On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that "one of my staff is Spanish and informs me that the word 'macaca' " -- twice used by Sen. George Allen recently to describe a volunteer on the campaign of Allen's Democratic Senate challenger -- was not a racial slur, but "in Spanish means 'clown.' Well, I can see why that would offend somebody in an immigrant community. Yeah, callin' somebody a clown."
On the August 16 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that the word "macaca" -- twice used by Sen. George F. Allen (R-VA) to describe S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer with the Jim Webb campaign, Allen's Democratic Senate challenger -- was not a racial slur, but rather means "clown" in Spanish. Limbaugh attributed the translation to a member of his staff, stating: "[O]ne of my staff is Spanish and informs me that the word 'macaca' in Spanish means 'clown.' Well, I can see why that would offend somebody in an immigrant community. Yeah, callin' somebody a clown."
On August 11, as Media Matters for America has noted, Allen was caught on tape referring to Sidarth as "Macaca" and "[w]elcome[d]" Sidarth "to America and the real world of Virginia." Sidarth is of Indian descent, but he was reportedly born and raised in Virginia. As The Washington Post reported on August 15, "In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants, according to several Web sites that track ethnic slurs." Allen has claimed that his remarks "have been greatly misunderstood by members of the media."
Limbaugh's assertion that "macaca" simply means "clown" ignores two key facts: Limbaugh's explanation was not Allen's; and as Media Matters noted, Allen was raised by a mother who was herself raised in Tunisia, a former French colony in Northern Africa, where the word "macaca" is used as a racial slur.
The Allen campaign has not adopted Limbaugh's "explanation." Instead, according to the August 15 Post article, the campaign first claimed that Allen did not know what "macaca" means, and that his use of the term was really intended as a play on the word " 'mohawk,' what his campaign staff had nicknamed Sidarth because of his haircut," which, according to the Post, Sidarth characterizes as "a mullet -- tight on top, long in the back."
Allen's campaign aides has since reportedly claimed that Allen was calling Sidarth a "mash-up" of terms that amounted to "shit-head." According to an August 16 post on The National Journal's Hotline weblog:
Three Virginia Republicans confirmed to the Hotline that several Allen campaign aides and advisers are telling allies that the word was a made-up, off-the-cuff neologism that these aides occasionally used to refer to tracker S.R. Sidarth well before last Saturday's videotaped encounter.
According to two Republicans who heard the word used, "macaca" was a mash-up of "Mohawk," referring to Sidarth's distinctive hair, and "caca," Spanish slang for excrement, or "shit."
Said one Republican close to the campaign: "In other words, he was a shit-head, an annoyance."
The post added that "Allen, according to Republicans, heard members of his traveling entourage and Virginia Republicans use the phrase and picked it up. It was the first word that came to his mind when he spied Sidarth at the weekend's event, according to Republicans who have been briefed on Allen's version of the event."
On The American Prospect's weblog Tapped, Prospect senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta provided some background on the term's meaning in Spanish. " Macaca is used in Spanish to mean monkey or a fool, and because Spanish is a gendered language, it is the female form." Continuing, Franke-Ruta wrote, "To Spanish-speaking ears, Allen said: 'Let's give a welcome to joker/monkey-girl, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.'"
From the August 16 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:
LIMBAUGH: And if it weren't for the EIB Network, we wouldn't be exposing this to you over and over again, as the drive-by media will do to George Allen. The Washington Post has done two days on this.
One of my -- one of my staff is Spanish and informs me that the word "macaca" in Spanish means "clown." Well, I can see why that would affect somebody in an immigrant community. Yeah, callin' somebody a clown. That's worse than calling somebody a white "n-word." I guess that's far worse than making fun of Mahatma Gandhi and other Indians pumping gas in St. Louis.*
LIMBAUGH: I'd forgotten that. Mr. Snerdly reminds me that [George H.W.] Bush 41 -- that'd been the '92 [presidential] campaign, right? -- called Clinton and Gore "a couple of Bozos," and the drive-by media went nuts -- you can't call people clowns, I guess -- Bozos, macacas -- what have you.
Correction: Originally, this text linked to video of comments made by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) in June. However, Limbaugh appears to have been referring to a January 2004 speech by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), in which, according to the Associated Press, the senator "introduced a quote from Gandhi by saying, 'He ran a gas station down in St. Louis.' " Clinton later apologized for the comment. Media Matters regrets the error.