I (REALLY DO) BEG YOUR PARDON
One of the remarkable things about language is that it’s so central to our being that most people are wholly and completely unreflective about it. The racist elements in our cultural history are coming under increased scrutiny, among them the racist roots of some everyday language.
The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement is probably still best known for the toppling of colonial era statues that it has inspired. In parallel, however, another project has been underway for some time: the ‘decolonising of the curriculum’ – the uncovering of racist assumptions, the explication of imperialist and colonialist attitudes – embedded in teaching syllabuses in Higher and Secondary Education across the Anglosphere. Part of that venture has been a search, which began as long ago as the seventies, for a new descriptive terminology with which to discuss ethnicity and colour*. Now, two weeks after Merriam Webster dictionaries changed their definition of the word ‘racism’ itself** and one week since they decided that the word ‘Black’ is henceforth to be capitalised, the focus has once again moved to the linguistic elements of racialisation and the racist origins of parts of our vocabulary, and whether and how these can be addressed. MIT has taken offline its highly cited Tiny Images dataset*** that trained AI systems to potentially describe people using racist, misogynistic and other problematic terms; real estate agents have been urged to stop referring to the ‘master bedroom’ when describing accommodation and on social media and in the UK press the expression ‘(get down to the) nitty gritty’ was once again castigated, although its supposedly racist origins are unproven. (Even Washington’s NFL ‘Redskins’ team has been mulling a name change after a twenty-year campaign.)****
The campaign to pull down statues in the context of BLM has opened up an even wider debate which I think is long overdue. The US is an edifice built on genocide (of native Americans) and enslavement. The UK’s wealth and global status is a direct result of slavery and the oppression and exploitation of colonialised peoples. Australia has never acknowledged its displacement, ethnic cleansing and oppression of the First Australians. I would go much further than simply urging these nations to recognise past injustices. I think that once people are made fully aware of their histories, those nations should publicly atone for what was done.
A necessary first step is to understand and recognise what the symbols (statues among them) around us refer to, but also to understand that language itself is implicated and has to be deconstructed. We have seen with populist politics in the USA, Brexit in the UK and the messaging surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, now with Black Lives Matter, too, that language is rarely neutral or innocent. Words can have apparently simple meanings – what linguists call ‘denotation’ (basic definitions), but words have histories and resonances and implications that go beyond definitions – what linguists call their ‘connotations’.
We usually only engage with the immediate, surface meanings of words, but it’s important to see that, for example, language is part of the cultural matrix that rests on oppression and discrimination, even if we are not at first conscious of this. Therefore, I think that identifying the troubling origins of popular words and expressions is not, as conservatives insist ‘Political Correctness’ taken too far, or an irritating gesture by the ‘woke’ generation, but worthwhile and overdue. Word histories reveal how deep-seated are the attitudes which we all inherit and the behaviour that we all perpetuate – even if often unknowingly. I talked to US journalist Brittany Wong about this, and her article for Huffington Post is here…
The list of terms Brittany has highlighted should all be called out and people should be encouraged not to use them. This will be difficult since they are memorable and colourful(!) and useful and are part of our mental furniture and cultural landscape: there will be protests that they are being used without malice and that nobody cares any more about their hidden origins. Children in the UK used to have ‘gollywog’ dolls which were caricatures of black people and innocently cherished them, but the toy and its name, like minstrel bands, blackface and ‘blacking up’ are rightly taboo today. Language is an intimate and deep-seated part of an individual’s identity which is why when people encounter strange new usages or are asked to abandon long-established usages it makes them feel very uncomfortable.
Looking at Huffpost’s list of terms, there are one or two – ‘grandfathering’ and ‘peanut gallery’ which are exclusively American and I’m not at all sure that Hip Hip Hooray is actually based on murderous German shepherds – ‘Hip Hip’ or versions of it are very old indeed as hunting cries, but horseback hunting, not typically of slaves or Jews. (‘Indian giver’ was recognised by some in Britain when I was a child but I haven’t heard it used for several decades.)
Other terms, ‘mumbo jumbo’, ‘eenie meenie miney mo’, ‘gypped’ and ‘paddy wagon’ all sound old-fashioned and are becoming rarer, at least in the UK, but this is not because their origins have been denounced, simply that they belong to the vocabulary of an older generation (as does ‘uppity’ whose connection to racism is quite unknown in the UK and Australia but which, if it is used at all, is typically used by braggarts and bullies). Polls and surveys have shown that younger people, especially Generation Z, are very conscious of the toxic nature of some language and are very resistant to ethnic and sexist slurs.
Sadly, racist, sexist and other cruel, bigoted and prejudicial epithets (the n-word, in the UK the p-word for South Asians, the b-word, the f-word for gay men) are still in use in private, if no longer in the public conversation. Feminism, LGBT activism and anti-racism, for example have made great progress in outing those terms and shaming their users, but we can go further.
I have found in my own work (which in this case I suppose risks invoking the new buzz-term ‘performative white allyship’) that exposing the dark side of language, just like defending new language (which I constantly have to do) can be effected not by adopting hostile stances or lecturing or preaching by professional linguists, but by telling the fascinating stories of words and tracing their evolution as they morph through different communities and take on different subtleties and senses. Etymology can be a corrective but is always revelatory and enlightening.
I spoke to Australian journalist Gary Nunn about the same topic in May this year and his article is here…
Here are the links to the issues referred to above…
On this site I’ve posted previously on the subject of racist language and slurs…
**** news just in on the Redskin controversy
In August 2020 Language Magazine published this review of the contested, contentious role of language in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement…
The discussions of racist language continued into September, and Ben Zimmer contributed an overdue account of the history of the word ‘racism’ itself…
In January 2021 the supposedly racist phrase ‘nitty gritty’ was in the headlines in the UK. My question, though, is not ‘was it racist in origin’, but ‘should we avoid it if it is widely thought to be racist?’…
And, a last observation (I promise). The only legitimate use of that term that I can think of…
2 thoughts on “DECOLONISING THE DICTIONARY”
We also have to pay attention to descriptions. An example is when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was talking about his objection to profanity in movies and said “When I was young, we were nice to each other.” It was obvious that he meant white people were nice to other white people. Is there any doubt as to how they would’ve reacted if, say, Alvin Ailey had walked into their town?
Yes! This is about the notion of ‘civility’, a word which as been weaponised by both right and left in the US. I had it as one of my ‘words of the year’ in 2018 – see the post on this site.