A Strange Chapter in “Wog”s Hateful History

L. Ron Hubbard in 1950 (wikimedia)

L. Ron Hubbard in 1950 (wikimedia)

Wog” is an offensive term in British English which refers to various immigrant groups. Its etymology is debated. One theory suggests acronymous origins, along the lines of “Worthy Oriental Gentleman” (which is less pejorative than contemporary usage would suggest). More plausibly, it may be an abbreviation of “Golliwog,” the racist doll popular in the Victorian era. Regardless of wog‘s provenance, it seems resolutely British; I’ve never heard an American use the term.

It did, however, seem to have been picked up by one of America’s most famous and controversial religious leaders, L. Ron Hubbard. Many associate his faith, Scientology, with the United States (and sun-belt states like California and Florida), but Hubbard spent the bulk of the 1960’s living in Essex and many of the Church’s ardent early proponents (such as David Gaiman) were British.

It was presumably in England that Hubbard began to describe non-followers as “wogs.” In her expose Inside ScientologyJanet Reitman elaborates:

Non-Scientologists were called wogs, a term thrown around liberally among church staff: “wog ideas,” “wog justice,” and “wog science.” Hubbard began to use this offensive British slang term in 1953 to denote any person who was not a Scientologist, in his estimation a “run-of-the-mill, garden-variety humanoid.”

Hubbard is notoriously enigmatic, so it’s a mystery why he would have borrowed such an offensive epithet. It’s possible he wished to evoke the inherent “foreignness” of outside institutions (this was a time when he was on the wrong side of various government organizations).

Or it’s possible that “wog” was a reinvention by a man famous for his ability to redraw the definitions of common words. Hubbard used everyday terms like “technology,” “ethics” and “open-minded” in a rather different way than what we are accustomed to. Controversies aside, I find him one of the more fascinating of 20th-Century’s word coiners for that reason; he created his own language, assembled from pieces of (but strikingly different from) everyday English.

It’s also possible Hubbard misunderstood the word’s offensiveness. Something I find fascinating about cross-dialectal communication is that it is very easy to underestimate the potency of offensive words outside your own variety of English. I am more than aware of how derogatory “wog” is, yet on some fundamental level, I’m not sure I get it.

Likewise, I would use “wanker” in a blog post title with little thought, but I would agonize over the decision to use “nigger,” no matter how objective the context. Yet Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority actually found “wanker” the slightly more offensive of the two terms among the British public (credit to Lynne Murphy for that tidbit of info). So perhaps Hubbard’s use of “wog” was an innocent mistake?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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14 Responses to A Strange Chapter in “Wog”s Hateful History

  1. Simon K says:

    That Advertising Standards Authority research is 13 years old – it struck a lot of people as odd at the time and I’d be astonished if more than a handful of people nowadays felt that ‘nigger’ was less offensive than ‘wanker’.

    • I can see it being a controversial finding. It’s still startling as an American, though, to think of the two being even remotely close to one another in offensiveness rankings.

  2. Mark says:

    Even though 13 years have passed, it seems odd to me, an American, that wanker would be so offensive. I suppose that shows that a simple definition of the word does not convey all the meanings. On the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily expect non-Americans to understand just how offensive the word nigger is in this country.

  3. Lane says:

    Nearly all acronyms-as-etymologies are BS, as I’m sure you know, and it’s very likely to be the case with the original British wog (WOG?). But having just read and reviewed Lawrence Wright’s excellent history of Scientology, I learned that Scientologists are downright obsessed with coining acronyms and initialisms: COB (chairman of the board, David Miscavige; people often address him as “COB”); KSW (keep Scientology working, a doctrine against deviation/splittism/Scientology a la carte); FN (floating needle, a bit of the “audit” process), SP (suppressive person, one who opposes Scientology), PTS (potential trouble source, a Scientologist connected to a suspected SP), OT (operating thetan), BT (body thetan), and on and on.

