Saturday, December 6, 2014

Word Insanity

"Sticks and stones may break my bones…so please, please don't throw sticks and stones." —Gilligan
     I'm the sort of person who reads dictionaries. I don't just look into one when I want to know what some word means, or how to spell it, or whatever; I can sit there for an hour looking around at etymologies, advice on word usage, and biographical and geographic entries. I figure if one is to speak, write, and especially think in the English language, then one should be as proficient in it as possible. I have lived for twenty years in Burma, among Burmese monks and villagers who speak little or no English, and I never stopped thinking in American English.
     Anyhow, recently while reading the dictionary I came upon the warning that to refer to a man from China as a "Chinaman" is offensive. He is from China, and he is a man, but it is bad and wrong to call him a Chinaman. Why would a Chinese man be offended by this? Is it because in 1850, in California, Chinese men were called Chinamen and were despised as sly, devious foreigners who were trying to earn the money that good white Americans ought to have? (Ever see the old TV show "Kung Fu"? In most episodes some hick cowboy or California miner with a gun would say something like, "Chinaman, Ah'm gonna blow yo hayd awf.") I'm not sure about this "Chinaman" thing. 
     For that matter, I've learned that to call a person of East Asian ancestry "Oriental" is also considered to be offensive, in many cases at least. Why? Well, the New Oxford American Dictionary says:
The term Oriental, denoting a person from East Asia, is regarded as offensive by many Asians, especially Asian Americans. It has many associations with European imperialism in Asia. Therefore, it has an out-of-date feel and tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic.
Well, what's wrong with being inscrutable and exotic? I like being inscrutable and exotic. Oddly, though, the word "oriental" simply and literally means "eastern." Why would a word that means "eastern" be seen as objectionable? Would a person of European ancestry be offended if he were called "occidental"? It might be that most Americans wouldn't know that the word means "western," so some might be offended and respond like, "Heyyy…are you makin' funna me?" Besides, the more fashionable and politically correct term "Asian" is much less descriptive, considering that it includes Indians, Iranians, Arabs, etc., who are not of the Mongoloid race—ah, but "Mongoloid" also is offensive.

(a Chinaman)

     I also learned from the dictionary that the term "Hottentot," referring to a race of aboriginal people of southern Africa, is offensive now, and "should always be avoided." They are more correctly referred to nowadays as "Khoikhoi." "Hottentot," however, doesn't mean anything bad—it doesn't really mean anything at all, apparently, as Dutch settlers called them that in imitation of the sound of their (the Khoikhoi's) vocalizations. Whether the Bushmen, a group related to the Hotten— eh, Khoikhoi, have started being offended by being called "Bushmen" or not I don't know. There is a trend, however, toward preferring the name "San." Possibly if women of the San have been enlightened by feminist missionaries, they may be offended by the term "Bushman," preferring the more egalitarian term "Bushperson."
