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Donald Tricarico, a professor of sociology at Queensborough Community College, told me that the terms hark back to a time when some didn’t consider Italians really to be white.They viewed the sleeveless undershirt as a working-class garment, and someone — or a whole bunch of people — gave it this racialized label as a way to “otherize” Italian immigrants, who were often poor and did manual labor.Not long ago, an acquaintance mentioned that her dad wears “wife beaters.” She was referring to the sleeveless, ribbed undershirt also known as an A-shirt.
Consider those accused of abuse: Harvey Weinstein, Eric Schneiderman, the former White House aide Rob Porter and the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Abhishek Gattani. But how can we overlook the literal meaning of the words emanating from our mouths?
Or, as one young woman told The Times in 2001, when asked to consider what the words meant: “Now that you mention it, I’m like, damn!
Now it’s sometimes shortened to plain old “beater.”In 2001, in an article in this newspaper titled “An Undershirt Named … ” an Oxford English Dictionary editor was quoted saying that the term had entered the lexicon in part from rap, gay and gang subcultures. But long before wife beater, the sleeveless undershirt-worn-as-outer garment attracted a malignant sort of attention.
In the mid-20th century, some called it the “dago tee” or “guinea tee” — offensive epithets directed at Italian immigrants.
Dominique Padurano, an adjunct assistant professor of history at Bronx Community College, speculates that dago tee evolved into wife beater when people realized that overt racism was no longer acceptable.
“It’s a way we can still make fun of Italians without saying names like ‘dago’,” she told me.Given the torrent of revelations of abuse against women in the #Me Too era, the name suddenly seemed grossly inappropriate.We don’t call our pants “child molesters” or our hats “cat mutilators.” We immediately recognize such descriptions as violent and abhorrent.Just like your father Just like your mother What sort of example do you think you're setting? Coming to cunt I just can't believe you did that You cunt, you fucking cunt Who do you think you are? ”“People aren’t calling it a wife beater because they believe that beating your wife is O.K.,” Adam Klein, an assistant professor of communication studies at Pace University, told me.The first time a student submitted “wife beater” to describe the shirt was in 1996, she told me in an email.After 2007, students stopped mentioning it, she said, not because it had fallen out of use, but because it was then so widely adopted that no one considered it remarkable.But I could find no evidence of this in news archives. In any case, what these origin stories fail to explain is why, if the term has its inspiration in the mid-20th century, young people waited until the 1990s to embrace it.Connie Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina who studies American slang, surveys her students periodically for neologisms.