    I take it that Hubbard and others felt that all this alphabet soup made the religion look more scientific. So he might have either heard or coined some acronym that led to wog (WOG?). It would be, unlike most acronym-etymologies, entirely in character.

    • Scientology was the spawn of Dianetics, which set the pseudoscientific tone for much of what followed. I think you’re right, the penchant for acronyms and official-sounding abbreviations (tech, org) fits into that pattern.

      Reitman’s book strongly suggests that “wog” was borrowed from British slang, although she also asserts that the term derived from “Worthy Oriental Gentleman,” which at the very least is dubious.

  4. Bob Hale says:

    The researche suggesting that “wanker” is the more offensive term is bizarre to say the least. It’s such a commonplace utterance that it hardly has any offensive force at all nowadays. Of course like many of these words it can, merely by context or tone of voice, shift from offensive (WANKER!) to something that is borderline affectionate (How you doin’, you old wanker?
    I have almost never heard it said convincingly by an American as the word is much rarer in the US. (James Marsters as the British vampire, Spike, managed it in Buffy The Vampire Slayer – but his British accent was excellent!)

    As for “wog”, I second Lane’s comment. Almost all claims for acronym origins are nonsense. This was a very, very offensive term when I was growing up though it has almost disappeared now, thankfully. The “golliwog” origin seems far more plausible.

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  6. m.m. says:

    Something I find fascinating about cross-dialectal communication is that it is very easy to underestimate the potency of offensive words outside your own variety of English.

    THIS SO MUCH

  7. L says:

    I think it ‘s much more resolutely Australian than resolutely British, at least in the last few decades.

  8. Tom says:

    My first (and really only) exposure to the term “wog” was through the Cornershop song of the same name on their 1995 album “Woman’s Gotta Have It.” The group’s leader, Tjinder Singh, is a British Asian who named his band Cornershop (best known for their 1997 song “Brimful of Asha”) as a playful commentary on the fact that people of his descent were seen as especially visible as owners of corner shops. The song “Wog” is sung in Punjabi.

  9. D.H. Wallace says:

    Surely this is all down to historical and local context?

    The n-word is widely-accepted as offensive today, but then if the context is that you’re at a NWA gig in the late eighties / early nineties, there would be liberal usage of the n-word …and given that the musicians on stage are using the n-word, and a paying (opt-in) audience knows in advance that they’re going to hear the n-word …that surely means that in the instance of an NWA gig, there was a broad local consensus of acceptability.

    While it’s hard to argue (and I wouldn’t) acceptability of the n-word outside of that type of exception, in my view it’s wrong to remotely judge others (Scientologists or otherwise), especially historically …as there’s absolutely no way of objectively understanding all of the factors in play.

    It might also interest you to know that the ‘golly’ part of ‘golliwog’ now also appears to be considered taboo in the UK. For me that’s a step too far by the PC brigade, but as PC crusaders are self-appointed and unregulated …there’s little that can be done about it.

    D. H. Wallace
    Author & illustrator of ‘Gollytots’ & ‘Splash the lifeboat’

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  11. Catherine Magnus says:

    Hubbard used “wog” in the US Navy sense. There’s a navy ritual called “Crossing the Line,” referring to when a ship crosses the equator (although there are other “lines” that also have rituals). The “uninitiated” crew are called “wogs,” short for “pollywogs” (tadpoles), and go through a messy but funny ritual when crossing the equator for the first time, after which they’re graduated from “wog” to “trusty shellback.” Hubbard had plenty of nastiness to gripe about, but in this case it was a remnant from his USN days, not related to the offensive British pejorative “wog.”

    I’m certain of this because he was a close acquaintance of a family member, and spoke about it to him back in the ’60s.

    • biggles says:

      Of note is the fact that “gollywog” comes from a portmanteau of “godly” and “pollywog”. And because of “gollywog”, I personally find it very persuasive that that is the origin of “wog”.

      So if that’s true, it’s not totally unrelated.