From Dago to Wog: Remembering stinging slurs

Andonis Piperoglou


‘Dago’ is a slur that circulated across the Pacific. It’s a word that was derogatorily and prejudicially applied to people from the Mediterranean region. Put simply, ‘dago’ was a racial slur that insulted a certain group of migrants as alike and unwanted within the operations of popular racial speech in Australia. Its meaning and usage has largely been forgotten. In a similar vein to the more contemporary word ‘wog’ – which is currently re-circulating on Australian cinema screens due to the release of the movie Wog Boys Forever – the slur dago has a highly contested usage. Benign for some, and acutely offensive for others, the word has a troublesome history that is tied to how the use of racialist langauge is both exclusionary and confronting, while also, at times, empowering. Acting as key words in the lexicon of Australian racialist vernacular, ‘dago’ and ‘wog’ are significant, if slightly misunderstood, terms in Australian society and politics. 

In 1927, Smith Weekly cartoonist, Charles Hallet, vividly depicted the fear of so-called ‘Dago Immigration’. Two ships – one heading to the USA, the other heading to ‘White Australia’ – are moored at a loading dock. The Union Jack and Stars and Stripes fly on each ship’s stern, reinforcing national affiliation. At the centre of the cartoon is a shadowy warehouse with a sign saying ‘Southern Europe’. Scurrying out of the warehouse are an inordinate number of mice. Due to the US’s comprehensive immigration restriction law – which established for the first time numerical limits on immigration and a global racial hierarchy that favoured migrants from Northern Europe above all others – the mice are blocked from boarding the ship bound for the US and, instead, scramble to the vessel destined for Australia (see image at end).[1]

Viewed as a humorous form of political commentary, the image pokes fun at Australia’s inability to halt what was reported to be ‘The Dago Deluge’.[2] It aptly portrays 1920s anxieties about border control and the desire to ensure a White (Anglo-British) Australia was not compromised. If the US was halting immigration from Southern Europe based on new categories and hierarchies of difference, as well as strictly imposing state surveillance on its land border, then Australia feared certain peoples, like those from Mediterranean region, would be redirected to its shores. The depiction of migrants from Southern Europe as mice, however, also pointedly illustrates how the idea of unwanted ‘Dago Immigration’ often morphed into dehumanising forms of representation. Shown as teeming vermin, the association that migrants from Southern Europe were unwanted ‘dagos’ had a wide circulation. Yet, despite the ubiquity of the racial slur, scant historical attention has been paid to it.

Indeed, the ubiquitousness of the slur sometimes informed the self-identifications of migrants. In 1921, for example, the Brisbane Courier printed an article by a migrant who went by the intriguing, hyphenated name of “Greco-Italian.’ Titled ‘The Dago’, the article noted that the use of the word was ‘common among the ignorant and uncouth’ but it was not ‘ever found on the lips of the educated and refined.’ As a self-identifying transcultural descendent, the author added,

as a descendent of two nations, who in the brave days of the old were responsible for “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” I can afford to hold myself as high socially as the best Englishman, Scot, or Irishman [...] Just look at what the Italians are doing with sugar in North Queensland. Why, sir, they will be the industrial salvation of tropical Australia! […] The industry of Italians is proverbial. In New York city […] my fellow countrymen are regarded as the most industrious of the labouring classes.[3] 

In refuting the use of the slur as unrefined speech, the Greek-Italian spokesperson chose to promote the labouring efforts of Italians in New York and the civilisational attributes of both Greece and Rome. In doing so, engagement with the derogatory meaning of the term seemed to enforce a definite connection between two migrant groups who were strikingly made into ‘dagoes’ through popular racial talk. The merits of Italian labour efficiency and the civilisational heritage shared between Greece and Rome implied that both Italians and Greeks had something to offer Australia, like their counterparts in the United States. By virtue of the duality of cultural ancestry, the articulations of ‘Greco-Italian’ affirmed the arrival of a new historical migrant subject that could draw upon a self-ascribed transcultural category for maximum effect. The desire to establish common purpose and experience was thus a powerful one in challenging the slippery and contingent racial debasement of people from the Mediterranean.

As the twentieth century started to reach its mid-way point, ‘dago’ continued to be used in Australia with reference to the United States. Sydney’s Catholic Freeman’s Journal in 1940, for example, noted that ‘the very lowest level of American intelligence or unintelligence’ was now commonly ‘using the word “dago”.’ ‘The historical implication of this phrase,’ it was added, was

very amusing. The dago, generally speaking, is a member of those darker races which have colonised South America and whose original breeding ground is to be sought in the Peninsulas of the Mediterranean. The chief characteristics of the dago are knives, rages, romantic passions, reckless behaviour, garlic and guitars. With these things the being in question create a perpetual disturbance quite out of proportion to their importance, or in other words, to their wealth; and have been a terrible nuisance to the more solid communities who are acquainted with the reign of law.[4]

Amalgamating people from the Mediterranean within the dominant racial taxonomies, the term seemed to reinforce categorisation of people into racial labels that criss-crossed boundaries of class, crime, character, and even continents. Its adoption by both ‘the Britisher and Yankee’, as one reporter wrote from L'Italo-Australiano, signified that its mobility was tied to a particular contestability within the transnational project of whiteness.[5]

The debasing rhetoric associated with the term had a lingering effect. Peter Veneris, for example, experienced the physical pain the slur could inflict as a child of Greek background who lived in Lockhart, in south-western New South Wales. In an interview for an oral history project on Australia’s Greek-run cafés, Veneris noted,

I was called a dago when I went to school. I didn’t know what it meant, so I would fight and fight. We were proud of being Greek, but not of being called dagoes. When we got the café it changed from dagoes to greasy dagoes – greasy spoon dagoes.[6]

Frequent references to greasiness easily turned the slur into one associated with an unhygienic lifestyle and dirty labour practices. Moreover, the phonetic exactness between the words grease and Greece in the English language meant that the infliction of ‘greasy dago’ could act as a rather stinging insult for Greeks. Beyond the obvious connotation that being greasy meant being slippery, it could also imply that Greeks were susceptible to acting corruptly, as the popular saying ‘to grease someone’s palm’ was a popular euphemism for bribery. As Veneris’ recollections testify, the use of the slur could thus leave migrant families and individuals feeling isolated and unwanted.

