in Things that make you go "hmm"

Semantic Shift and Derogatory Drift

This poster (you can buy it here) brings up an interesting issue. While I’m not sure that “buy a dictionary” is really a viable alternative [1] to these emotionally triggered terms, it brings up some interesting thoughts.

I think that an important thing to think about is the fact that both of these terms were originally intended to be positive. It’s an example of the euphemism treadmill when we try to dress up something society sees as negative in an effort to put it in a better light. But in reality you need to change people’s view of the thing.

The word gay of course originally meant “happy” and the use of the word to mean “homosexual” was a pretty accepting term in a time and place that was more judgmental (eg. compare “queer). When I was a kid, though, growing in up in a transitional time where acceptance of different sexual orientations by society was in turbulent flux, the word “gay” didn’t mean “homosexual” in school the way most people used it. I’m not saying we didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, but the way kids used it had nothing to do with sexual orientation. In fact when my classmates started using the term, we were still in that early elementary school phase where any kind of sexual activity was considered vaguely gross by our peer group. I didn’t like that use of the word, not because I’d yet developed any strong feelings of tolerance or intolerance about sexual orientation, but because it just seemed like a bizarre equivalence. I know that the end result for me is that in my head, I’ll forever have “gay” encoded much like other ambiguous words such as “right,”[2] which have one spelling and sound but several distinct and sometimes incompatible meanings–meanings that in certain cases I need to censor from my speech.

“Right” is a great example of these homonyms gone wrong, something you’ll have noticed if you’ve ever given or received directions as someone else was driving.

So I turn left here?”
“No, left! You were right the first time!”
“What was that? Left and then first right?”
“Right, and wrong.

The word gay is a lot like that, since kids often learn gay in the pejorative sense before and independently from the homosexual sense. since additionally the word can be used to mean “stereotypically flamboyant or effeminate” it can lead to the awkward situation of a homosexual person saying “I know I shouldn’t say this, but that’s really gay.” However, even though it’s possible to hold the two meanings simultaneously in your brain, it doesn’t make the association less problematic or hurtful. I can’t really unlearn the pejorative sense of the word “gay,” but I can at least strip it from my working vocabulary.

The word black faces a similar problem: the tradition in the English language of using black to mean “negative.” Wouldn’t it be deeply uncomfortable to refer to slavery as a black time in US history? I thought so. Fortunately accounting practice has balanced this somewhat by giving us the connotation of profitability, as in Black Friday. In contrast, groups such as the Chinese, Jews and Muslims–whose people developed literary cultures much earlier than the Germanic tribes–have positive associations with the colour black, and some say because it’s the colour of ink: white is the canvas, black is the words, representing strength and truth. Thus black can mean what we want it to mean. Of course, using black and white to refer to human skin colours is not just inaccurate; it promotes a divisive mentality that emphasizes differences rather than acknowledging that human skin tones span a range, most of which are in the mocha to peach range. Perhaps if our culture required us to be very specific about skin tone or not refer to it at all, we’d care less about it. Then again, maybe we’d all be talking about “honey skin tone privilege.”

The term “mentally retarded” was still in vogue when I was in elementary school as a preferred term, succeeding such gems as idiot, slow, and mentally deficient. The last two terms were actually meant to be kinder–and they were, compared to idiot. The term “mentally handicapped” was also on its way to becoming the preferred term and no one was yet using “mentally challenged.” So kids started saying “retarded” to mean “stupid.” And even today, I hear kids saying, “what are you, mentally challenged?” It’s not the terms, it’s the attitude.

That one’s a hard one to fight because, except in politics, intelligence is supposedly a highly prized commodity–even if those of us who grew up as geeks find that hard to believe. But the upshot is that when you teach kids to say “mentally challenged” instead of “stupid,” they don’t so much learn to view a person with clinical mental retardation as a human with extra challenges in the intellectual arena; they rather learn that “mentally challenged” is a funny sounding, grown-up word for “stupid.” Teaching kids to value differences isn’t something that’s magically fixed by pushing new terms for old injuries.

A few other linguistic excursions into the world of semantic shift:

  • Lame – I hated the term “lame” being used to mean “inferior” or “uncool” when I first heard it as a kid, because it can be unkind to people with physical handicaps. However the use of lame in that sense has also faded out, so it’s less of an issue. And we can still use lame to mean “ineffectual” or “hampered.”
  • Jew – As a kid in high school, I was shocked to discover that a small number of people used the term “Jew” to mean “cheapskate” or as a verb to mean “haggle in an aggressive yet petty way” or “cheat someone out of something financially.” In fact I had a number of classmates who literally asked me what the polite, nice term for “Jew” was. They had only ever heard it used pejoratively, whereas I’d only heard it as a positive statement of identity. It’s a perfect example of how it’s often the attitude that defines the word and not the other way around.
  • Gyp – Similarly, the association has been lost over time but to “gyp” someone, meaning to cheat them in a financial sense, comes from the word Gypsy and the association between gypsies, cons and cheating.
  • Faygele – In contrast, the Yiddish term “faygele” to refer to gay men — despite some modern assumptions to the contrary — was not historically a negative term. Similarly to the term “gay” itself, faygele actually means “little bird” [3] and was a term of endearment for a young boy, and by extension a well-intentioned way to refer to an effeminate or gay man. However as the term “fag” came into use in English as a slur, some people made the association and assumed that “faygele” was also a slur, perhaps a deformation of the English word. Fortunately I notice though from the number of people using the word for self-identification on the web that it’s being reclaimed as a more positive term again, which is nice.
  • Monkey – Following Obama’s re-election, apparently among the inevitable racist slurs, a number of people were comparing him to a monkey. It’s an old racist notion based on the ignorant idea that Africans are a different, less-evolved species compared with people of Nordic extraction. Part of the irony is that if anything, what makes white people different seems to be the neanderthal genes, but you don’t see white supremacists proudly declaring “we’re more neanderthal than you folks!” But what’s even more ironic, and perhaps problematic, is that, arguably, acknowledging that “monkey” is a racist slur might help to perpetuate the association. After all, George W. Bush probably holds the record for most monkey comparisons in a presidential term [4]. So it’s not unheard of or unacceptable to compare the president to a monkey as a form of political mockery. I detest this kind of pseudo-political statement, because it’s a blunt use of imagery instead of argument. But it’s literally only racist if you choose to acknowledge that “monkey” is specifically a pejorative reference to a person of African descent, rather than a more general insult.
  1. For one thing, the word you’re looking for is thesaurus. For another, people just go online for that kind of thing nowadays. However, if you put those two thoughts together, they cancel themselves out, because Wiktionary is a thesaurus. Also, I’m aware that the point of the poster is to emphasize that there are a dozen or more words to replace the offensive uses, but I’ll also point out that there are times for eloquence and times when we just need a quick, go-to term of dismay. So what we really need isn’t a million words, but just one, and ideally something monosyllabic for the right emotional fit.
  2. I realize the technical term for words whose meaning is ambiguous due to identical spelling and pronunciation is homonym but in this case I’m referring to a special case of homonym, the kind that too frequently create awkwardness and confusion, or even hurt.
  3. Here’s a nice Yiddish song that uses faygele in the original sense of little bird:
  4. Compare George W Bush Monkey Pictures with Racist Teens Forced to Answer for Tweets.

[Made a bunch of edits on Mar 23, 2014 to clarify and expand.]

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