Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Vocabulary Rant: PC edition

I keep wondering if I've put some or all of this material on the blog before--certainly, these are some of my pet issues. I should probably point out here that I do *not* think that there are words one cannot or should not say. There is a quotation I heard ages ago that I attribute to Twain though I can't really find a source, which is about how all words are necessary, because they each express an invaluable shade of meaning, and indeed there are none I'm willing to give up. Definitely, there are shades of meaning I feel I don't need in my personal conversations (blind rage; misogyny; racial hatred) but would use without hesitation in fiction if that's who the characters were or what they were feeling.

But at the same time, to get all those shades, I try really hard to know what the word is and where it comes from. There's stuff floating in the English language that are relics of a less gentle time, when it was more ok to slur the group of your choosing. Now the words are here, somewhat divorced from their histories, and it is up to every speaker to determine what listeners/readers will understand of that history when the words are used. For example:

Welshed/welched means to dishonestly renege on a bet or deal; it is also a way of mocking the people or Wales. Historically, word means exactly what it sounds like: that Welsh people are characteristically untrustworthy and that to refuse to pay up on money owed is to be like the Welsh.

Gypped out of money (or anything else) means cheated or swindled. It also is a slur against people of Romani (Gypsy) origins. Again, the verb probably derives from the ethnic group (it can't be proven, but I'm not taking the chance), with the understanding that Romani people are dishonest and untrustworthy.

The argument I usually get in favour of using these words is that they are so much a part of English that no one intends, or even thinks, the historical meanings. Which is very well possible, but without the go-ahead vote from each individual Welsh or Romani person who might hear my talking, I am going to leave these words out of my conversational vocabulary. Because another supposedly "de-historicized" slang expression is to jew down the price, ie., to haggle aggressively or unfairly. Which makes me flinch every time I hear it.

To say someone is hysterical means they are paralyzed with an agitated nervous reaction that is out of all proportion to the problem at hand. The word also implies that a negative reaction that is either disproportionate to the matter at hand, or in reaction to something totally imaginary is somehow uniquely a female or feminine, indeed sexually so, as it derives from the Greek word for uterus, hustera.

This is a hard word for me to let go of, though I have a been trying since January. I do both overreact to things and invent problems, so hysteria would see to me my natural state. But in fact, I firmly believe that my being a bit bats is not a sexual problem (nor a gendered one, for those who cut a fine dice). I have seen men overreact like champions.

However, if I am writing fiction, I think I can say whatever I like, incorrect or offensive or blasphemous or whatever, as long is reflects the reality as characters experience it. Plenty of people don't know these word histories, and would say them without a care, and plenty of people think all sorts of hateful things and would use these words *with* malice--but if I want those people in my stories (I do) then I have to be able to stomach all the words that I imagine they would say. It's a weird line in the sand to draw, but I feel the only artistically sane one.

Also, I know there other words in this "historically suspect" category, so feel free to share--I bet there are ones I don't know about.

We be chillin


August said...

Even the word Gypsy is a slur; it was meant to imply Egyptian heritage, which was supposedly unclean in some unspecified way. We're actually from Northern India, having left there in two major diasporas (a small one roughly 800 years ago, and a larger one roughly 500 years ago).

I'm okay with it if you feel the need to use the term, however. We actually have this really crazy bit of mythology that grants us Divine permission to commit acts of petty theft. :)

But when it comes to the needs of fiction, "do what you need to do" is my motto.

As for the rest of it, I try not to let politics of any kind (especially identity politics) influence how I speak. I find proscriptive restrictions on speech more offensive than the 'offensive' words themselves. That being said, I also won't go out of my way to use those words, and many I've never used at all, as I've found no reason or situation that would make me think them an appropriate choice.

saleema said...

I love this post! I've been trying not to use the word hysterical either, though it's difficult. Every time I've been tempted to use it in my novel, I've looked at the sentence and decided it was trivializing whatever it was my character was trying to say. But I might use it in a fight scene...because I think it really is insulting.

Hmmm, another term along these lines that you hear less, but still occasionally is Indian giver. (!! yikes)

Laura said...


whoop it up

(as in, really enjoy oneself, as at a party)

seeing as it is insulting to first nations peoples.

this one is such a part of the vernacular, though, i'm not sure it really registers on most people's radars...

Anonymous said...

Paddy Wagon. Indian Giver. The French Disease.

I got a million of 'em.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

I don't know, but for myself a lot of this is about education and intentionality. I feel bad about the Gypsy thing now, and paddy wagon, which I'd never thought of before. I think this stuff should be taught in school. Like, the choice to use these words has to be up to the individual, but we should at least know what we're dealing with.

For example, swearing is offensive to some and not others, but we all know what those words mean and the chance we take using them, and also possibly when to avoid doing so.

August said...

I think it's ultimately a fool's errand to try and revamp speech patterns based on etymology, if for no other reason than because the etymology of many words---slang terms and curse words in particular--is often hotly contested. (When I was studying Chaucer, my prof brought up all the competing etymologies for 'the C word', which Chaucer employs a number of times; the most likely of which turned out to be the 12th Century Dutch root of 'quaint', which at the time meant 'delicately folded'.)

The point being, is that words that sound offensive to our ears now probably more often than not will not have entymologies as reliably traceable as the ones mentioned here, or will wind up having nothing offensive behind them at all. Remember the furor a couple years ago when that Senator or Congressman or whatever used the word 'niggardly' in a speech? The root of that word is in Old Norse and has to do with money, where as the the root of the word that everybody associated it with is from Latin. The two words have nothing in common in terms of root or connotation, but the man was made to apologize anyway.

Better, I think, to teach our children not to be jerks (by example as much as by rote), and they will figure out the language for themselves.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

August, I think it's the intent behind language to a certain degree. Despite the death of author, I usually think I *can* tell what someone means by c*nt, and it's rarely very nice. Similarly, I don't like to hear "jew down," "JAP," or similar because they mean something negative and they mean that that negative thing is a *part of* my cultural make up. Words like "cheap" or "spoiled" divorce the personality flaws from the fact of Jewishness.

The "niggardly" thing makes a mockery of even owning a dictionary--what's the point if both the speaker's intent *and* the word's history are irrelevant. Why not just grunt and point, really?

Kerry said...

Ah, niggardly-- brings back memories, eh RR??

I want to know though-- who says "jew down". Really?? I do think that term is officially dead (and good riddance).

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