Nobody wants to be called a bigot, but accusations of bigotry are hurled at political opponents with great regularity, because (obviously) everyone who disagrees with us is a bigot, and it is to the popularity of this ignominious word that I ascribe the frequency with which I am asked about its origin. Rather long ago I wrote about bigot in the “gleanings,” but answers in the “gleanings” tend to be lost, while a separate essay will pop up in the Internet every time someone will ask: “Where did bigot come from?”
Wherever it came from, the word has changed its meaning since the old days. It used to mean “hypocrite; someone who professes his religious views with excessive zeal.” Today a bigot is a fanatic, a dyed in the wool adherent of some political doctrine (which, as pointed out, does not coincide with ours).
The questions asked in connection with bigot are four:
- Does bigot have anything to do with the word god?
- Is bigot (from an etymological point of view) the same word as Spanish bigote “moustache”?
- Is Romance big- “goat” the root of bigot?
- Did bigot, if it was coined as a term of abuse, target some religious group?
Before I answer those questions, I should warn our readers against the information one can occasionally find in the Internet and in printed sources. For example, in October 1997, the Catholic Digest published on pp. 117-120 an article titled “Asphalt, Bigot, and Comma.” It informed the subscribers that asphalt goes back to Leopold von Asphalt (1802-1880), that bigot derives from Nathaniel Bigot (1575-1660), an English Puritan preacher, and that comma traces back to Domenico da Comma (1264-1316), an Italian Dominican scholar whose signature punctuation mark led to a charge of heresy by the Inquisition (commas, apparently, were not found in the earliest manuscripts of the Bible and were therefore considered an insult to God). Many other gentlemen, including Mr. Botch, Mr. Doldrum, and Mr. Fiasco, enlivened the pages of that publication. I wrote a politely indignant letter to the editor but received no answer. Beware of amateur etymologists.
According to an oft-repeated story, preserved in an old chronicle, Rollo of Normandy, on receiving the dukedom from Charles the Simple, refused to kiss the king’s foot and said (in English!): “Nese bi god,” that is, “No, by god.” Allegedly, this is how bigod, later bigot, became an opprobrious moniker of the duke and then of the Normans. That Rollo should have offended the king and said something in English to him is beyond belief, but it is not improbable that some such taunting name of the Normans (who had the reputation for bad manners and swearing) existed. Yet the constant association in the past between the word bigot and religious hypocrisy (that is, obstinate devotion to a creed) does not augur well for the bigod theory. Also, the story has too strong a taste of a folk etymological guess invented in retrospect to explain an obscure word. To this day French bigot means “excessively pious; superstitious.” A convincing etymology of bigot should probably be sought in a religious sphere, where it had a concrete addressee; the slur as we know it must have been secondary. For comparison, I may cite bugger, ultimately from Medieval Latin Bulgarus “heretic,” because the Bulgarians belonged to the Greek Church. From Latin it made its way into French (where it already meant “sodomite”), from French into Middle Dutch, and finally, in the sixteenth century, into English.
One of the twentieth-century hypotheses on the origin of bigot connects it with Yiddish begotisch “pious, God-loving.” Only in Yiddish do we find a positive sense of a bigot- word. But there its structure is transparent: “(being) by God,” while whether bigot is bi-got or big-ot, or something else constitutes the main problem. Otto von Best, the author of the Yiddish hypothesis, attempted to connect bigot not only with God but also with moustache, for Spanish hombre de bigotes, literally “a man with a moustache,” means “a steadfast man, a man of strong character.” Von Best reconstructed a situation in which anti-Semites heaped abuse on the Jews clinging to their religion and refusing to shave off beards. By contrast, the Jews reviled the beard shaving apostates. Thus did in his opinion, begotisch lose the positive connotations (preserved in Yiddish) and acquire its present day meaning. The entire situation strikes me as rather improbable, and it remains unclear why and where the Romance languages borrowed the word bigot from Yiddish, but the point that in dealing with bigot we sometimes encounter positive or at least neutral senses is well taken, not so much on account of Yiddish as in light of Italian sbigottire “to dismay” (compare sbigottirsi “to be dismayed or amazed, dumbfounded”); amazement is not synonymous with fanaticism. (The Italian examples are from von Best’s article.)
It is not my purpose to go over the rather numerous etymologies of bigot, for, if, as I think, the word originated as a religious slur, moustache and goats (though goats have beards) should probably be left out of the picture, which means that Spanish bigote has an etymology of its own. (Even if mustachioed foreigners were mocked somewhere in Europe, the taunt could not have produced the sense “an over-devout person.”) By a coincidence (?), bigot, like bugger, also surfaced in English texts in the sixteenth century, though it was known in southern France four hundred years earlier; it was applied to some people living there. The ingenious derivation of bigot from Visigothi, that is, Visigoths, who were converted to Christianity in the fourth century and embraced Arianism (and were, consequently, looked upon as heretics), shatters at the difference between the initial consonants and the fact that a memory of the Goths and their beliefs would hardly have lingered for so many centuries.
