native Nina-Vivi Andersen visits the old town of Kangeq, off
the coast of Greenland's capital Nuuk. She has her own perspective
on the word Eskimo: "I don't mind to be called Eskimo
it is neutral for me. But when I saw an ice cream store
in London with a name Eskimo it felt weird.
But I feel weird to be called Inuit, too. I'm just a Greenlander."
(photo by John W. Poole - NPR)
Confused about the word Eskimo?
It's a commonly used term referring to the native peoples of
Alaska and other Arctic regions, including Siberia, Canada and Greenland.
It comes from a Central Algonquian language called Ojibwe, which
people still speak around the Great Lakes region on both sides of
the U.S.-Canadian border. But the word has a controversial history.
(Editor's note: And that's why it's not used in the stories on Greenland
that NPR has posted this week.)
People in many parts of the Arctic consider Eskimo a derogatory
term because it was widely used by racist, non-native colonizers.
Many people also thought it meant eater of raw meat, which connoted
barbarism and violence. Although the word's exact etymology is unclear,
mid-century anthropologists suggested that the word came from the
Latin word excommunicati, meaning the excommunicated ones, because
the native people of the Canadian Arctic were not Christian.
But now there's a new theory. According to the Alaska Native
Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, linguists
believe the word Eskimo actually came from the French word esquimaux,
meaning one who nets snowshoes. Netting snowshoes is the highly-precise
way that Arctic peoples built winter footwear by tightly weaving,
or netting, sinew from caribou or other animals across a wooden
But the correction to the etymological record came too late
to rehabilitate the word Eskimo. The word's racist history means
most people in Canada and Greenland still prefer other terms. The
most widespread is Inuit, which means simply, "people."
The singular, which means "person," is Inuk.
Of course, as with so many words sullied by the crimes of colonialism,
not everyone agrees on what to do with Eskimo. Many Native Alaskans
still refer to themselves as Eskimos, in part because the word Inuit
isn't part of the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia.
But unless you're native to the circumpolar region, the short
answer is: You probably shouldn't use the word Eskimo.