On looking at the OED’s revised entry for Kaffir, originally a noun but later also developing adjectival uses, perhaps the most striking aspect of the picture that emerges is the diversity that so characterizes the word’s current and historical usage. A feature of the different Englishes used in several geographically quite disparate parts of the world, it ranges from being a racial insult considered so offensive in South Africa that its usage is now legally actionable there to being a perfectly neutral name for an ethnic group of South and mainland South-East Asia. Add to these its origins as a pejorative term used by Muslims to refer to non-Muslims and it starts to become apparent that there is a rich and complex story to be told here.
At the heart of the origin of Kaffir is religious disagreement. The earliest evidence of its usage in English attests that it is used as a noun by Muslims as a pejorative term for a person who does not follow Islam – a use that is both considered offensive and intended to offend. In the earliest individual instance we have found in written English (from 1577) the author, Richard Willes, explains ‘Caffer’ as meaning ‘mysbeleeuer’ (= ‘misbeliever’) and many other instances give similar glosses, such as ‘infidel’ or ‘idolater’. With religious disagreement being at the core of this use, it has not remained restricted to a single geographical area, instead being used in many different parts of the world with Muslim communities. During the 450 or so years that the word has been used in this way it has spread across numerous different regions, including those which are now the countries Egypt, India, and Afghanistan (to which I’ll return later).
Neutral designation to racist slur
From this starting point it is perhaps a little surprising that just over a decade later we find evidence of Kaffir being used (both as a noun and as an adjective) in reference to the Nguni peoples of south-eastern Africa without any detectable offensive impact or derogatory intent. For Thomas Hickock in 1588, translating into English Cesare Federici’s account (in his native Italian) of his travels across the world, the use of ‘the Cafer’ to refer to the Nguni peoples and the description of Nguni traders as ‘Cafer merchants’, in both instances corresponding to Italian Cafero in Federici’s text, appears to have been just as neutral in tone as the nouns and adjectives we use today when simply conveying that a person is from a particular group or region – ‘Belarusian’, for example, or ‘Fijian’. To Hickock, it seems, ‘the Cafer’ was as natural and inoffensive a way of referring to the Nguni peoples as ‘the Portugal’ was of referring to the Portuguese. Since it seems that this use developed from Kaffir being used by Muslims in Africa as a derogatory way of referring to the non-Muslim indigenous peoples, it is difficult to explain this neutrality in tone, but it persisted for a period.
In later centuries we can observe the development from this use of several other (originally) inoffensive uses relating to the Nguni peoples – uses of a type that is fairly usual for a neutral way of referring to a people to develop. For example, just as the use of ‘Mexican’ in reference to the indigenous languages of Mexico develops out of its use as a term for a native or inhabitant of Mexico (see MEXICAN n. & adj. A.1, A.2), we have found instances from 1820 onwards of Kaffir being used in reference to the languages of the Nguni peoples. Another development of this type is the use of ‘Kaffraria’ and ‘British Kaffraria’ to refer to the part of south-eastern Africa inhabited by the Xhosa people, to whom the later uses of ‘Kaffir’ in relation to the Nguni peoples often refer specifically. Not simply a geographical area, in the 19th century this was also a political entity, with its own laws, and it is now part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, though, of course, referring to it as either ‘Kaffraria’ or ‘British Kaffraria’ today is quite unthinkable.
It is difficult to know precisely how and why Kaffir shifted from being used neutrally in reference to the Nguni peoples, their language, their lands, and so on, to become a highly offensive and racially sensitive word, but it seems that an important part of the picture is its coming to be used more generally in reference to any black African, rather than specifically to a member of one of the Nguni peoples. The earliest individual instance we have found of this use is from 1607, in which William Keeling, a sea captain of the East India Company, uses ‘Cafares’ more loosely (or, perhaps, simply inaccurately) in reference to ‘Saldanians’, ‘Saldania’ being a name for the area around the Cape of Good Hope at the time of his writing. No derogatory intent is detectable behind Keeling’s use of the word in this way and, as a whole, the usage of Kaffir with this more generalized meaning does not appear to have been motivated originally by any intention to offend.
However, despite this, it does seem that the generalization presented by this use of Kaffir was considered offensive by those to whom it was used to refer and it certainly came to be used increasingly with derogatory intent over time. The derogatory use of the word eventually became so dominant that its meaning acquired strongly negative implications, as is observable in the development of its slang use as an adjective with negative meanings that range from ‘inferior’ and ‘of a poor quality’ to ‘inept’ and ‘dishonest’. The purely negative association that surrounds the later use of Kaffir can also be observed in derogatory and highly offensive compounds such as ‘kaffir-lover’ and ‘Kaffirboetie’, both pejorative terms for a white person who is considered too friendly with or sympathetic to black people, and in the use of ‘white kaffir’ as an insulting term for a white person who behaves in a way that the speaker associates with black people or who is considered a ‘kaffir-lover’. With uses such as these, the derogatory usage of Kaffir became firmly entrenched in the early 20th century and from approximately 1950, under apartheid in South Africa, the word was widely used by right-wing white people in a tone and context that was consciously offensive and demeaning to black Africans.