Several religious orders had names sounding like bigot: Beghardi (from which we possibly have beggar), Beguines (like Beghardi, derived from the founder’s name), and especially Beguttæ. All of them, as Wedgwood wrote, “professed a religious life, and wore a distinctive dress, without shutting themselves or binding themselves by permanent vows. We don’t gather from the quotations that there was originally anything offensive in the names themselves… But the pretension to superior strictness of life easily falls under the suspicion of insincerity, and thus these names soon began to imply a charge of exaggeration and even hypocrisy.” Note the accent on the deterioration of meaning in the course of time. Wedgwood traced bigot to Begutta (of which Beguttæ is the plural), but bigot was known earlier that Begutta, whatever the origin of that word is.
Of all the conjectures on the etymology of bigot I find the one by the French linguist Maurice Grammont (1866-1946) the best. He was so prominent as an instrumental phonetician and a general linguist, and his suggestions on early bilingual education made him so famous among specialists that his ideas outside those two areas have been overlooked. The curse of etymological work, to the extent that it goes beyond recycling the OED and Skeat, is that even the most dedicated researchers cannot keep track of hundreds of notes in fugitive journals, short reviews, and chance footnotes. They miss important ideas and tend to reinvent the same creaky wheel. Grammont commented on bigot in a review of Bloch’s French etymological dictionary (I discovered it after my bibliography of English etymology was published, so that the reference is not there). As follows from the subsequent editions of Bloch’s dictionary, it made no impression on its author or on anybody else. Grammont proposed that bigot is a shortening of Albigot. Albegensian heresy flourished at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century in southern France, that is, exactly where and when the word bigot seems to have turned up for the first time. We still have to understand the semantic history of the Italian words, cited above (were the Italian Catholics bewildered and frightened, rather than disgusted, by such views?), but it may be that we do have the answer to the riddle that has seemed insoluble for such a long time. If Romance etymologists read this blog do, perhaps they will respond.
Featured Image Credit: “Dali Theatre and Museum”, Photo by Ania Mendrek. CC by ND 2.0, via Flickr.
This article is about intolerance by or between religious communities or by communities of specific practices. For intolerance of religion itself, see Antireligion, Irreligion, and Antitheism.
Religious intolerance is intolerance against another's religious beliefs or practices or lack thereof.
The mere statement on the part of a religion that its own beliefs and practices are correct and any contrary beliefs are incorrect does not in itself constitute intolerance (i.e., ideological intolerance).
Religious intolerance, rather, is when a group (e.g., a society, religious group, non-religious group) specifically refuses to tolerate practices, persons or beliefs on religious grounds.
The modern concept of intolerance developed out of the religious controversies between Protestants and Catholics in 17th- and 18th-century England. The doctrine of 'religious toleration' at this time, sought to eradicate religious sentiments and dogmas from the political demesne.
According to the 19th century British historian Arnold Toynbee, for a religious establishment to persecute another religion for being "wrong" ironically puts the persecuting religion in the wrong, undermining its own legitimacy.
Contemporary attitude and practice
The constitutions of some countries contain provisions expressly forbidding the state from engaging in certain acts of religious intolerance or preference within its own borders, examples of such include the First Amendment of the United StatesConstitution, the Article 4 of the Basic Law of Germany, Article 44.2.1 of the Constitution of The Republic of Ireland, Article 40 of the Estonian Constitution, Article 24 of the Constitution of Turkey, Article 36 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, and Article 3 Section 5 of the Constitution of the Philippines.
Other states, whilst not containing constitutional provisions directly related to religion, nonetheless contain provisions forbidding discrimination on religious grounds (see, for example, Article 1 of the FrenchConstitution, article 15 of Canada's Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and article 40 of the Constitution of Egypt). These constitutional provisions do not necessarily guarantee that all elements of the state remain free from religious intolerance at all times, and practice can vary widely from country to country.
Other countries, meanwhile, may allow for religious preference, for instance through the establishment of one or more state religions, but not for religious intolerance. Finland, for example, has the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and Finnish Orthodox Church as its official state religions, yet upholds the right of free expression of religion in article 11 of its constitution.
Some countries retain laws forbidding defamation of religious belief. Some retain laws forbidding all forms of blasphemy (e.g., Germany where, in 2006, Manfred van H. was convicted of blasphemy against Islam). This is seen by some as official endorsement of religious intolerance, amounting to the criminalization of religious views. The connection between intolerance and blasphemy laws is closest when the laws apply to only one religion. In Pakistan blasphemy directed against either the tenets of the Qur'an or the Prophet Mohammed is punishable by either life imprisonment or death. Apostasy, the rejection of one's old religion, is also criminalized in a number of countries, notably Afghanistan with Abdul Rahman being the first to face the death penalty for converting to Christianity.