     One interesting case of this nature is with regard to the Eskimos. The very same dictionary claims that "Eskimo" is now offensive, AND that it is the only really applicable word for these people in Alaska. Political correctness has decreed that the proper name for them is now "Inuit," but only the Eskimos of Greenland and Canada call themselves that. The Eskimos of Alaska and Siberia speak a different language; so unless we want to call them "Yupik" or "Inupiaq," which almost nobody would recognize as referring to anyone in particular, "Eskimo" really is the most applicable term. Yet, at the same time, it is considered to be offensive, largely because one possible etymology of the word means "eater of raw meat," which of course is what Eskimos traditionally are. Hmmm.
     Meanwhile, the American Indians do not consider "Indian" to be offensive, even though they don't really come from India, or the East Indies either. Many of them freely use the term with regard to themselves. To give just one example, the college on the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham, Washington is officially named the Northwest Indian College. It may be that there is some better term they could come up with ("Native American" is inferior because it includes Aleuts and Eskimos, who are not technically American Indians), but I am glad that they are not positively offended by being called "Indians." Maybe if we explain to them that they ought to be offended…. Anyway, for the time being, three cheers for the equanimity of American Indians.
     The king of all offensive racial terms in the English language is very probably "nigger." The term is derived from the Spanish word "negro," which simply means "black." (And "black," of course, is the most acceptable term nowadays.) "Nigger," like "negro" and "colored," was not always considered to be offensive—it used to be just a word that was used, like "Eskimo," "Hottentot," or "Chinaman." I've read quite a lot of "classic" English fiction, and I am struck by the remarkable fact that so much of it contains the word "nigger." Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad (who wrote an entire novel entitled The Nigger of the Narcissus), Stephen Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Bret Harte, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, etc., used the word without compunction. These writers were intelligent and (with the possible exception of Hemingway) sensitive people, yet they saw no compelling reason to use some other term, like "black person." In Sherwood Anderson's great story "I'm a Fool," the protagonist brags about the fine nigger that he had for his best friend. A rather thick anthology of short fiction could be compiled (but certainly won't) entitled A Golden Treasury of Classic Nigger Stories. I used to wonder, with political correctness taken as seriously as it is, if Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been censored in the American school system—since, of course, one of the main characters is called Nigger Jim. It is considered to be one of the greatest of American novels, so I wondered. Very recently I discovered that as early as the 1950's, in the state of New York, school boards had debated this very issue, that is, whether or not to censor Huckleberry Finn. At the very least, teachers who have their classes read the book feel powerful urges to explain that Twain didn't mean any harm by it, and maybe didn't know any better. 
     But is the modern term "black" for a person of sub-Saharan African ancestry really any better from a linguistic point of view? The word "black" has plenty of negative connotations (black magic, a black heart, blacklist, black mass, black flag, blackmail, etc., etc.); and all but maybe the darkest Nigerians aren't actually black, but only darkish brown, at the most, like coffee. Many people called "black" are only medium brown, or even light brown. "Colored person" would seem a more positive and accurate term…but I'm pretty sure that has become offensive. 

