calabrese, Sicilianu, Napolitan! Even Sardinia. Which is far more closely related to caecilians than any other part of Italy. The fact of the matter is is that we lost our mother tone our culture in our heritage when we went to America. And at the time we didn’t even know we were Italian yet. We were told while we were in America that we were Italian. And a lot of SICILIAN’s in people from southern region, did not want to be known by the ethnicity because of persecution towards the south. I am a SICILIAN American historian. And I have produced quite a few documentaries based on the time of our immigration. And what happened to us once we got to America. It’s a shame that way too many of our people don’t have the slightest idea of our history!

    ⚔️ La Popolo Terroni ⚔️

    1. Hello. I would very much like to see your work. I was adopted when I was 2 1/2. My father came over from Sicily with his parents in 1913. I’ve been immersing myself and trying to learn the culture . It speaks to me. In my cooking it shows.
      I hope you are well.
      God Bless.

    2. I’d like to learn more about Sicilian American history, any suggestions as to where to start?

    3. My father’s parents came from Sicily and my mother’s parents came from Calabria. I would like to see/hear some of your documentaries. Where can I find them?

  2. The one thing that pisses me off as a full blood Calabrese, is that Italians and Sicilians came to America and thrown in with the white trash A’s Caucasian. We are not white. Not by a long shot!

    1. By race, Italians ARE Caucasian or White. There are 4 originating races: White, Black, Asian and Native American. Being Italian, Germany, Irish, Spanish, Polish etc., is an ethnicity not a race. And one’s nationality is what nation they are from. For example:
      My race is white
      My ethnicity is Italian and
      My nationality is American
      They are all separate and do not mean the same thing.

      1. If you know the history of Sicily and Southern Italy you know that Greek, Roman, African, Jew, Spanish settlers and conquerors contribute to the current gene pool. Caucasians or Slavs were rare or nonexistent. I never saw it but my father told me that houses in Sicily were often painted different colors by different racial groups. It is not a white gene pool, except by some modern metric that groups all non-blacks as white.

  3. Thank you for this. I knew of most of this. Funny or actually very annoying how so many people forgot. Italians doing it, saying the same thing towards Hispanic people now. Worse when I hear them say, ” my family came legally”. Or we learned English. The worst ” we assimilated”. They leave out that many were forced to. And the immigration quotas etc were started to keep Italians out. There weren’t quotas before then.
    Yet, as always, history repeats itself.

    1. My family did come legally. And neither they nor any of their cohort ever received welfare or any other state subsidy. They all worked, worked, worked. I was in Tampa, Florida when the Cubans came in the 1958-1962 wave and they immediately filled the Sicilian-American schools, churches and neighborhoods. They stood for the American flag, attended church, worked hard, learned English quickly and demanded that their children do well in school. They were and are great people. Your implication is false and defamatory.

  4. My father was born in Cosenza, Calabria and I am the first born Italian American in my family and I am very proud of it.

  5. The roots of my family come from the northern region, “Aviano” and the people from that part of Italy come in all skin tones, hair and eye colors. More of a European look

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