Daily Archives: July 26, 2009


Is it a coin? It must be a coin, right, with all those o‘s like silver dollars and that sound like doubloon – is it pieces of eight? Nope. It’s the verbal currency of racism, pieces of hate. Octoroon refers to a person who is one-eighth black. And the o‘s might as well be a chorus of doom for a person it described when the term was current, in the US in the 19th century. The oon, to be sure, is the same one you see on doubloon – and cartoon, harpoon, balloon, festoon… All traceable back to a Latin nominalizing suffix that became on in French, one in Italian, and ón in Spanish. And from there it came to be, at least sometimes, this English oon. The word octoroon (earlier octoon) is modeled on quadroon, which means – you guessed it – a person who is one-quarter black. That word comes from Spanish cuarterón. But octoroon has a special vehicle for immortality: a play, The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault, first performed in 1859 and very popular in its time (and still studied), in which a beautiful heroine (named Zoe) faces a terrible fate because she is part black. (The play was adapted from a novel, The Quadroon, by Thomas Mayne Reid, but the play was the more famous.) The play had two versions of its ending: in the version performed in England, Zoe marries the hero; in the version performed in America, she dies tragically, which conveniently avoided the on-stage depiction of an “interracial” marriage.


The taste of this word is like drinking the beverage mix name-branded after it: it starts sharp at the tip of your tongue and ends soft in the back of your throat. Voiceless stop gives way to voiced nasal. Analogously, the printed form begins with a point upward, crossed off, and ends with a loop downward. Such movement in such short space: three phonemes written with four letters. And the sound of the ensemble is metallic, resonant, like the tongue of metal it can refer to (as opposed to the “ting” of glass or a small bell). The tip of that tongue, pointed back at you, might bite like a gnat – or something much more mordant, such as a serpant, whose tongue can also be called a tang. The sting of pain can called a tang too, and the penetrating sense makes a metaphor that gives us our sharp-tasting or sharp-smelling tang, a word that has acquired a sweeter tartness thanks to flavoured crystals. And now if you taste a tang in a sauce sweet and sour, you may think too of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China while Britons were speaking Old English (the 7th to 10th centuries) – or simply of any of the millions of people bearing the name Tang – though the vowel in that word is more properly farther back in the mouth. The English tang, best known as a noun, has verb forms for both the piercing metal (and sharp taste) and the metallic sound, and there is another noun tang, a type of seaweed. We have Scandinavians to thank for these words (tangs, guys!).