Dropping “Savage” from the Vernacular

Guest blogger: Eric Cameron, Mahtomedi Alternative Learning Center

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Over the last three semesters, a new slang term arrived in my school.  Savage.  As in “dude, that was so savage” for a bold action.  When discussing the process that George Washington would have undergone to get dental implants, a student even remarked, “what a savage!”  He was taken aback when I responded by saying, “Actually, Washington probably wouldn’t have appreciated being called a savage.”  The room was silent.  Thus began my campaign against the savageness (Webster’s definition) of the term “savage” (Urban Dictionary definition).

The top definition of “savage” on Urban Dictionary is “Bad ass.  Cool.  Violent.”  Whereas Webster’s defines the term as “not domesticated or under human control,” “lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings,” and “wild, uncultivated, boorish, and lacking complex or advanced culture.”  Where the definition in Webster’s certainly does not match the tenor and style of General and President Washington, the Urban Dictionary definition could be applied to the specific example being discussed at the time.  This begs the question, should a word or phrase be barred from common parlance as a result of its historical usage, even if it has taken on a new meaning?  Contemporary appropriation of cultural and historical language and symbols is nothing new.  The most commonly thought of example of this in a history classroom is the swastika; originally used as a religious symbol in eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.  However, once it was coopted by the German Nazi Party in the 20th century, the symbol is no longer used in Europe and the western hemisphere.  Should the word savage follow suit?  American Indians were derided as savages, as lacking culture, because theirs was markedly different from that of the European colonizers.  The term “savage” was used to justify and perpetuate a systematic eradication of American Indian cultures and racial genocide of American Indian peoples.  Just as at Adolf Hitler and the Nazis knew that if they could teach racial superiority the German youth they would be able to use that notion to perpetuate support for the Third Reich, the Euro-Americans knew that if they could destroy the culture of American Indian youths through Indian Boarding Schools, if American Indian youths were taught self-hatred and forced to live as Anglo-European children, they could be indoctrinated into a “more civilized” lifestyle based on settled farmland and Christianity.

  Stopping the slang usage of “savage” has not been an easy campaign, but after nearly a year of conversations with students about the history of the word “savage,” the term has been all but eradicated from the vocabulary of 916 Mahtomedi Academy students.  It’s possible that the term fell out of use due to changing cultural trends, just as past phrases such as “rad” and “hip” have fallen out of the popular vernacular, however, I would like to think that my continual reminders and reteaching the word’s role in American History played a part in its disappearance from my students’ vocabulary.  

My classroom and my school are small compared to the greater American culture, but perhaps if those who have the influence and ability to alter the shared cultural language of American society choose to do so, they can stop the common parlance of such derogatory, and frankly, inaccurate, phrases such as “let’s pow-wow on that”, “hold down the fort,” and “low man on the totem pole.”  As teachers, we have that power within our classrooms and schools.  And as history teachers, we can take it a step further and slowly rid our curriculum of the idea that Columbus “discovered” the “New” World, and treat American Indian history as a part of American History, instead of relegating it to sections on with titles such as “the first Americans” and “the Trail of Tears”.  America’s future history depends on us to do so.

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