Later, in 1969, an investigative article – the first in a series on migrants – was published by Sydney’s Tribute. Written by a Greek community leader in Melbourne, George Zangalis, it was titled ‘My Kids are still called dagoes’. Interviewing working class migrant men who worked for Victorian Railways, Zangalis was keen to address social problems created by Australia’s immigration program that were linked to wages, working conditions, social services, education opportunities, and citizenship status. In an interview with Fotis, a Greek man who worked as a pitman for 12 years, we see the slur overlap with a word that also became common in Australian racialist vernacular.

I’ve learned to live with a very small income – the children never wear new clothes or shoes, and mostly do without sweets and entertainment – but even so I reckon I need at least $60 a week […] Here is something else I want to say. My children are still called ‘dagoes’ at school. Not long ago I was attacked on the street by thugs who kept calling me wog dago.[7]

Here we see an early example in which ‘dago’ was directly associated with the more contemporary slur, ‘wog’. As a working-class migrant worker reflected on his struggles, the two slurs are referenced in relation to violence and the concern that a father has for his children and their futures.

There are many more examples that could be drawn on to highlight how the everyday language of race had been contested by and reinvented by migrants and their offspring. Further examination of popular race talk could also offer a plethora of comparative historical accounts into how a range of other offensive racialising slur (like Jap, Chow, Coon, Reffo, Fob, Banana, Coconut, and Wasp) overlapped and differed, as well as being reworked and debated in both public and private spheres. By historicising the dynamics of race talk, it is important to note that the story of racial slurs has long been held as a saga of abuse and intolerance, reflecting a complex interplay between the gaze of Australian whiteness and the harsh exclusionary languages it fosters. Having a racial slur aimed at you could be shaken off as a tongue-in-cheek joke or accepted as an irksome form of endearment, yet it could also sharply, as well as bluntly, offend; having a racial slur flung at you, at least within the confines of one’s own ethnic community and family home, was often taught to be ignored. Its sting was often not meant to last.

Yet, this story begins to fade once we recognise just how pervasive and malleable some racial slurs were; how dependent the gaze of White Australia was on concocting slurs; and how intertwined active and passive modes of refuting, rejecting and reworking the everyday use of racial slurs was to the dynamics of migrant cultural retention and feelings of ethnic pride. Racial slurs, like ‘dago’ or ‘wog’, were not anomalous to the experience of migrants and their offspring, but fundamental to it. By recognising how everyday race talk and migrant identity formations worked in tandem, we can rethink how we might better work though the violence and trauma that racialist name-calling inflicts. Today, as the sold-out screenings of Wog Boys Forever reveal, contesting and reworking racial slurs through humour has contemporary salience for many. What was once a slur became a taboo, and is now a form of collective identification.

Racial slurs are not only imposed categories. They have become embraced identities for migrants and their offspring. Racial terms like dago and wog have been seized upon and used with new meaning. They are sometimes used to distance oneself from other migrants, sometimes used to build connections with other ethnic groups, and sometimes campaigned against with emotional prowess. To those who felt, and continue to feel, the sting of racial slurs it is not always clear whether contesting such slurs is a personal or group issue, whether it entails overcoming stereoptying or changing habits, and whether it is practical or unrealistic. Words can never harm you, it is often said, but what about the concepts behind them?



Andonis Piperoglou is the Hellenic Senior Lecturer in Global Diasporas at the University of Melbourne. He has published widely on the history of whiteness and Greek settlement in Australia and teaches extensively on the histories of racism, migration and diaspora. This blog post stems from a chapter, ‘“Dirty Dagoes” Respond: A Transnational History of a Racial Slur’, that was recently published in Redirecting Ethnic Singularity: Italian Americans and Greek Americans in Conversation (edited by Yiorgos Anagnostou, Yiorgos D. Kalogeras and Theodora Patrona), the winner of the 2022 Modern Greek Studies Association Vasiliki Karagiannaki Best Edited Book Prize in Modern Greek Studies (North America).


[1] Image caption: ‘As Chales Hallett Sees The Dago Immigration Joke’, Smith’s Weekly, 9 July 1927, 14

[2] See for example, ‘The Dago Deluge’, Truth, 20 February 1904, 2; ‘Undesirable Aliens. A Deluge of Dagoes’, West Australian Sunday Times, 9 Feburary 1902, 3; ‘Do We Want the Dagoes? A Threatened Deluge’, The Border Morning Mail and Riverina Time, 7 December 1907, 2.

[3] ‘The Dago’, Brisbane Courier, September 29, 1921, 7.

[4] ‘These Dagoes,’ Catholic Freeman’s Journal, July 25, 1940, 9.

[6] Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis, ‘Telling tales of Australia's country Greek cafes: A project insight,” Oral History Association of Australia Journal, no. 34, (2012): 9.

[7] ‘My Kids Are Still Called Dagoes. Second Class Citizens?’, Tribune, 16 July 1969, 5.

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