This word has been used for centuries, although in strikingly different contexts. The most likely origin is the French term “Mélange,” which simply means “mixture.” It is also attributed to an archaic African word “Malungo” which means “comrade” or “companion.” “Malungo” is also commonly found in Eighteenth Century Portuguese dictionaries.
The word “Mulingin” was an actual surname in Germany. In 1710, a German text titled Life of the Most Famous Churches and Teachers of the 1600s, by Erdmann Uhse, mentions an individual named “Martha Mulingin.”
A book discussing both French and Spanish terms and phrases, titled The Treasury of French and Spanish, was published in 1616. Author Cesar Oudin mentions the French term “Malengin.” The translated definition, at that point, was “trap” or “fraud.”
A “proper” spelling wasn’t decided upon until years after their discovery, so that debate is essentially pointless. It has been spelled “Malungeon” as well as “Mulungeon.” There are probably several other archaic spellings used before a formal structure was given to the term.
The foundation makes little difference, as you will see. Origins did not change or alter its future use. The word “Melungeon” was nothing more than a derogatory racial slur. Today, it would be the same as outsiders giving an entire community a name like “Mulatto” or “Half-breed.”
When you venture into old documents, there are two distinct and separate uses for the term “Melungeon.” The first is a degrading synonym for mulatto or mixed race. It is completely generic and has no ethnical or racial merit. It is used for racial combinations of all types.
The term “Melungeon” was used as a degrading epithet in reconstruction-era Tennessee. The Democratic editors of Central and Western Tennessee used the term to malign all peoples of Eastern Tennessee, who were predominantly Republican. This was also to insinuate that the people living in the area were racially mixed, therefore “inferior.” As far back as 1840, it was used as a racially charged political slur in that state.
The second use relates to the Hancock County group of “Melungeons.” This secluded community lived exclusively in Hancock County, Tennessee. They lived in these mountains from the Eighteenth through the early Twentieth Century. The data reports the first three original Melungeon families in the region: Gibsons, Mullins and Collins.
The etymology is irrelevant because “Melungeons” never used the word for their community. It’s most likely that no group of people, anywhere in the nation, used such a term to describe themselves. Early on, the Melungeons resented any insinuation they were a hybrid of other races. They declared from the earliest times that they were Portuguese. The white settlers around them gave them the title “Melungeon.” For over a century, the community was told what they were, rather than having their own words respected.
We’ll refer to the community as the “Melungeons” to simplify the discussion, but grudgingly so. It does not alter the term’s history or existence as a racially offensive word.