octoroon

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.

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