New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently attracted criticism from immigration advocacy groups for describing himself as “undocumented” during a bill-signing ceremony in Albany. “You want to deport an undocumented person, start with me, because I’m an undocumented person,” he said.
What drew less attention was how he explained that provocative conclusion. “I came from poor Italian Americans who came here,” Cuomo said. “You know what they called Italian Americans back in the day? They called them ‘wops.’ You know what ‘wop’ stood for? ‘Without papers.’”
Cuomo’s attempt to express solidarity was a bit overheated, to say the least: He isn’t really undocumented, of course, and as the son of a former governor, he wasn’t exactly marginalized growing up. But his historical justification for the parallel is similarly dubious. While his Italian immigrant forebears may indeed have had the epithet wop slung at them, there is no evidence that the word originated as an acronym for “without papers.”
This misunderstanding of wop’s origins is fairly common, and it extends far beyond politics. But Cuomo isn’t the only Italian American politician to make rhetorical hay out of the bogus etymology. In February, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made a marathon floor speech in support of the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, she told much the same story about wop:
[I]n my father’s generation and my grandfather’s generation and my great-grandmother’s generation … there was a term. It was called “wop,” and people used that as a derogatory term to Italian Americans. Do you know what “wop” means, Mr. Speaker? “Wop” means “without papers.” … That is what these people were called, “without papers.” And that is all that these kids are, without papers. In every other way, strong participants in our society, in our community, and in our country.
Cuomo and Pelosi aren’t alone in repeating the tale in a political context. As Jonah Goldberg noted in National Review last year, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who is descended from Irish immigrants, made the same specious connection between wop and “without papers” in a 60 Minutes appearance.