Monday, April 16, 2007

A Note on "Ho"

A number of whites have brought up the apparent wide spread use of "ho" in rap music and wonder how it is that it is okay for blacks to use "ho" but not whites. You would have be a pretty dumb white person to suggest that somehow the use of "ho" by rappers legitimizes its use by whites but the question of why Imus is catching heat for using this word in the absence of equally harsh criticism of its use by rappers is worth pondering.

As I noted in my previous blog, no respectable black person would use "ho" in a derogatory way to refer to a woman unless, perhaps, they were very, very angry, an emotional state in which unfortunate things are often said. I Googled "ho" with some other terms to zero in on it and ran across an interesting post by a linguist, Doug Wilson. He notes that "ho" is sometimes meant to refer to women generally though it is derogatory. I suspect this is the way in which Imus meant to be using it. Wilson also notes that "bitch" is used that way as well. Indeed, I will never forget a canoing trip I took with three other men many years ago in which one never used any word other than "bitch" to refer to women. I pointed out my unhappiness at this way of speaking but it was clear I was dealing with a recently divorced, very angry redneck (whom I had never met before) and nothing short of a beating would get him to stop using it and I didn't want to get tossed into a Canadian jail on assault charges.

Older folks will remember Dick Gregory's writing a book he titled "Nigger" hoping that he could rid the word of its negative connotations by such a linguistic ploy. It didn't work, of course. I suggest your read the back cover for a very entertaining, possibly not entirely truthful story.

What Gregory tried to do with "nigger" does happen to other words. In fact, the word "ho," used to refer to women generally, albeit in a derogatory way, has been liberated from being synonymous with "whore." But, as Wilson notes, even a black rapper would not not likely use the term to address his grandmother or mother ("Look, Ho, you need to get out of my face"). It hasn't become that liberated.

The word "ho" developed due to a process we find in the South generally, and in African American English Vernacular (AAEV), of r-dropping at the ends of words (including before word-final consonants). So, "car" becomes "ca" and "park" becomes "pak." This happens in Boston English and in British RP ("received pronunciation") as well. However, as anyone who has listened to British RP and in Boson and Southern English, and AAEV will note that identical words will not sound exactly the same in these four dialects due to various factors including the possibility of the "lost" r leaving a trace in how the preceding vowel is actually pronounced. An Ohio State phonetician showed me spectrograms of words with r's immediately following vowels which demonstrated that they do have an effect on how the preceding vowels are pronounced and that some vowels seem not to have following "r's". My recollection is that the vowels in "pet" and "pat" cannot be followed by "r". You may be able to find counter-examples (and if so please share them in the comment area). The upshot is that as 'r's" are lost in different dialects, the effects "r's" have on preceding vowels might be lost to different degrees and different ways in different dialects. This is a very complicated issue and phonetics is not by any means my strong suit -- I arguably don't even have a phonetics suit -- and so I will stop while ahead (I hope). In any event, in AAEV, "ho" seems to have no trace of the "lost" "r". Thus, "whore" becomes "ho."

[Edit: On second thought, it occurred to me that "pear" might contain the vowel of "pet." At the time I wrote the blog, I was thinking it might be the vowel in "paid." This illustrates the difficulties in identifying vowels before "r," at least for me.]

So, in AAEV, there would seem to be at least two conventional meanings of "ho," namely "whore," and "woman" with the latter having derogatory connotations on a scale from mildly derogatory to vilely derogatory. Just how derogatory it is would depend on the context and the relationship between the speakers. I have heard/read it said that there can be no "affectionate" uses of "ho" but that simply isn't true. It would require a very close relationship and an informal or even intimate context. Right now I am reading a novel by Carol O'Connell in which one male detective sprinkles "you bastard" into his conversation with another detective. This is the way of talking I have in mind.

So, the answer to the question, "Can a white person use "ho"?" is "yes," provided that she and the other woman have a very close relationship, reciprocally use it, and they are in an informal or intimate context. It was reported to me some 10 or more years ago by some African American children in a high school in Oklahoma City that the kids used "ho" in reference to males as well as females. How widespread that is I do not know. As to such a use, I say, "Why not?" What's good for the goose is good for the gander, as the saying goes.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

The reasons that whore turns to Ho (besides the dropping of the r) is worth considering...
I'd say that shorting the word to Ho makes its sound more benign & thus makes it easier to say. As an insult though, the meaning hasn't changed a bit, IMO.

12:14 AM

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12:58 PM

Blogger Ginneh Akbar said...

The uproar over Imus was not because of him being white and using the word "ho". To imply that that's a "black" word and ok for black people to use is ridiculous. What he actually said was that the girls were "nappy headed hoes" which was derogatory against black women and it was completely inappropriate to refer to some young college students in that way. I don't think anyone ever suggested that "Ho" was a black word.

2:06 AM


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