The Fredo flap and the nuances of an insult

CNN’s Chris Cuomo has apologized for exploding at a man who called him Fredo as Cuomo was out with his family. An Aug. 12 video of the encounter captured Cuomo saying, "Punk a-- b------ from the right call me Fredo," and "they use it as an Italian aspersion."

"It's like the 'N-word' for us," Cuomo said. 

The two men nearly came to blows and the raw emotion fueled an eruption on Twitter. 

President Donald Trump joined the storm, tweeting Aug. 13, "I thought Chris was Fredo also. The truth hurts."

Needless to say, Fredo is not a compliment. It comes from "The Godfather" movie epic, a reference to Fredo Corleone, the failed, envious brother of the Mafia family chief Michael. In Fredo’s grasping need for recognition, he exposes his brother to a gangland hit. 

The term is synonymous with the family loser. Things don’t go well for Fredo. In Godfather terms, he ends up sleeping with the fishes.

Cuomo is the younger brother of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the son of Mario Cuomo, who was the state’s governor from 1983 to 1994.

The biggest debate on Twitter is whether Fredo is like the "N-word," as Cuomo put it.

The general consensus is that it is not, but in some circumstances, it can take on ethnic overtones.

Right-wing attacks

Cuomo said conservatives have used the Fredo label against him, and they have. In March, Breitbart, former organizational base of early Trump adviser Steve Bannon, described Cuomo as "a rabid Trump-hater lacking in the intelligence and knowledge to do his job with anything close to competence."  

"This has earned him the nickname ‘Fredo,’" Breitbart said.

In May, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh spoke of "Fredo Cuomo" and "the abject ignorance of media people." 

Ethnic slur? Not so much

It’s clear why Cuomo was insulted when a stranger came up to him and called him Fredo, but his comparison to one of the ugliest of racist words is off target.

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information, said "almost nothing" is equivalent to the N-word.

"There are plenty of abusive epithets for Italian Americans," University of Edinburgh linguist Geoff Pullum said. "I don't think Fredo is even in the class of stereotypical names for Italian Americans."

Scanning its use, Fredo is an all-purpose term with no consistent Italian overtones. It is a metaphor for the weak link in any group.

Journalists and pundits have applied the Fredo tag to a variety of people. In a 2017 article headlined "Why Donald Trump Jr is the Fredo Corleone of the Trump clan," the Daily Standard wrote, "Fredo was the nickname given by the President’s campaign team to his eldest child, Donald Jr." 

Trump critics have used the word to describe Donald Trump Jr. more than a few times, including, as Trump Jr. noted in a tweet, once during a Cuomo interview.

As former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt wrestled with ethics charges, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said Trump was giving him "the Fredo treatment."

A Daily Beast op-ed called Rep. Devin Nunes, R- Calif., "the Fredo of L’Affaire Russe." Over the years, sports commentators have slapped the label on ailing teams including the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Browns. Arbor Day was called "the Fredo Corleone of national holidays."

Plenty of people with Italian last names posted on Twitter that they took no particular offense over Fredo.

But that doesn’t mean the word has no sting when applied to people with Italian heritage. The portrayal of the fictional Corleone family has served as a stereotype for Italian Americans that some feel has been ill-served.

Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House spokesman, tweeted his support for Cuomo.

"Very proud of ⁦@ChrisCuomo. This happens all the time. It’s quite racist," Scaramucci wrote.

Feelings about Trump tend to shape the recent assessments of the overtones of Fredo,  but even allowing for that, Nunberg says ethnic slurs have a way of weaseling their way into a language.

"It’s a familiar pattern," Nunberg told us. "The name of a specific ethnic fictional character becomes a slur for the group that he or she represents. Fredo might be an appropriate analogy for a certain kind of dim younger brother, but when it’s used on Chris Cuomo, it inevitably takes on an ethnic cast."