From tree bark to racial slur

Note: This post contains racial slurs, in an educational context. I finished reading David Halberstam's book about the Korean War, The Longest Winter, last week. It was a really terrific overview of American involvement in that  war. It also had a lot of really interesting background material, including the etymology of the slur gook, in a passage about U.S. troops fighting alongside Filipino guerrillas during the Spanish-American War at the close of the 19th centruy:

  • "Two very powerful American instincts were evident -- a missionary drive that demanded the United States assume colonial responsibility over the islands in order to civilize the natives as part of a Christian white man's burden, and at the same time racism of the most virulent kind, so that the guerrillas were called either 'niggers' of 'gugus' (or 'goo-goos'). The latter name came from the bark of a local tree that women used when they shampooed their hair. It was a term that eventually morphed into the more all-purpose word for Asians, gooks, that American troops used to identify Asians from World War II right through Korea and Vietnam."