Are these people really offended to be called Hottentots,
or do politically correct white people volunteer to become offended on their behalf?

     Verbal offensiveness is not restricted to race, of course. Some gender-related terms are also offensive now. Using the word "he" for anyone in general is seen as something that "should always be avoided," even when avoiding it results in awkwardness or bad grammar. (On the other hand, referring to a baby as "it" is still OK, possibly because infants are too young to have learned to be offended by it.) In America, some feministically-oriented people consider dividing women into the categories of "Mrs." and "Miss," while men stay lumped together as "Mr." to be discriminative against women, and therefore something to be offended about. On the other hand, in Burma, where women are traditionally considered to be inferior to men, men have three categories for "Mr." while women have only two categories—which might also be viewed as offensive discrimination against women. Whichever way it goes, it may be viewed as discrimination against women, and something not to be tolerated.
     Ironically, this same political correctness mania has begun favoring the use of specifically male terms for women, like "actor," "governor," "poet," "hero" (instead of "actress," "governess," "poetess," "heroine"). So lumping women into a grammatically masculine category is sometimes offensive, and sometimes the opposite. I don't pretend to fully understand this.
     Furthermore, there are a whole slew of more "correct" terms that have arisen over the past few decades. A mailman is now a letter carrier. An office secretary, or so I've been told, is now an executive administrator. A prison guard is no longer a prison guard, but is now a corrections officer; and if you happen to mention a prison guard you may be interrupted and corrected: "No, he's a corrections officer." Airline stewardesses are now flight attendants (except on East Asian airlines, where they are emphatically still stews; and if they stop looking like stews they are pulled from the planes and have to sell tickets at the airport). I don't know what the correct term for meter maids is now, but I bet they're not called "meter maids" anymore, not correctly anyway. And I will simply pass over all the new names for old diseases and mental dysfunctions. Gaffes regarding such terms are less offensive than with racial and more blatantly gender-oriented words. I don't know if any flight attendant would actually be offended to be called a "stewardess"; although she might condescendingly correct the guilty philistine's barbarous choice of language.
     Long ago I read Thorstein Veblen's classic book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It may be the only economics book I've ever read. In it the author gives a fascinating theoretical explanation for why people behave in public the way they do—it even offers explanations for why Western people grow grass in their yards, why butlers dress and act like prime ministers, and why the Pope wears a funny hat. According to Veblen's theory, after human beings developed urban civilization, in which everybody did not know everybody else, or their relative social status, as they used to in small tribes or villages, people began advertising their social status in various ways (and also began faking a higher status than they actually had). Thus in poor, agricultural societies to be pudgy and white-skinned is indicative of relatively high social status, as it implies that the bearer of these characteristics is not a manual laborer, turned thin and brown in the fields, and so in these societies people try to look pudgy and white; yet in industrial societies where poor people are more sedentary and tend to be pudgy and white themselves, to be thin and brown is a status symbol, as it indicates that such an individual has the leisure time to exercise and loll in the sun. Anyone who has looked at Renaissance portraits of nobles and wealthy merchants may have noticed the bizarre, outlandish clothing that they wore in those days: their costumes flaunted their wealth and status not only because poor people could not afford to wear velvet, satin, jewels, and gold, but also because the wearer of such manifestly impractical clothing obviously couldn't do a lick of manual labor while wearing it. These are just a very few examples of the theory in action; its scope is very broad, and includes everything from 19th-century Chinese foot-binding and the regalia of bishops, to dance trends, to the knowledge of, say, what wine goes with what meat, and which fork to use when eating the crab salad. Even basic manners like "please" and "thank you" may be explained in accordance with the theory. People may take such things very seriously without comprehending exactly why they do so—other than wanting very much to follow along with almost everyone else.
     Considering this, it seems to me that the ever-changing "correct" terms for racial groups, females, and diseases (etc.), some of which mutate like a virus (not the diseases, but the terms), and also even being offended if one is called by a name no longer in fashion, can also be explained in accordance with Veblen's theory. It's hardly any different than scrupulously learning the "proper" way of eating a banana in public. "Oh, I'm supposed to be offended if I'm called that? OK…I don't want to seem like a low-class ignoranimus…" 
     The very fact that two people can be sitting right next to each other, and both hear someone refer to a woman as a "broad," "chick," or "snapper," and only one of them becomes offended, is a pretty clear indication that the mere word itself was not the true cause of the offense. Virtually all of it is a matter of personal reaction, or the lack of it—a matter of conditioned attitude.
     A person who uses politically incorrect, potentially offensive language is really at fault in an ethical sense only if his or her intentions are hostile, that is, if he or she is deliberately intending to cause offense and unhappiness. It is true that a person deliberately trying to be offensive is more likely to use words like "nigger" or "dyke," or maybe even "Chinaman," but really, words are just words, having no intrinsic meaning of themselves other than what is imposed upon them. It may even be that if a person knows that certain words will probably result in someone being offended but says them anyway, to the extent that his or her intention is positive or neutral, he or she is still off the ethical hook, at least from a Buddhist perspective. Such people may still be dismissed as uncultured philistines, or insensitive jerks, by society; but sometimes it may be better to be dismissed than accepted by an inherently insane system.
     In conclusion, please remember that if you are offended by anything, it is really your own choice, and your own doing. Don't let social mass delusion spoil your present moment, let alone your day, year, or life.
(found in a Google images search for "oriental")

Appendix: An Excerpt from Tom Sawyer Abroad, by Mark Twain

     In this scene Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Jim, and a crazed balloonist are flying over the eastern United States in a hot air balloon, with the plan of circumnavigating the earth. Tom has just begun to notice that the clocks on church steeples below are running an hour faster than his own pocket watch (his "turnip"). Huckleberry is narrating the story.

