Gook (/ˈɡk/ or /ˈɡʊk/) is a derogatory term for East and Southeast Asians. It was originally predominantly used by the US military during war time, especially during the Korean and Vietnam wars.[5]

Etymology and use

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of the current usage is unknown.[5] There are three suggested possible origins:

  • An earlier usage of gook, meaning "prostitute", recorded in a slang dictionary published in 1893, which defined gook as "a low prostitute";[6] a similar meaning was recorded for gooh in 1859. This later came to imply a foolish or peculiar person.[7] The goo-goo term, whose origins are similarly uncertain, was first used in 1899 by US troops in the Philippine–American War,[8] although nigger was more prevalent.[9]
  • That when American servicemen heard the term during the Korean war, they heard the word as 'gook" instead of k(g)uk which means "national" (maybe, thus, interpreted as nationalist) goo-goo (also gugu), a term used by the US military to describe Filipinos.[7]
  • That "gook" comes from the Korean word "국" (guk), meaning "country",[10] "한국" (hanguk), meaning "Korea", or "미국" (miguk), meaning "America". For example, American soldiers might have heard locals saying miguk, referring to Americans, and misinterpreted this as "Me gook."[11] It should be noted that "Mỹ Quốc"[12] is an archaism in Vietnamese that died out due to a language shift, starting from just before the Indochina Wars and culminating with the end of that period often referred to as the Vietnam War, which has the same root and similar pronunciation to Korean "미국" (miguk) both stemming from Chinese characters "美國"(Měiguó) also meaning "America."

Mencken reports the earliest use of the word gook: he wrote that US marines occupying Nicaragua in 1912 took to calling the natives gooks and that it had previously been a term for Filipinos.[13] He further mentions that the natives of Costa Rica are sometimes called goo-goos.[14] The first written use was in 1920 and mentions that the marines occupying Haiti used the term to refer to Haitians.[15] US occupation troops in Korea after World War II called the Koreans "gooks".[17] After the return of US troops to the Korean peninsula, so prevalent was the use of the word gook during the first months of the Korean War that US General Douglas MacArthur banned its use, for fear that Asians would become alienated to the United Nations Command because of the insult.[5][18][19] Although mainly used to describe non-European foreigners, especially Asians, it has been used to describe foreigners in general, including Italians in 1944, Indians, Lebanese and Turks in the '70s, and Arabs in 1988.[7] This dual usage is similar to the offensive word wog in British English.

In modern US usage, "gook" refers particularly to Communist soldiers during the Vietnam War. It is generally considered to be highly offensive. In a highly publicized incident, Senator John McCain used the word during the 2000 presidential campaign to refer to his former captors: "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live… I was referring to my prison guards and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend." He later apologized to the Vietnamese community at large.[21]

The term has been used by non-US militaries, notably the Rhodesian forces during the Rhodesian Bush War, where it was used interchangeably with terr and terrorist to describe the guerrillas,[22][23] and by Australian forces during the Vietnam War.[7]