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.

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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 is mulling a name change after a twenty-year campaign.)

Academics: it's time to get behind decolonising the curriculum ...

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.

Racist Language on Twitter | Dr Matthew J Koehler

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…

i find your racist language problematic - giorgio a. tsoukalos 1 ...






The N-word Yet Again

On July 10 Samir Dathi tweeted: ‘Anne Marie Morris suspended for using N-word. Good. But why is someone who called black people ‘picaninnies’ our foreign secretary?’

Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot’s use of the phrase ‘nigger in the woodpile‘ provoked widespread condemnation and resulted in her suspension and an abject public apology, but the UK public and media have a very short memory. It was far from an isolated instance of this crass archaism being invoked by British politicians, as this website records:

The expression originated in the USA (Mr Slang, Jonathon Green has a first citation as the name of a popular song from the 1840s) where it was usually associated with an image of a runaway slave in concealment, but it is in the UK where it has enjoyed a lengthy and unfortunate afterlife.

I can testify that the phrase was used by middle-class speakers in conversation in the UK the 1950s and 1960s. It was possible to use the n-word (not the whole phrase) in Britain up to the end of the 1950s without having a conscious racist intention. The WW2 flying ace Guy Gibson, for instance, named his beloved pet dog ‘Nigger’ and I can remember myself using the word in a public swimming pool in suburban London in about 1959 to point out a black child playing nearby (a rare thing in our lower middle-class neighbourhood). Even then my father rebuked me very sternly, saying ‘we don’t say that and you mustn’t use the word! (‘Black’ was in those days never uttered.)

Yasmeen Serhan reported on the MP’s gaffe for American readers in The Atlantic:

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Attempts were made, by Tory supporters and some linguists, to excuse the MP on the grounds that she is 60 years old and so for her generation the words in question carry little or less force. Professor Geoff Pullum of Edinburgh University was among those who also suggested that when the n-word is in combination with other words as part of a stock phrase, it might not carry the same negative charge ( I’m told, for example, that in the parlance of small-boat sailors in the UK the phrase ‘boat-nigger’ is used to denote the most junior member of the crew. Other commentators opined that inadvertent racism is nonetheless racism, but where quibbles about slurs and taboos are concerned, I think the acid test is actually to debate them in real-life environments. I have discussed the n-word and similar controversies with a range of young people and with older members of BAME communities* and they are simply not acceptable. Quite apart from clumsiness and insensitivity on the part of somebody in public life, it’s arguable, too, that Morrison used the expression wrongly: it doesn’t mean an unanticipated or an unappreciated future eventuality, but a hidden snag. The nuances – the semantic components and assumptions embedded in the phrase are interesting and challenging to unpick – the connotations of such usages may also mutate over time. Potential confusions are illustrated by the several interpretations or misunderstandings posted on Urban Dictionary:
On a very personal note, it occurred to me that finding an escaped slave today, perhaps in the woodshed behind a prosperous suburban or rural home, is entirely possible in a Britain where traffickers and slavemasters prey on migrants, refugees and the poor and desperate. Oh and, on the subject of the Foreign Secretary, a satirical Twitter poll resulted in this:
  Whether B[oris] Johnson should also be expelled for calling black people ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’: Yes: 95% No: 5%’)
AT, also on Twitter, reminded me of this case, for comparison:
It’s not only in English that such words have conflicted and conflicting resonances. Jonathon Green again: ‘Do you know nègre, which is the equivalent of ‘intern’ or maybe ‘gofer’? Also means a ghost-writer. Still used, I am told, without the slightest hesitation and nary a blush. The usual nègre, if the irony even needs noting, is of course white.’ And here (in French) is someone I know personally causing a furore in 2015:
In August 2017 this – provocatively titled but heartfelt and authentic – opinion piece was published by Steven Dunn:
…then in September this, also a personal take, on, inter alia, Kanye West and Piers Morgan, from Jessica Morgan:
…in October, from University of Calgary linguist Darin Flynn in The Conversation:
…yet more on racial slurs, from Indiana Professor Michael Adams:
 …and Geoffrey Pullum on British English deprecations:
Nearly a year on and the c-word has been trending transatlantically. Here’s Deborah Cameron’s interesting take on reclaiming a slur:
…in August 2018 Bethan Tovey reflected on some recent linguistic debates, including reference once again to the n-word:
…more recently, student journalist Nathan Graber-Lipperman has posted a lengthy reflection on the n-word and its relationship with hip-hop and white youth:
…here, in August 2019, is an assessment by John McWhorter:
And, in March 2020, news that, at least in the USA, one f-word is being reclaimed: