Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Sticks and Stones

A dispute has popped up on an internet group I frequent as to what linguistic expressions are and are not disparaging to various groups and who is and is not responsible for the hurt feelings that may resulf from their use.

One of the most famous disparaging expressions in the USA is "nigger" of course; others are "fag," "kike," "bull dyke," "greaser," "geezer," etc. Blacks, who commonly use "nigger" in reference to refer to each other with impunity, don't much like hearing it from Whites, especially in contexts in which it can only be taken negatively. And, while gay men may use "fag" with each other, they don't much like hearing it from straight men, especially in contexts in which it can only be taken negatively. This phenomenon of in-group use of slurs is an example of a common phenomeon in which negative expressions (including taboo language) are used by intimates to express solidarity. The key word here is "intimates." The average redneck is unlikely to be an intimate of a middle class Black man. Whoops! I used a slur against, well, hillbillies. Damn! Did it again.

One person took the view, in regard to a negative reference to lesbians, that he didn't think it was all that disparaging. This brings up the question as to who does and does not have the right to decide what is and is not disparaging to a particular group. Does everyone get a vote or to just those in the group it is applied to? In my opinion, it has to be the group targeted by the expression. The members of that group are the only ones who know whether or not it engenders hurt feelings.

I find it quite amusing when middle-class, protestant, heterosexual, adult (but not old), White males are moved to pronounce as to what is and is not an acceptable linguistic reference to members of a minority group. "I don't think it is all that offensive," is the sort of thing one often hears. That fact is that members of that group never experience the hurt feelings that others experience when offensive expressions are directed at them. How do you insult persons who, as a group, are at the top of the social ladder? Call them "Whitey"? Sorry, that just doesn't get the job done. I think some Blacks may have hoped that "Honky" would hurt but it too misses the mark. In fact, in my long life I have only heard one term used in reference to a socially priveledged class that had any real bite was when a gay friend refered to me and other heterosexuals as "breeders." There is definitely something dehumanizing about this term but it is simply too funny to hurt.

One of the contentious issues that arises in the USA is whether use of language referring to Native American Indians as nicknames for sports teams is offensive. There are two classes of such references. One is when a tribal name is used. "Florida State Seminoles" and "University of Illinois Illini" are two such cases. The other is when a term like "Redskin" or "Brave" or "Warrier" is used. So far, I know of no teams that have abandoned use of tribal names. However use of "Redskin" has been dropped by the University of Miami (Ohio) in favor of "Redhawk" (PETA has so far not objected) and Stanford University dropped it in favor of "Cardinals" (with PETA again staying silent). The Washington Redskins have not followed suit. Money is obviously at the root of this refusal to respect the wishes of Amerindians though the football team's executives would doubtless tell us it is merely "tradition." There are many who seem to think that "tradition" is a legitimate argument aginst change of whatever type.

The second issue that came up in m recent discussion of the use of disparaging references to minority groups is that nothing that should be done about such references because the people to whom these references are directed are responsible for how they react. I was blown away by this defense. Certainly, we are responsbile for how we react to things that happen to us that we don't like such as being passed over for a promotion or being told one's spouse wants a divorce or suffering a debilitating injury and such other calamities. And, if we are smart, we will learn to cope with racial, ethnic, and other similar sorts of slurs. However, this doeesn't let the boor who makes such slurs off the hook.

The persons wishing to let the boors off the hook several times cited the old retort, "Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will ever hurt me." I suspect that most of us had mothers who gave us this to use as a retort to use to those making fun of us. This ancient old platitude persists despite the fact that it is transparently false. In fact, proof of its being false is the very fact that it is used. If words truly didn't hurt me, then I would have no need for such a retort.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Does everyone get a vote or to just those in the group it is applied to? In my opinion, it has to be the group targeted by the expression. The members of that group are the only ones who know whether or not it engenders hurt feelings."

I wonder if there shouldn't be some dispassionate evaluation of the intent of those outside the group, in specific cases, anyway. Otherwise, you're giving groups permission to hijack language and colonize it.

One example I can think of is from Philip Roth's The Human Stain. In that novel, a professor, in referring to some people who were registered for his class but never showed up, exclaimed, "What are they, spooks?" The diaphanous students turned out to be blacks, and successfully tarred the prof with racism, when there was no question that he was using "spooks" to refer to "ghosts".

2:05 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The Human Stain involved an actual lexical ambiguity and what happened to the professor was a human and linguistic injustice. There was a similar real world case not long ago when an aide to the D. C. Mayor used the word "niggardly" and was promptly sacked. There was, of course, an cry of outrage and upon reflection, the Mayer reinstated the aide. This was a case of lingusitic ignorance, perhaps forgivable since this word is rarely used. The former was a case in which "good people" didn't do the right thing. Fortunately they did in the real world case.

I can't think of any cases of hijacking that isn't legitimate. Blacks have a right to try to object to "nigger" and Jews to "kike." They are terms of abuse pure and simple. So is "spook" when used in refernce to a Black person who is not a CIA agent.

3:05 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I can't think of any cases of hijacking that isn't legitimate."

How about 'squaw', from a bogus etymology equating it with a prostitute? I suppose that the mere use of a distinctive word for a native American woman, as contrasted with women in general, could be taken as offensive. But I notice that Merriam Webster labels 'squaw' as offensive, but not 'brave' in the sense of a native American warrier.

Then there is the attempted hijacking of 'picnic', based on an even more bogus just so story about slave owners eating 'pickaninnies'. That attempt was unsuccessful, but it was made. If we grant the right to take offense to everybody, then it follows that we should avoid this word as taboo.

11:52 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Richard, the second case is like "niggardly" in that it involves a false etymology. "Pickaninnies" comes from a Portuguese word for child "pequenin." Obviously, the hijacking didn't work since everyone still uses the word.

I'm not familiar with the "squaw" case. I understand that while "Jew" is not seen as offensive, "Jewess" is. I wonder if terms for women in cases where we are dealing with groups that have been seriously repressed might not be at work in both cases.

The only time we need be concerned is when an ordinary word commonly used is hijacked or an attempt is made to do that. The word "fag" would be a case since it also refers to cigarettes.

I never take the advice to never say "never." One result is that good comments come up.

2:55 PM


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