Saturday, April 14, 2007



I'm so insulated from the outside world that I'd never even heard of Don Imus before the recent kerfuffle. At first I didn't understand the insult he directed at the women basketball players from Rutgers University, either. I mistakenly thought that the nappy in nappy-headed referred to a diaper, and that nappy-headed was therefore similar to the derogatory terms towel-head and rag-head.

Some people claim that hair is called nappy because it looks like its wearers just woke up from a nap. That is bogus. Here are the relevant entries from the Online Etymology Dictionary:
nap (n.): "downy surface of cloth," 1440, from M.Du. or M.L.G. noppe "nap, tuft of wool," probably introduced by Flem. cloth-workers. Cognate with O.E. hnappian "to pluck," ahneopan "pluck off," O.Swed. niupa "to pinch," Goth. dis-hniupan "to tear."

nappy (adj.): "downy," 1499, from nap (n.). Meaning "fuzzy, kinky," used in colloquial or derogatory ref. to the hair of black people, is from 1950.
Herodotus, in his catalogue of foreign fighters in Xerxes' army, includes the Ethiopians (7.70.1, tr. Aubrey De Sélincourt) and mentions their hair:
The eastern Ethiopians -- for there were two sorts of Ethiopians in the army -- served with the Indians. These were just like the southern Ethiopians, except for their language and their hair: their hair is straight, while that of the Ethiopians in Libya is the crispest and curliest in the world.
Frank M. Snowden Jr., who died just a couple of months ago at the age of 95, was the preeminent expert on blacks in classical times. His writings on the subject include:A synonym of the adjective nappy is woolly. A secondary meaning of woolly is "lacking sharp detail or clarity; blurry; fuzzy: woolly thinking." In this sense, one could say that Don Imus (who sports a rather bold head of hair himself) is woolly-headed. And because woolly is nappy, one could also call him nappy-headed. As we used to say when we were children and someone insulted us, "Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you."

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