The United Nations upholds the right to free expression of religious belief in articles and 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while article 2 forbids discrimination on the basis of religion. Article 18 also allows for the freedom to change religion. The Declaration is not legally binding, however the United States chose in 1998 to pass the International Religious Freedom Act, creating the Commission on International Religious Freedom, and mandating that the United States government take action against any country found to violate the religious freedoms outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human Rights Council in 2011 adopted Resolution 16/18 on "Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief" which was hailed by stakeholders from all regions and faiths as a turning point in international efforts to confront religious intolerance. The European Convention on Human Rights, which is legally binding on all European Union states (following the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the United Kingdom), makes restricting the rights of an individual to practice or change their religion illegal in article 9, and discrimination on the basis of religion illegal in article 14.
In its 2000 annual report on international religious freedom, the U.S. State Department cited China, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq and Sudan for persecuting people for their religious faith and practices. The report, which covers July 1999 through June 2000, details U.S. policy toward countries where religious freedom is violated in the view of the U.S. State Department.
The advocacy groupFreedom House produced a report entitled "Religious Freedom in the World" in 2000 which ranked countries according to their religious freedom. The countries receiving a score of 7, indicating those where religious freedom was least respected, were Turkmenistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Myanmar and North Korea. China was given a score of 6 overall, however Tibet was listed separately in the 7 category. Those countries receiving a score of 1, indicating the highest level of religious freedom, were Estonia, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States.
Within those countries that openly advocate religious tolerance there remain debates as to the limits of tolerance. Some individuals and religious groups, for example, retain beliefs or practices which involve acts contrary to established law, such as the use of cannabis by members of the Rastafari movement, the religious use of eagle feathers by non-Native Americans (contrary to the eagle feather law, 50 CFR 22), or the practice of polygamy amongst the LDS Church in the 19th century.
Religious freedom has developed partly due to the agreeable relationship between religious groups in its society. Several non-governmental organizations promoted tolerance and better understanding among religions in the country, both indigenous and non-indigenous. These groups included the Columbian Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, the National Council of Churches in Australia and its affiliated Aboriginal and Islander Commission, and the Australian Council of Christians and Jews. In Victoria, Australia the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 makes illegal "conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons" on the grounds of religious belief. In 2003, in response to an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment, the HREOC undertook a project involving national consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim citizens. As part of the consultations, the commission considered whether Muslim citizens shared an ethnic origin or race, as well as a religion, which would entitle them to comprehensive protection under the Federal Race Discrimination Act. The commission's report, made public in June 2004, contained no findings on the racial status of Arab and Muslim citizens. In January 2005 the leader of the neo-Nazi Australian Nationalist Movement was connected to incidents in 2004 in which several Asian-owned businesses and a synagogue in Perth were firebombed or sprayed with racist graffiti. On December 11, 2005, there was a riot in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla, that erupted because a group of Lebanese-Australian youths had assaulted two lifeguards. Demonstrators against the assault displayed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans. When the gathering turned violent, bystanders perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin or Muslim were attacked. The following day, retaliatory vandalism and other assaults were reported around Sydney.
- Specific religions
- ^Hobolt, Sara B.; Brug, Wouter Van der; Vreese, Claes H. De; Boomgaarden, Hajo G.; Hinrichsen, Malte C. (2011-09-01). "Religious intolerance and Euroscepticism". European Union Politics. 12 (3): 359–79. doi:10.1177/1465116511404620. ISSN 1465-1165.
- ^Toynbee, Arnold (1947). "Failure of Self-Determination". In Dorothea Grace Somervell. A Study of History: Abridgment of Volumes I–VI. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 300. ISBN 0-19-505081-9.
- ^"Estonia - Constitution", ICL Document 28 June 1992, retrieved 25 May 2007.
- ^"Constitution of the People's Republic of China". en.people.cn. Retrieved 2016-05-17.
- ^1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, CorpusJuris, retrieved 24 September 2009
- ^"Suspended prison for German who insulted Koran". www.expatica.com. Retrieved 2016-05-17.
- ^"International Religious Freedom Act of 1998", 27 January 1998, retrieved 25 May 2007.
- ^"URG Policy Report: Combatting global religious intolerance". Universal Rights Group. Retrieved 2016-02-10.
- ^"United States Commission on International Freedom of Religion", Press Releases 2000, retrieved 25 May 2007.
- ^"Freedom in the World 2000 | Freedom House". freedomhouse.org. Retrieved 2016-05-17.
- ^"Official Declaration", Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 October 1890, retrieved 25 May 2007.
- ^"Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001". www.austlii.edu.au. Retrieved 2016-05-17.
- ^"Error | ACMA"(PDF). www.acma.gov.au. Retrieved 2016-05-17.
- ^"Australia". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 2016-05-17.
- Garth Blake, "Promoting Religious Tolerance in a Multifaith Society: Religious Vilification Legislation in Australia and the UK." The Australian Law Journal, 81 (2007): 386–405.
- Chopra, R.M., "A Study of Religions", 2015, Anuradha Prakashan, New Delhi, ISBN 978-93-82339-94-6