In a New York Times Op-Ed aritcle, Brent Staples says something which suggests that the use of the term “pass” to mean, citing definition “5. d” in the OED,
To be held or accepted as a member of a religious or ethnic group other than one’s own. Used esp. of a person of Negro ancestry who is held to be or regards himself as a white person.
Might have a different etymology than definition 5 a.:
- to pass for, as: to be accepted as equivalent to; to be taken for; to be accepted, received, or held in repute as. Often with the implication of being something else.
Which is what I always assumed it was taken from. The first citation for definition “5. d” is from 1935:
1935 H. W. HORWILL Dict. Mod. Amer. Usage 224/2 In Am. there are many persons with a strain of Negro blood in whom this heritage of colour is so inconspicuous that they might easily be supposed to be of pure white lineage. If such persons leave their Negro associations and succeed in becoming accepted as Whites, they are said to pass.
While the first definition for “5. a” is from Shakespeare:
1596 SHAKES. Merch. V. I. ii. 61 God made him, and therefore let him passe for a man.
But Brent Staples offers this alternative etymology:
… just about every black family in the United States knows of a light-skinned person who decided to avoid the penalties associated with blackness by becoming white. Hundreds of thousands of these people set sail into whiteness — leaving behind black parents, siblings and children — and were never heard from again. The people who abandoned their families were described as “passed” — a euphemism for dead.
Interestingly, the second quote from the OED’s “5. d” definition discusses “passing” in reference to Jews, but drawing an analogy to the African American use of the term:
1938 I. GOLDBERG Wonder of Words vi. 118 There are other Jews who resembling, psychologically, the troubled Negrotry to ‘pass’, which is the Negro term for being taken as a White.
Does anyone know where Brent Staples gets this alternative etymology from?