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Yesterday, I was half-listening to a 60 Minutes segment on illegal immigration when I heard some official say that the anti-Italian slur “wop” was an acronym for “without papers.”

It turns out that it was James Kinney, the mayor of Philadelphia. Here’s the excerpt:

Well, you know, Ellis Island had opened in 1892. The bulk of Irish Diaspora came to America in the 1840s. We didn’t have papers either. We were undocumented. There was an anti-Italian slur, when I was growing up in my neighborhood called W-O-P — that’s without papers. If you come to the country without documents because you’re starving in your country or you’re being held hostage by drug dealers or you’re afraid your children are gonna be shot in the streets or on their farm, I think that that’s self-preservation and self-survival. And any group of people would flock to America because that’s been the historic place where people came to be saved.

We can save discussion of his larger point for another time.

I tweeted that I thought this “without papers” thing was ridiculous. To my amazement, I found out that a great many people believe it to be true, including people far more well-read and educated than I am. So, it’s not ridiculous to think it’s true. It’s more like one of those things everyone knows is true — like the need to drink eight glasses of water every day — that turns out not to be.

From the online etymological dictionary (one of my favorite sites):

derogatory for “Italian,” 1912, American English slang, apparently from southern Italian dialect guappo “dandy, dude, stud,” a greeting among male Neapolitans, said to be from Spanish guapo “bold, dandy,” which is from Latin vappa “sour wine,” also “worthless fellow;” related to vapidus (see vapid). It is probably not an acronym, and the usual story that it is one seems to date only to c. 1985.

John Ciardi wrote in his wonderful Browser’s Dictionary:

Pejorative name for an Italian. . . . From the Italian, south-of-Rome dialect, guappo, dude. Introduced into America c. 1900, [H. L.] Mencken cited guappo as a common form of greeting among Italian immigrants. It was never that but a rather jovial exclamation when a man showed up in his flashiest Sunday best: che guappo! What a dude! . . . (The commonly offered derivation W(ith) O(ut) P(apers), with reference to immigrants at Ellis Island is nonsense.) [Emphasis mine]

You can read Mencken’s discussion of “Wop,” here.

As much as I love the etymological dictionary, I don’t think the vintage of the “without papers” definition is as recent as 1985. A number of people told me that they’ve heard it since they were kids or heard it from their grandparents. Ciardi refers to the “With Out Paper” interpretation as “commonly offered” — and he published the Browser’s Dictionary in 1980.

What I find so fascinating is that so many people thought it was true. My Dad grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s where Jews, Italians, and Irish traded epithets quite a bit. The idea that the Jews and the Irish would single-out the Italians (as likely to be as American-born or immigrants as anyone else) for lacking sufficient citizenship paperwork just strikes me as bizarre. Lots of people showed up at Ellis Island without “papers.”

(It’s not entirely on point, but it’s worth noting that the demand for “papers” — e.g., green cards — didn’t come on line until 1940 as a security measure in the lead-up to World War II.)

In my book Liberal Fascism, I recount the story of how Will Rogers went on a tour of Europe in 1926 as a kind of ambassador-at-large. When he returned, a reporter from the New York Times asked him what he thought of Benito Mussolini. Here’s how the Times put it:

[Rogers] said that Premier Mussolini was “some Wop.” “I’m pretty high on that bird. I’d like to know what bigger man there could be who can say to a whole nation, ‘You can stay at home and see your own country and spend your own money here.’ That’s what he told the Italians and he made ‘em like it.”

“I asked Mussolini what would happen to the country if he died and he said, ‘I ain’t ever going to die.’”

I have to assume that Rogers didn’t have Mussolini’s lack of paperwork in mind.

One last tidbit. While poking around on the topic, I also found this amazing anecdote. When Mussolini met Ring Lardner, Il Duce started to interrogate the famous American writer with questions. Lardner cut him off and said, “Je ne parle pas le Wop.”

It was a different time.


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