Obstreperous: A jovial word with an ominous back story

It's a learned, yet folksy, way to describe someone as unruly or troublesome. Its roots are innocuous, but it was also used to describe slaves.

As bills that were passed by the United States House of Representatives pile up in the Senate, remarks that President Joe Biden made last year about whether to abolish the filibuster are back in the news. “It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” Mr. Biden told journalists during his campaign, a humorous reference to the Republican senators. Obstreperous sounds like something Mark Twain might have said if he’d been a middle school teacher – it’s both learned and folksy. It also played a small, though sinister, role in the most appalling period of American history, which raises questions about how we use it and words like it today.

Obstreperous comes from the root strepere, “to make a noise” in Latin, and in its earliest uses meant just that: “clamorous, noisy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A character in a 1600 play, for example, expresses frustration with someone who won’t stop arguing: “Proceed’st thou still with thy ostreperous noise?”

The word quickly acquired a more specific sense as well – “noisily or aggressively resisting control, advice, etc.; turbulent, unruly; ... argumentative” – which remains its primary meaning today. Implicit in obstreperous is the idea that the control is justified and the threat minimal – its tone is patronizing. Students throwing spitballs are obstreperous; militants fighting a rebellion against a government they consider to be unjust are not, though both are “aggressively resisting control.” When President Biden calls Senate Republicans “obstreperous,” he is suggesting that they are fractious, but harmless.  

Obstreperous was not always such a jovial word, however. In 18th- and 19th-century America, it was a common way to describe enslaved people whom plantation owners considered to be “troublesome.” A Virginia memoirist remembered, for example, that his father “had to threaten to sell one obstreperous slave ... in order to make him behave.” In his autobiography, noted educator Robert Moton recounts how his father fought back against an overseer who tried to whip him, then “took the only course, as it seems, that was open to ‘obstreperous’ slaves” and fled to the woods. 

Where does that leave obstreperous? It remains a humorous word to many English speakers today, while others aren’t familiar with it. How much do its ties to American slavery matter? What about the fact that it implicitly creates a hierarchy, setting up an unequal relationship? English speakers are increasingly concerned about language that has these two characteristics, but there has been no public outcry against obstreperous. This is not the case with master, however, and that’s our subject next week. 

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