Uncle Tomming

Via Jeff Shaumeyer on Facebook, this appalling church sign in Harlem:

Jeff thought it was the first time he’d noticed Uncle Tom used as a verb. Turns out that the slurs Uncle Tom and plain Tom got verbed at least 50 years ago.

From OED2 (1989), first the noun Uncle Tom as a slur:

The name of the hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel (1851–2) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, used allusively for a black man who is submissively loyal or servile to white men. Also transf. and in extended use. [cites from 1922 on]

and the abbreviated version Tom/tom:

Short for Uncle Tom n.: a black person regarded, esp. by other black people, as behaving in a servile, ingratiating, or complaisant manner towards white people. slang. [cites from 1959 on]

(See the Wikipedia entry for some of the sad history by which the heroic figure of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was transformed, via stage adaptations and minstrel shows, into the submissive, craven character that gave rise to the slur.)

Now the verbs:

Uncle Tom v. (intr.) to act in a manner characteristic of an Uncle Tom; also with it.

1960    New Left Rev. Nov.–Dec. 49/1   Armstrong’s clowning is just Depressing. It isn’t that he ‘uncle toms’ but that the act is so automatic and lifeless. [and thereafter]

tom v. intr. To behave in an ingratiating and servile way to someone of another (esp. white) race. Also to tom it (up) . U.S.slang.

1963    L. Bennett in W. King Black Short Story Anthol. (1972) 161   They say you are going to chicken out, Papa.‥ They’re betting you’ll ‘Tom’. [and thereafter]

The dates 1960 and 1963 for these usages can certainly be improved on. Green’s Dictionary of Slang (2010) has a 1954 cite for the verb tom, in the relevant sense, and that dating could probably be improved on by a systematic search.

Leave a Reply