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.
Where did wop really come from? The best guess from etymologists is that the source is a southern Italian dialectal word, guappo or guappu, meaning “dandy” or “swaggerer.” That, in turn, is likely from the Spanish word guapo meaning “handsome” or “bold,” imported to Sicily when the island was occupied by Spain. Sicilian immigrants to the United States brought the swaggering word with them. It “connoted arrogance, bluster, and maleficence entwined,” wrote the music journalist Nick Tosches in his 2001 book Where Dead Voices Gather, in a historical exploration of the Italian-flavored pop-music genre once known as “wop songs.” Here is how Tosches describes (with some literary embellishment) the way that guappo and its variants became wop on American shores:
It was these Sicilian words that were commonly used to describe the work-bosses who lured their greenhorn paesani into servitude in New York City in the early years of the twentieth century. In New York and other American seaports, the lowly labor of the Italian immigrants’ servitude—the dockside toil and offal-hauling that others shunned—came to be called … guappu work; and eventually the laborer himself, and not the boss, was known as guappu. The peasant immigrants’ tendency to clip the final vowels from standard Italian and Sicilian—as in paesan’ for paesano—rendered guappu as guapp’, which was pronounced, more or less, as wop.
While there’s no hard evidence for the oral transformation of the word, the end result, wop, began making its appearance in written English in the early years of the 20th century. In 2010, on the American Dialect Society mailing list, word-researcher Douglas Wilson shared examples going back to 1906 in New York City newspapers. Here’s one:
There was a time, not very long ago, when you couldn’t find a Wop—that means an Italian in the latest downtown dialect—in Danny’s resort even by using a microscope. But to-day it’s different. The members of the Five Points gang, all dark skinned sons of Sicily, grew tired of flitting from place to place, with no set rendezvous for their nightly gatherings. A number of the Pointers used to frequent the place, and it wasn’t long before the entire gang became regulars.
– The Sun, Nov. 18, 1906
The story of wop standing for “without papers” is of much more recent vintage. It started showing up in print in the early 1970s, at a time when Italian American identity politics was on the rise. But it likely circulated orally before that. In a 1971 journal article titled “A Study of Ethnic Slurs,” the folklorist Alan Dundes wrote:
One folk etymology for the word “wop,” a common term of disparagement for Americans of Italian descent, is that in the early 1920s many Italians tried to enter the United States illegally. These would-be immigrants were rounded up by U.S. officials and sent back to Italy with documents labelled W.O.P. which supposedly stood for “Without Papers” referring to the papers needed for legal immigration.
Later that year, the “without papers” story also appeared in the sports pages of the Tucson Daily Citizen, in a quote from Cleveland Indians manager Ken Aspromonte:
“If anyone called me a ‘wop’ I was furious and wanted to slug the guy right then and there,” Aspromonte said, “but then one day my grandfather explained the origin of the word. He told me that in the early 1900’s so many Italians were coming into the United States that many of them didn’t bother to get visas. When they’d arrive on Ellis Island and didn’t have papers with them the inspector would holler out, ‘Here’s another one, without papers.’ So somebody took the letters ‘W-O-P’ for ‘without papers’ and that’s how it got started,” Aspromonte said.
Also in 1971, the syndicated columnist Hy Gardner shared yet another folk etymology for wop. “‘Wop’ reverts to the turn of the century when millions of Calabrians and Sicilians came off their ships holding a slip of paper with the name of the foreman they had been assigned to,” Gardner wrote. “U.S. immigration officials rubberstamped the papers ‘W.O.P.’—meaning ‘without passport.’”
Whether the imagined derivation is “without papers” or “without passport,” the wop story should set off alarm bells, since this kind of acronymic explanation is hardly ever historically correct. Acronyms only became popular in the mid-20th century (think radar, scuba, and laser), well after the time that wop and other words with supposed acronymic roots came into the language. Sad to say, cop doesn’t stand for “constable on patrol”; golf isn’t from “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden”; posh doesn’t mean “port out starboard home”; and tip isn’t from “to insure politeness” (or “promptness”). And please don’t believe any of the made-up acronymic expansions for fuck. (“For unlawful carnal knowledge” and “fornication under consent of the king” are the most popular.)
Still, these acronymic accounts often work as a kind of storytelling in the service of what Yale University linguist Laurence Horn has termed “etymythology.” Lawmakers like Cuomo and Pelosi are not so concerned with the actual origins of wop, because the “without papers” story works so well for their rhetorical purposes. It helps them draw a handy parallel between undocumented immigrants of the past and present, in order to further their political goals. But etymology—like politics—is in reality much messier, subverting such tidy explanations.