November 3, 2017
Like a boss, BookThug rethinks its name
by Ian Dreiblatt
Radical proposition: A little consideration rarely hurts?
Take, for instance, the Toronto-based publishing duo of Hazel Millar and Jay MillAr (yeAh), who together run the thirteen-year-old indie CanLit powerhouse BookThug. (The press is unrelated to the similarly-named New York bookselling space.) As Sue Carter writes this week in Quill and Quire, after taking a few years’ worth of sporadic flak for what a growing number of readers perceived as the name’s racist overtones, the Millxrs have announced that they’ll be changing it.
And that’s not all. “It’s a top-down, clear-across-the-board rebrand that’s going to involve our logo, our website, our social media,” Millar told Carter. “What do we do with the 14 years of books that we have in the world that will exist and remain in print as BookThug books? There are so many different questions to solve still, and clearly we can’t reprint and reissue all of those books, so the only thing we can envision is that it will have to exist as an imprint of sorts. Every time we sit down we realize there’s one more thing that we hadn’t yet given thought to.”
The problems with “thug” have become increasingly widely understood in recent years. For a good, quick run-down, check out this interview with Columbia comp lit professor John McWhorter, who tells NPR’s Melissa Block:
Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn’t need to. It most certainly is.
(To concerns over the name’s racial overtones, MillAr reflectively adds that while “BookThug” is “a really great name for a scrappy upstart new kid on the block, punkish kind of press,” it may no longer be apposite now that “we’re kind of established.”)
Carter notes that the name change and attendant restructuring won’t be accomplished overnight (“we’ll be the press formerly known as BookThug for awhile,” Millar quips), and that the press will be aided by “a grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation to hire a rebranding specialist.” (Though, are they just rubbing it in, now? Did they stop on the way home to enjoy some fresh-from-the-tree syrup and affordable medical care?)
The announcement couldn’t help calling up recollections of the 2014 scandal over Thug Kitchen, a vegan blog-turned-cookbook in which two lily-white Californians put on one fuck of a minstrel show, writing in a pummellingly unfunny imitation of African American Vernacular English.
This, to be clear, absolutely isn’t that — nobody is accusing BookThug of deliberately playing up the word’s troubled associations. What people have been pointing out is that the name conjures those associations all the same. And now, after a couple years, it appears they’ve been listening. Right on.
The word “thug,” by the by, has a pretty fascinating etymology. It’s ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)teg-, which seems to have referred to covering things, and is also the source of the words “toga” and “thatch.” It developed into the Sanskrit “sthaga,” meaning “to cover or conceal,” and thus also “cunning, fraudulent.” From there, it developed into the Hindi word “ṭhag,” meaning “deceiver.” For several hundred years, beginning in the fourteenth century, the Thugs were an organized gang of professional murderer-robbers in India; in the colonialist European mind, they seem to have become much magnified. The word appears to have made the jump into English when Philip Meadows Taylor published a novel called Confessions of a Thug in 1839. The rest is history —- really weird, frequently awful history.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.