Definition of a Thug

When I help out with permit classes, one of the things that makes me cringe is when the legal lecture devolves into a “Can I shoot if…” brainstorming session. “Well let’s suppose [fill in the blank]… In that case can I shoot?  Okay but then what if [fill in the blank]… Can I shoot now?” Once the students start down that road, I promptly reach my wit’s end.  Typically I end up having to throw up my arms, tame the turbulence, and after a moment of silence politely ask: “Did y’all know there is a word for what you’re doing right now?  Yep. It’s called premeditation.”

We do NOT want to line our pockets with prefabricated lists of “Times When I Can Shoot.”  But we do want to be proactive about how to not end up in stupid places doing stupid things with stupid people at stupid times.  And of course, the definition of “stupid” will vary from person to person.  In my opinion, that’s okay (within reason).  For example, you might think it’s stupid to go to Whitehaven after dark.  Since I grew up in Whitehaven (affectionately known by the locals as “Blackhaven”), I might not find that to be so stupid.  Either way, I think it’s good to consider these sorts of things in advance.

Another word that is often subjectively defined is thug.  In my experience, few words have sparked more spirited debate at black dinner tables than this one. And according to Google, its usage has sharply risen in recent years.


Hey you history buffs, can anyone explain that huge spike around the 1830s?

But what does thug actually mean?  Ever thought about it?  What is a thug?  What picture pops in your mind when you think about that word?  Here’s an overview of some of the theories I found in a quick search:


  • Derived from the Hindi word for thief.  A group of people who travelled across India from the 1300s to the 1800s. They have been described as everything from a nomadic religious cult to “an organized gang of assassins.” (Wikipedia)



  • The word thug is “an accepted way of calling somebody the N-word now…. It’s like everybody else said the N-word and then they say ‘thug’ and that’s fine…. What’s the definition of a thug? Really? Can a guy on a football field just talking to people [be a thug?]…. There was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey! They just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and said, ‘Ah, man, I’m the thug? What’s going on here?’  So I’m really disappointed in being called a thug.” (Richard Sherman)


  • The jackbooted variety would be those Clinton-era federal agents with the “power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us” (Wayne LaPierre) … but not all federal agents, just some of them

Pop Culture (Revisionist?)…

  • A thug is “someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them. That person is a thug. [A]nd the life they are living is the thug life. A thug is NOT a gangster.”  (Urban Dictionary, see also Tupac Shakur)

And of course we’ve all heard the term used in reference to Nazis and other oppressive regimes, “enforcers” in organized crime, and a dozen or more other contexts.

Justin Bieber


Several of my trainers often use a familiar mantra for teaching situational awareness: “If he looks like a thug, treat him like a thug.”  I agree with that, broadly speaking.  But as trainers, we do want to be careful about relying on convenient labels like “thug,” because it might mean different things to different students (as shown above).  I think the word “thug” is often just used a verbal short cut — an abbreviated placeholder for all the meticulous details that CCW permit-holders must be able to articulate clearly if ever they are called upon to justify their escalation from yellow, to orange, to red.  But if the stuff hits the fan, our students will have to do better than saying “he was a thug.”

Justin Bieber


Of course, if someone sticks a gun in your face or presses a knife to your throat, it’s really easy to explain why you reasonably feared for your life.  But if you’ve reached that point, chances are you likely made several smaller mistakes over the previous twenty minutes or more.  That’s really the period of time I’m referring to here: the pre-oh-sh*t phase.

I often hear people recount experiences where they avoided others because “there was just something about him” or “he just didn’t sit well with me.”  We all have a right (and I would argue a responsibility) to trust those hairs on the back of our neck, no matter how politically incorrect they may seem.  But sooner or later we might have to translate that feeling to words.  We (and our students) should be prepared to do so effectively.

I often practice with people I encounter in the course of any given day.  If I’m inclined to cross over and walk on the opposite side of the street, in my head I find the words to verbalize what drove me to that resort.  I’m not second-guessing my decision; I’m just taking advantage of an opportunity to better prepare for that dreaded eventuality where I’ve got to explain myself to someone else.  Life itself is a better practice arena than the fanciful world of hypotheticals, IMHO.  When you get that uneasy feeling in real life, are you always able to articulate why?  Can you do so in an objective way that would quiet your cacophonous critics?  Are you sure?