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Darin Flynn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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In The Everyday Language of White Racism, Jane. H. Hill explains that the use of the word squ-w in English was racist from the start.

Sexist and crude

The S-word also came to be associated with female genitalia, due to a widespread rumour that this was its original meaning, and because, as Hill remarks, “the word has an unfortunate sound in English.” We intuitively associate the beginning sequence “squ” with unpleasant “squishiness,” “squelching,” “squatting,” etc., and the “aw” rhyme with hole-like “maw,” “craw” and “yawn.”

The individual speech sounds of “squ-w” are also over-represented in derogatory words (“c-ck,” “qu–f,” “W-g”). In short, “squ-w” sounds offensive in English.

Relatedly, the S-word acquired a connotation of prostitution, as fur traders allegedly came to use it for Indigenous women in the sex trade. Hill shows that the S-word means prostitute to many Native Americans. Moreover, many American place names with the S-word trade on its lewd associations (Squ-w Humper Dam, Squ-w T-ts, Squ-w Teat Butte).

Given all this, it’s remarkable that many of us European North Americans don’t give a second thought to “squ-w dance,” “squ-w skirt,” and “squ-w bread,” among other Indian Country terms.

We’d brush off those who might inform us that these are offensive. We also tell ourselves that a name like “old squ-w” is tongue-in-cheek at worst; it just refers to how chatty this type of duck is.

The S-word has an innocuous Indigenous provenance, so people who are offended by Squ-w Coulee or old squ-w must be overly sensitive, right? The alternative — that we are being terribly offensive — is unthinkable, so we don’t think it.

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This line of defence only works in the abstract. In practice, it’s like calling your neighbour an “awful hussy” and insisting that it’s just fine because these words actually derive from “full of awe” and “housewife,” respectively.

More closely, it’s like using the N-word with a Black colleague and reassuring her that it simply meant “Black” in the 17th century.

Our defensiveness, then, only works if we think of Indigenous peoples as an abstract part of our history, not as part of our present lives.

If we accept the reality that Indigenous people are our neighbours, our colleagues and our friends, then we should put the S-word behind us for good, in the dustbin of our shared history.