“I Can’t Breathe”

Language History Illustrates How Trump Is Wrong; The Rioters Are Not “Thugs” (but the Police Sure Are)

Jim Dee
Jim Dee
Jun 1, 2020 · 4 min read

A look at Trump’s hypocrisy from a language standpoint.

When 2020 kicked off, I started a little blog project called Wonderful Words, Defined — something that was never intended to be political (though I’ve written about some super-great directly and/or indirectly political words like comstockery, dog-in-the-manger, and hansardize). Normally, my only guideline in selecting words has been that, each day, the word I select must be one I hadn’t known.

That said, with the world as screwed up as it is, I may make some exceptions and have a dekko into some words I did know. And, as you’ll see, even with common words, there may well be some surprising, relevant history to them.

History of the Word “Thug”

Thug is such a common, basic, mono-syllabic, ostensibly simple word that most people take it for granted. But, it’s got a colorful history. It came to English in the early 1800s from Hindi, from the word thag (or ठग in Hindi), which means a cheat, con, swindler, etc.

As if that’s not bad enough, the word Thug (often with a capital T) was associated with a specific, infamous type of criminal in India — the phansigars. These were essentially highway robbers who would befriend travelers, gain their trust, and then murder and rob them.

Their name, phansigar, relates to their usual method of murder. It comes from the Hindi फांसी (pronounced phaansee), which means hanging (as in, to hang someone). They didn’t specifically hang their victims, though. They would in fact generally strangle them with a handkerchief or a cord — essentially like a noose — around their neck.

And so these words — phansigar and thug — are directly related to Hindi words that speak of death by strangulation.

The entire system, or practice, of these types of crimes was called thuggee (sometimes written thagi), and apparently the British were keen on suppressing it (which makes sense, as the British could well have been the travelers being strangled).

Public domain. From the Wikipedia page on Thuggee.

Apparently, there’s some modern controversy among scholars related to the historical accuracy of various elements of the thuggee story. But, one interesting aspect seen in numerous sources — including the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which I use for all of my research — is the reference to how religious worship dovetailed with these Thugs. One source (the Dec. 4, 1903 Daily Chronicle) mentioned by the OED claimed that Thuggism “made strangling a religious rite to the goddess Kali.”

Trump’s Linguistic Hypocrisy

Less than one week ago (on May 25), Minneapolis police officers brutally murdered George Floyd, essentially by strangling the man as horrified onlookers, powerless to do anything, filmed. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd pleaded as an aggressive, sadistic cop knelt directly on his neck (for at least 7+ minutes straight).

One of those who videoed the murder can be heard saying, “You’re enjoying it. Look at you.” The cop ignored everyone’s pleas at the scene, maintaining a detached, deranged, almost religious devotion to his crime throughout the ordeal (recall my mention of self-righteous Thuggee philosophy).

The murder sparked (still ongoing) protests across the entire country, and even internationally. And three days into this, Trump did what any deranged right-wing psychopath would do — flip the entire situation on its head, blame the wrong people, and threaten to start shooting citizens.

Twitter stepped in, thankfully, and popped a warning on Trump’s tweet for glorifying violence (which it clearly does). You can’t view the tweet without specifically clicking their warning. (How pathetic is that for the behavior of the supposed leader of the free world? Sadly, it’s routine for Trump.)

My point here, though, is linguistic. Thugs are historically those who strangle. Those who strangle today are police, not protesters. No, not ALL police, but not an insignificant number, either. It’s not like George Floyd was the first who couldn’t breathe. Eric Garner managed to say the same thing 11 times while NYPD strangled him to death. Who’s going to be next if we don’t address the real, literal thug problem in America and address so many problems in our police force? We need cops, but we deserve to be protected and served better than this.

✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains three blogs — Hawthorne Crow, Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine, and Wonderful Words, Defined — and contributes to various Medium pubs. Connect at JPDbooks.com, Amazon, FB, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest screwball literary novel, CHROO, is a guaranteed good time.

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Jim Dee

Written by

Jim Dee

Web guy at ArrayWebDevelopment.com; author of books & blogs. See: JPDbooks.com.

Wonderful Words, Defined

A celebration of awesome, rarely used, highly novel words in the English language.

Jim Dee

Written by

Jim Dee

Web guy at ArrayWebDevelopment.com; author of books & blogs. See: JPDbooks.com.

Wonderful Words, Defined

A celebration of awesome, rarely used, highly novel words in the English language.

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