Review: The word 'Eskimo'Google teaches us that the word Eskimo is a term for the Inuit invented by the Southern Algonquin, God knows who they are, meaning “the eaters of raw flesh in the north”. People are forever making these wild, implausible claims for words in foreign languages, as you will realise if you have ever listened to a debate being translated into different languages. Once, I was listening to a Hungarian go on and on for what felt like hours, as they tend to, and when he stopped, our translator said, “He disagrees.” We were suspicious: there are long words in Hungarian, but not that long.
A list of racially sensitive terms in the Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Science Writing (with Google I’m like Moses with the commandments, I don’t judge, I don’t ask, I just chip away at the tablets because I don’t have a pen handy) notes that “in Canada the official term for local native people is Inuit rather than Eskimo. Many Alaskan natives also prefer this term.” Canadians are very pleasant people, very polite, although I find the books of Margaret Atwood disappointing. The Inuit for ‘Inuit’ translates as ‘real people’, apparently. In this respect, the Inuit are showing an upsetting lack of cultural sensitivity.
There is a scene in the film Heathers where Christian Slater underlines the word 'Esquimaux' in a girl’s copy of Moby Dick before making it look as if she’s topped herself. I liked that scene, as an impressionable child:
“Heather Duke underlined a lot of things in this copy of Moby Dick, but I believe the word ‘Eskimo’, underlined all by itself, is the key to understanding Heathers pain. On the surface, Heather Duke was the vivacious young lady we all knew her to be, but her soul was in Antarctica! …We'll all miss Sherwood’s little Eskimo. Let’s just hope she's rubbing noses with Jesus!”
Here is Herman Melville on the subject: “Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales; but the Esquimaux are not so fastidious.” Maybe Herman Melville and the Southern Algonquin had some underhand and secret pact to muddy the good name of the Inuit.
The Eskimo language neither exists nor has an unusual number of words for snow. Here is Geoffrey Pullum, author of an essay called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, on the issue:
“There seem to be only a handful of roots that really are snow roots in the languages of the Yup'iks and Inuits, maybe four or five, not very different from the number found in English (snow, sleet, slush, blizzard).”
The word Eskimo: Statcounter tells me that someone arrived here recently by googling “naked Eskimo girls”. It breaks my heart to disappoint you, sir or madam. 9 out of 10.