"Thug" referred to a secret cult in India with the most intricate methods of killing and stealing from people on the road.
Imagine you are traveling across 13th-century India and, suddenly, you encounter a merchant on the road. He offers his company and begins riding along with you. You spend days together, becoming friends, looking out for each other. You know he has your back. Until, without warning, a group of men gang up on you, steal from you and then strangle you to death. You've been betrayed.
These are not assassins, but they could be, for all you know. They are Thugees, a secret cult of killers and robbers who surprisingly refuse to shed any blood, so they resort to another method: strangulations. Thugees were persecuted during the 19th century in British-ruled India, and they are the the reason the word “thug” was introduced to the English language.
In 1906, a study titled “Contributions to the Craniology of the People of the Empire of Indian” included photographs of skulls that the text explained belonged to a group that would basically attack travelers in the middle of the road and then strangle them to death.
The author of this investigation claimed the skulls belonged to members of a group he called the “Thuggee Cult”, which were believed to be a professional organization of killers who did just that: jump on travelers on the Indian roads and then strangle them to death.
The word thug probably came from a phonetic distortion of the Hindi and Urdu word thag, meaning thief or swindler. Some sources claim this word, in turn, is derived from the Sanskrit word for concealing, while others claim it comes from deceiving (maybe it’s both).But the 1906 research was far from the first written reference to the group. In fact, by then, “thugs” were widely recognized by an Anglo-Saxon audience both in the United States and the United Kingdom in large part thanks to a 1837 book called Illustrations of the History and Practices of the Thugs.
Unsurprisingly, the book is written from a colonial and racist perspective, portraying said killers as less-than-human worshippers of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction; people who passed their killer instincts to their descendants. There were references to the Thuggees in India centuries prior to that, of course, but once the English colonists found out they existed, they sought to eradicate the group. A witch hunt began taking place, and about 4,000 of these alleged thugees were discovered. Half of them were either sentenced to death or imprisoned.Then, in 1839, a writer called Philip Meadows Taylor published a novel called Confessions of a Thug, which became a total hit in England, thus helping introduce the word “thug” into the English language. Even Mark Twain wrote about them in his 1897 book, called Following the Equator, about his trip to India. One of the chapters is called “Eradication of Thuggee.”
Nowadays, modern use of the word has become more complicated, to say the least, surrounded by racial tensions and a history of irony. What was once synonymous with “criminal” or “delinquent,” often targeting minorities in the United States, later became an appropriated term by these same minorities, celebrated by rap and hip hop culture, which touched on many of the struggles and conditions that affect marginalized communities every day. Being a thug, as per Tupac, to provide an example, was to live and take part in a violent world, to resort to gang activity, to live outside the law with a social darwinian attitude against the harsh conditions of a 20th century urban world. Anything that strayed from what mainstream, suburban and, dare I say, white culture deemed decent or… not-thuggish. Whatever you understand by it now, being called a thug should be a term of pride because it refers to someone with a rebellious nature challenging a hierarchical social order (minus the killing, of course).
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