     "That's funny! That clock's near about an hour fast."
     So he put up his turnip. Then he see another clock, and took a look, and it was an hour fast too. That puzzled him.
     "That's a mighty curious thing," he says. "I don't understand it." 
     Then he took the glass and hunted up another clock, and sure enough it was an hour fast too. Then his eyes began to spread and his breath to come out kinder gaspy like, and he says:
     "Ger-reat Scott, it's the longitude!"
     I says, considerably scared:
     "Well, what's been and gone and happened now?"
     "Why, the thing that's happened is that this old bladder has slid over Illinois and Indiana and Ohio like nothing, and this is the east end of Pennsylvania or New York, or somewheres around there."
     "Tom Sawyer, you don't mean it!"
     "Yes, I do, and it's dead sure. We've covered about fifteen degrees of longitude since we left St. Louis yesterday afternoon, and them clocks are right. We've come close on to eight hundred miles."
     I didn't believe it, but it made the cold streaks trickle down my back just the same. In my experience I knowed it wouldn't take much short of two weeks to do it down the Mississippi on a raft.
     Jim was working his mind and studying. Pretty soon he says:
     "Mars Tom, did you say dem clocks uz right?"
     "Yes, they're right."
     "Ain't yo' watch right, too?"
     "She's right for St. Louis, but she's an hour wrong for here."
     "Mars Tom, is you tryin' to let on dat de time ain't de same everywheres?"
     "No, it ain't the same everywheres, by a long shot."
     Jim looked distressed, and says:
     "It grieves me to hear you talk like dat, Mars Tom; I's right down ashamed to hear you talk like dat, arter de way you's been raised. Yassir, it'd break yo' Aunt Polly's heart to hear you."
     Tom was astonished. He looked Jim over wondering, and didn't say nothing, and Jim went on:
     "Mars Tom, who put de people out yonder in St. Louis? De Lord done it. Who put de people here whar we is? De Lord done it. Ain' dey bofe his children? 'Cose dey is. Well, den! is he gwine to scriminate 'twixt 'em?"
     "Scriminate! I never heard such ignorance. There ain't no discriminating about it. When he makes you and some more of his children black, and makes the rest of us white, what do you call that?"
     Jim see the p'int. He was stuck. He couldn't answer. Tom says:
     "He does discriminate, you see, when he wants to; but this case here ain't no discrimination of his, it's man's. The Lord made the day, and he made the nights; but he didn't invent the hours, and he didn't distribute them around. Man did that."
     "Mars Tom, is dat so? Man done it?"
     "Who tole him he could?"
     "Nobody. He never asked." 
     Jim studied a minute, and says:
     "Well, dat do beat me. I wouldn't 'a' tuck no sich resk. But some people ain't scared o' nothin'. Dey bangs right ahead; dey don't care what happens. So den dey's allays an hour's diff'unce everywhah, Mars Tom?"
     "An hour? No! It's four minutes difference for every degree of longitude, you know. Fifteen of 'em's an hour, thirty of 'em's two hours, and so on. When it's one o'clock Tuesday morning in England, it's eight o'clock the night before in New York." 
     Jim moved a little way along the locker, and you could see he was insulted. He kept shaking his head and muttering, and so I slid along to him and patted him on the leg, and petted him up, and got him over the worst of his feelings, and then he says:
     "Mars Tom talkin' sich talk as dat! Choosday in one place en Monday in t'other, bofe in the same day! Huck, dis ain't no place to joke—up here whah we is. Two days in one day! How you gwine to get two days inter one day? Can't git two hours inter one hour, kin you? Can't git two niggers inter one nigger skin, kin you? Can't git two gallons of whisky inter a one-gallon jug, kin you? No, sir, 'twould strain de jug. Yes, en even den you couldn't, I don't believe. Why, looky here, Huck, s'posen de Choosday was New Year's—now den! is you gwine to tell me it's dis year in one place en las' year in t'other, bofe in the identical same minute? It's de beatenest rubbage! I can't stan' it—I can't stan' to hear tell 'bout it." Then he begun to shiver and turn gray, and Tom says:
     "Now what's the matter? What's the trouble?"
     Jim could hardly speak, but he says:
     "Mars Tom, you ain't jokin', en it's so?"
     "No, I'm not, and it is so." 
     Jim shivered again, and says:
     "Den dat Monday could be de las' day, en dey wouldn't be no las' day in England, en de dead wouldn't be called. We mustn't go over dah, Mars Tom. Please git him to turn back."   

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