It is difficult to overstate the extent to which Kaffir is a word of great racial and political sensitivity in southern Africa today as a result of the offensive impact and derogatory intent of these later uses, but the fact that its usage is currently legally actionable as crimen injuria under South African law underlines its status as one of the most highly sensitive and potentially offensive words in the English-speaking world. For this reason, when people from southern Africa travel to parts of the world in which ‘Kaffir’ is not inseparably associated with racism, they can be shocked at its usage, even when it is used with a meaning that does not relate to southern Africa. For example, in many parts of the world, including Britain, one can find the fruit or leaves of the shrub Citrus histrix – commonly used as a flavouring, particularly in Thai and Indonesian cooking – referred to as ‘kaffir lime’: even though the meaning of ‘Kaffir’ in ‘kaffir lime’ does not directly relate to southern Africa, the perfectly everyday usage of this compound can be quite shocking and uncomfortable to South African ears.
Africa to Asia as slaves & soldiers
In tracing the use of Kaffir from which ‘kaffir lime’ most probably develops we must move our focus several thousand miles eastward from southern Africa to Asia. Specifically, to South and mainland South-East Asia, the region where an ethnic group live, mostly in Sri Lanka, who are referred to as ‘Kaffirs’. That Kaffir comes to be used (both as a noun and as an adjective) in reference to this ethnic group can be explained by the fact that the group in question is descended from the peoples of south-eastern Africa (the Nguni as well as some of the other Bantu-speaking peoples), a large number of whom were brought to the region in the 16th century by both Arabs and Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, as either slaves or soldiers. Indeed, the earliest instances of this use we have found in written English comes from a historical work (from 1763) in which the author, Robert Orme, refers to ‘companies of Caffre slaves’ and describes how ‘a shot from the musquet of a Caffre went through the Nabob’s heart’. However, it is striking that the use of Kaffir in reference to this group has not become offensive or come to be used chiefly with derogatory intent like its use in relation to southern Africa. If it had, it seems quite unlikely that today we would be using ‘kaffir lime’ to refer to the fruit or leaves of Citrus histrix, which, although not obviously connected with this ethnic group specifically, is native to South-East Asia.
Designating a non-Islamic people
There are also instances in English from 1834 onwards of Kaffir being used (both as a noun and as an adjective) in relation to yet another different people: a non-Islamic people living in part of the Hindu Kush area of north-eastern Afghanistan. Similarly to the part of south-eastern Africa inhabited by the Xhosa people having formerly been called ‘Kaffraria’ and ‘British Kaffraria’, the area inhabited by this people was formerly referred to as ‘Kafiristan’. However, unlike ‘Kaffraria’, ‘Kafiristan’ does not appear to have fallen out of use because it was considered offensive. Instead, its name was changed by the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, who conquered the region and, following the population’s conversion to Islam, renamed it ‘Nuristan’ at the end of the 19th century, the people becoming ‘Nuristanis’ rather than ‘Kaffirs’. (As a result of this Kaffir is now only used historically in reference to this people.) Given this context and the fact of Kaffir also being a pejorative term used by Muslims for a person who does not follow Islam, it is perhaps surprising that this use of the word does not appear to have been considered offensive or used with derogatory intent. Its use in reference to this people may have been, at least in part, motivated by the fact that they followed a polytheistic religion instead of Islam and it does seem likely that in the minds of many speakers this use was quite closely associated with its use as a pejorative term for a non-Muslim – for instance, we can infer from ‘Nuristan’ meaning ‘Land of the Enlightened’ in Persian that the conversion of the population to Islam rendered ‘Kafiristan’ an unsuitable name in the eyes of Abdur Rahman Khan – but, from the instances we have found, in English this use of ‘Kaffir’ seems to have been a largely neutral designation.
The potency of insults
That a word with such diversity of usage as Kaffir is sometimes used as either a racial or religious insult – a means of abusing and alienating those who are from a different ethnic background or of a different faith – is an interesting quirk of its development. However, it appears to be rather more than a developmental quirk that its uses with offensive impact and derogatory intent have in many cases come to overshadow its neutral uses. We have seen how in southern Africa the later generalized usage of Kaffir with negative implications rendered the original neutral specific uses (in relation to the Nguni peoples) highly offensive and have caused its usage to become legally actionable in South Africa. Similarly, although the use of Kaffir in reference to the people now known as ‘Nuristanis’ does not appear to have been either offensive or derogatory, it appears that it remained associated with the use of Kaffir as a pejorative term for a non-Muslim and that this association motivated the renaming of ‘Kafiristan’ as ‘Nuristan’ after the conversion of its population to Islam. Thus, when a word possesses both neutral and offensive meanings it is frequently the offensive ones that have a greater influence on its development, dictating how it comes to be used and received. Insults, it seems, do tend to stick in the mind.