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1. n. [1920s+] (orig. US military.) a derogatory term for foreigners, especially south-east Asians, e.g. (in chronological order of use) Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese.
2. n. [1940s+] a foreign language spoken by one of the above peoples.
The etymology of this racial slur is shrouded in mystery, disagreement, and controversy. The Oxford English Dictionary admits that its origin in "unknown," but that isn’t quite fessing up to true complexity of the matter. It is generally agreed that the term was coined by the US military, the question is: In which war? The farthest back that its genesis is likely to have occurred was the Filipino uprising of 1899. The American soldiers are said to have referred to the natives as "gugus," playing off a Tagalog word meaning "tutelary spirit."
Was this "gugu" slur passed along by the US military for two generations until the outbreak of the Korean War? It is unclear, but during that conflict the term "gook" emerged in its current form. The Korean language has a suffix, "kuk," (phonetically "gook") that means person, and seems to be a likely source for an entirely new coinage, perhaps completely unrelated to "gugus."
Cao and Novas, the authors of Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History, explain the term’s origins as follows: "Gook, the American racial epithet for all Asian Americans, is actually the Korean word for "country." Koreans call the United States of America Mee Hap Joon Gook, which they shorten to the more familiar Mee Gook. Similarly, Koreans have shortened Dae Han Min Gook or the People’s Republic of Korea to Han Gook. During the Korean War, American soldiers gave the word gook a derogatory slant and used it to refer to Koreans. The term gook went through yet one more transformation when American servicemen in Vietnam used it to refer to the Vietnamese, particularly the Vietcong."
Compare Cao and Novas’ explanation to the one given by Robert G. Lee in his book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture: "The term "gook" has a long history in the American vocabulary of race and in the American imperial career in Asia and the Pacific. A bastardization of the Korean hankuk (Korean), or mikuk (American), it was used by Americans in the Korean War to refer to North and South Koreans and Chinese alike. The term has links to "goo-goo" used by American soldiers to describe Filipino insurgents at the turn of the century. Such broad ethnic inclusiveness makes this racial epithet emblematic in describing Asian Americans as the ubiquitous and invisible enemy. Asian Americans, figured as gooks, the flip side of the model minority, become scapegoats onto which anxiety over economic decline and the psychic trauma of the Vietnam War can be transferred. They appear silently, like the Viet Cong, as an alien threat in these narratives of multicultural dystopia and besieged nationhood, at once ubiquitous and invisible, ersatz and inauthentic."
While Cao and Novas offer a more in-depth explanation of the Korean language origins of the slur, Lee is far more illuminating in his discussion of the post-colonial implication of this term, and the objectification of those whom it describes.
The connection between the Korean War’s gooks and the Vietnam War’s gooks is more clearly documented. Here it seems clear that the slur was a hold-over from one war to the next, as documented in a variety of Vietnam War scholarship (see Bibliography, below). It has since been immortalized in the endless stream of Vietnam War books, films, television shows, etc.
But the term gook is far from becoming a museum piece; a retired slur from a series of military engagements. Robert G. Lee chronicles its ugly return in the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles from April 29 to May 2, 1992. "The outbreak of mass violence in Los Angeles could, however, also be called a pogrom. Although stores owned by many blacks, whites, Latinos, and other Asian Americans were also wrecked, Korean immigrant merchants sustained fully one half of the $850 million of property loss in the three days of looting and arson. An estimated 2,300 Korean-owned businesses were destroyed. . . [M]any blacks and Latinos felt they were rudely treated and singled out for surveillance when they patronized Korean-owned stores. . . Korean-American shopkeepers were, however, merely the gook of the moment. The mere gook rule (from the Vietnam War, wherein any dead Vietnamese could be counted as a dead enemy) was in play, and Koreans were the closest and most vulnerable Asian Americans in sight."
Lee’s book has documented an interesting shift in the life of the word gook, from military slang to a term used in African-American on Korean-American hate crimes. Black resentment of Korean and Jewish-American shopkeepers has manifested itself in a number of ways in recent decades, with the LA riots being the most clearly visible example. Conspiracy theorists see these minority-on-minority hate crimes as part of a larger attempt on the part of malevolent forces (the government, the CIA, what have you) to weaken the involved ethnic groups. While such theories are hard to credit, it appears that gook will continue to have life as a term that still has a sting.
1935 Amer. Speech X . 79/1 Gook, anyone who speaks Spanish, particularly a Filipino.
1947 N.Y. Herald Tribune 2 Apr. 28/6 The American troops . . . don’t like the Koreans – whom they prefer to call ‘Gooks’ – and, in the main, they don’t like Korea.
1959 N. Mailer Advts. for Myself (1961) 132 Miguel, he said a lot, but I just can’t follow that Gook talk.
1968 Guardian 23 Feb. 11/3 The Gooks [sc. Viet Cong] hit from bunkers and the Marines had to carry half the company back.
n. [1950s-60s] (US) an inferior car over-decorated with chrome and accessories. [from gook as synonym for a taste for gaudiness and excess]
1953 New Yorker 7 Mar. 23/1 You’ll notice it’s not a gook car.
Additional variations from Gregory R. Clark’s Word’s of the Vietnam War include Gook Beer, Gook Booze, Gook Faggots, Gook Shoes, and Gook Sores.
Cao, Lan and Himilce Novas. Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American
History. New York :Plume, 1996.
Clark, Gregory R. Words of the Vietnam War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company,
Green, Jonathan. Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. London: Cassell and Company, 1998.
Lee, Robert G. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 1999.
Lighter, J.E. ed. Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. New York:
Random House, 1997.
Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Reinberg, Linda. In the Field: The Language of the Vietnam War. New York: Facts on
File, Inc., 1991.
Spears, Richard A. Slang and Euphemisms. New York: Middle Village, 1981.
Thorne, Tony. The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. New York: Pantheon
Wentworth, Harold and Flexner, Stuart Berg editors, Dictionary of American Slang. New
York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.
Copyright 2003 by Eric Wolarsky
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