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How offensive is khokhol?

May 1, 2016

Back in 2013 commenter mmenb had me thinking about exactly how offensive the word khokhol ‘topknot’ — a pejorative word some Russian speakers use for Ukrainians — is now or was in the nineteenth century, and compared it to the English word “nigger.” I’ve seen that comparison again in a few places recently. The blogger Nikolai Podosokorskii had a post deleted by Facebook administrators for using khokhol, and he links to an article in Izvestia about a 2015 controversy where Facebook was invited by the Russian government to explain why Russians were being blocked, and they explained that khokhol fell under the same policy that banned “nigger.” Izvestia went to the linguist Leonid Krysin for a quote, and he (writing, I believe, from a Russian and not a Ukrainian perspective) shared my intuition as a speaker of American English that “if you compare American and Russian culture, ‘nigger’ is considered much more offensive than khokhly.”

But compare this exchange from a 2008 internet forum, initially about the word churki ‘disparaging term for several Central Asian ethnic groups’:

Questioner:

Is the word “Churka” a bad word [ругательство]?

So why is it, I wonder, that churki get offended when they’re called churki? It’s not a bad word, is it? After all, moskali don’t get offended when they’re called moskalikhokhly don’t get offended when they’re called khokhly — in my opinion they even take it with a certain ironic pride. When I lived in Latin America, I heard “gringo” directed at me more than once, but I didn’t think for a moment that I should be offended or that I should have any complexes about it — after all, to them I really am a “gringo.”

Maybe “churka” means something we don’t know about in Churkish?

Answer 1:

All the things you enumerate are offensive terms [оскорбительные названия]. True, offensive to different degrees, if you can say that. And the degree, of course, depends greatly on context.

Let residents of Ukraine speak to khokhly, but it is far from certain that Belarusians will take the nickname [кличка] bul’bash with “a certain ironic pride.”

Answer 2:

In the States one African-American can calmly say “nigger” to another African-American, but let a white person just try…

Maybe one Ukrainian (or a friend of one) really can say khokhol to another, but that doesn’t mean that someone else [посторонний] can say it. That’s one.

Patriotically brought up Ukrainians (національно свідомі [these two words are in Ukrainian]) will NEVER say it, that’s two.

I personally go crazy when I hear that word, that’s three. […]

After reading all this I suspect that khokhly, while offensive, is different from “nigger” in one or both of these dimensions. First, in who sees it as offensive. The people the word might be used against object to it in each linguistic community, but there seems to be an asymmetry among people who’ve never heard the word applied to them. There are Russians who at least affect to believe that Ukrainians don’t mind being called khokhly, while in the U.S. I would expect the most appalling Woodrow Wilson apologist to avoid the word “nigger.” Second, in whether it’s a “bad word” in the sense of taboo and unprintable. I once saw a play where “nigger” was used for shock value: one character said it in scene after scene, making us all uncomfortable, until another character said “stop saying that word!” and audience members audibly agreed. Would that work, aesthetically speaking, if khokhol were used in a play in Moscow? In Kyiv?

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2016 8:55 am

    I agree with your conclusion; of course, it’s impossible to come to any consensus about these things, and there isn’t even an objective reality to appeal to — not only will the group with the upper hand see such terms very differently from the group being disparaged, but different members of each group will have different views on them (while in general insisting that their own view is universal except among people of low intelligence or moral sense). All one can do is try to read the room and be sensitive to the sensibilities of one’s audience.

    • May 31, 2016 9:59 am

      I thought about this comment a lot when you made it and only now realize that I never responded here. I think you’re right that it’s impossible to achieve a consensus, and we’re all over-sure of the universality of our own intuitions. But I’d say there is an objective answer to the question of how offensive a word is, just one that’s complex, mutable, and hard to measure. It’s a matter of trying to read a room that consists of all the subgroups, and even all the individuals, of an entire linguistic community, relying on the sum of their diverse reactions to actual uses of the word in various contexts more than their self-reporting about how they or others would react to it. Or so it seems to me — I find myself wishing I’d taken (or read more about) sociolinguistics.

  2. May 19, 2016 3:00 pm

    Context changes fast, sometimes very fast: nowadays khokhol can be more offensive than ever in certain explosive contexts – for obvious reasons. Historically, it was probably no more offensive than nicknames given by Russians to residents of a particular area (see Kostomarov). As for чурки, it has always been rather nasty and dehumanizing and should be avoided without exception.

    On stage though, everything goes. Most of the experienced Moscow theatergoers and other artsy types are free speech absolutists when it comes to works of art.

    • May 31, 2016 9:41 am

      Thank you for the Kostomarov link! I didn’t know about those words for people from various regions.

      As for the stage, theater people in the U.S. also tend to be free speech absolutists, and the audience I was part of was reacting emotionally to a charged word, not calling for it to be banned. Granted that the Moscow theatergoers would believe the use of the word хохол on the stage should be permitted, would it make a Moscow audience that included some Ukrainians feel uncomfortable? (Surely there is something that would make them squirm in their seats because of a linguistic or non-linguistic taboo.)

      • June 1, 2016 2:47 pm

        You would have to ask real Ukrainians, preferably those for whom this is a sensitive issue. As a guess, it probably depends a lot on the person’s experience as a spectator.

        Regular Moscow theatergoers, regardless of ethnicity, are almost impossible to shock and disturb, inured to provocation of any kind. The less sophisticated, less regular Russian viewers are sometimes offended by “disrespectful” interpretations of the classics or by gratuitous profanity/nudity.

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