How to name the 'Bushmen'?

All the terms commonly used to refer to the
Bushman peoples might have pejorative origins.
Survival uses ‘Bushman’ (plural: Bushmen) mainly
because it is the most widely understood. The
people usually referred to as ‘Bushmen’ are not
one but several peoples, each speaking a
different language, so each group has its own
term for itself and for outsiders. Although many
names have been given to them by others, the
‘Bushmen’ as a whole do not yet agree on any
single name to give themselves. In the absence of
a single term, many have come to prefer the term
‘Bushmen’. This is the English form of the
Dutch/Afrikaans ‘Bosjemans’ or ‘Bossiesmans’,
which has been in use since the 1680s. The most
likely origin is from the term ‘bossiesman’
meaning ‘bandit’ or ‘outlaw’; only much later was
its meaning restricted to the people called
‘Bushmen’ today.

Despite the origins of the term, some of the
people themselves accept this name. The Ju/hoansi
in Namibia decided that although it was
problematic, they would use ‘Bushmen’ because
everyone knows to whom it refers. Some Bushmen
in Botswana use the term to show their
relationship to the ‘bush’, in other words to
their land, which is of utmost importance to
them. For these reasons, it is the term used by
Survival International.

The term ‘San’ has recently become more used in
some places. The word comes from the Nama
language of the KhoiKhoi herders. Its full
origins are unclear but, to the Khoikhoi, a Sa
was a bad person and not one of themselves. This
too seems to have had a fairly broad meaning and
was not applied only to hunter-gatherers. It has
recently been used as an alternative to
‘Bushmen’, at first only by academics but lately
more widely, especially in Namibia, despite its
similarly pejorative origins. It appeals mostly
to those western academics who consider the term
‘Bushmen’ to be sexist and racist. In 1996 it
was adopted as the preferred term by a meeting of
‘San’ representatives. It is used by several
organisations in southern Africa, but one Bushmen
expert has referred to it as a ‘regrettable
label’ . Another has noted, ‘In the Kalahari,
’San’ has all the baggage that the ‘N-word’ has
in America. It quickly became a badge among
Western academics [for being] on the fashionable
side, politically. It had nothing to do with
respect.’ The associated term ‘Khoisan’ has been
used to refer to the groups of hunters and
herders in southern Africa who speak click

In Botswana, but nowhere else, the common word is
‘Basarwa’, from the Setswana language. ‘Ba-’
means ‘people’, and the end of the word probably
comes from a Bantu term used for all despised
outsiders. Some people in Botswana say the name
comes from the Setswana phrase ba-sa-rua digkoma,
‘those who do not rear cattle’. However this
could be an invented explanation of a word that
already existed. The term Masarwa is more
derogatory than Basarwa and is now widely
considered unacceptable. To many, however,
Basarwa is merely a euphemism for Masarwa.

The Naro Bushmen of Botswana favour the term
Noakwe or N/oakwe, which means ‘red people’, to
distinguish themselves from the ‘black people’.
It was adopted in the early 1990s by the Bushman
organisation First People of the Kalahari.
Another term used is simply ‘Kwe’ meaning
‘people’. These words, rooted in Bushmen
languages and chosen by them are clearly the most
appropriate terms, but they have yet to win wider
acceptance. Until that happens, and the general
public recognises these terms as referring to
‘Bushman’ peoples, the term Bushmen remains the
most widely accepted word among Bushmen, the most
widely understood term among the general public
and therefore the most valuable in conveying
information to the media and international