(Part 1 of An Ongoing Series)
Recently, I participated in a conversation about certain words and phrases and when they do (or whether they can) become used as common vernacular to the extent that they lose any derogatory or degrading meaning inherent in their origins.
It isn't particularly important what the exact phrase being discussed was at this point, but it is a subject I see come up frequently, especially on blogs where people are making an effort to use language responsibly, inclusively, and non-oppressively.
So, I'm going to offer up what I use as my general guideline (aka "rule of thumb" -- see more about that in part 3 of this series, arriving in a few days) when thinking about what language I will use when communicating with others, especially on the internet.
I'll start with a wee story: A number of years ago, when I was first studying Hebrew, I would occasionally send an email in Ivrit to a friend in Israel. I was learning formal Hebrew, so to him, I'm sure my emails read as if I was a real stuffed shirt (fortunately, he knows me better than that). He would tease me a bit about my proper language and was infinitely good-natured and supportive when he corrected some of my word choices to a better reflection of day-to-day speech.
One day, though, I sent him an email about Halloween, and I indicated that many children had come to my door "begging for candy". He wrote back and warned me with uncharacteristic sternness that the word I had chosen for "begging" would be offensive to many native Hebrew speakers in this context, even if I was just being hyperbolic about the Trick or Treat traditional threat/demand chant of costumed children on a pagan-esque holiday.
I asked him to explain this to me, and he said that the word would imply, in Israeli culture, a certain level of poverty and powerlessness so abject that it would not be a joking matter, especially when referring to children.
He went on to talk about the complexity of attitudes re: begging and charity in Jewish and Israeli culture, and how using such a word in this context might even subtly indict the community referred to of failing in their responsibility to care for their children.
This experience was very enlightening to me. My friend's explanation took some time -- he had to provide me with history and context in order for me to fully comprehend, as someone outside both the culture and the language, why one word next to "Beg" in my Hebrew dictionary implied wretchedness and cultural failure, and another simply meant "asking emphatically".
Since then, I've used this as a tool for determining whether a commonly-used idiom can be successfully detached from any oppressive history or present-day offensiveness.
This is how I use the tool:
(Note: In this example, I'm going to use a fairly innocuous phrase, rather than something as highly-charged as "that's so gay", or "shuck and jive" or "bitch", but this technique can be applied to pretty much any phrase that some people receive as offensive because it's racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ablist, etc., while other people argue that commonality of use has rendered inert any roots in racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ablism, etc..)
I'm going to use the phrase "Pardon My French".
Let's imagine that I am conversing with a person who is just learning English, has a fairly good word-by-word vocabulary, but who knows nothing about France except that it's a country, and nothing much about the culture of any country in which this idiom is used.
I say: "Damn this fucking pickle jar lid! -- Oh, pardon my French."
And they say, "Hmmm. Why are you wishing to send to hell the lid of a jar? And what do the French have to do with it?"
First of all, I would have to explain to this person what I mean by "damn this ___" (that what I really mean is definition 5 in the OED -- an expression of frustration).
If they ask (and why wouldn't they?) how a word whose first meaning is "be condemned by God to eternal punishment in hell" came to mean that I'm annoyed, there might be conversation about Judeo-Christian attitudes, and why some words which are considered "bad" come into use only in moments of great frustration. I might also need to relate this to any words considered to be "cussing" in the speaker's own language (which might involve the etymology of the word "cuss").
However, let's assume, for the moment, that the listener understands the concept of cursing, but is scrambling to comprehend the Gallic influence on my U.S. potty-mouth.
I would need to explain to this person a least a little bit my culture's historical attitudes and stereotypes about residents of the country of France, who are assumed to be libertine from birth, and why some members of other countries attempt to excuse their "salty" language by claiming that they are just speaking French (and then, of course, I'd have to explain why "salty" language has nothing to do with sodium chloride), and I'd probably need to put in some stuff about why some people in our culture think that using the word "damn" in any context is bad/wrong, and I'd probably touch on why they are likely to hear the word damn on broadcast television at some hours, but never the word "fuck", even though they are both "cussing". Phew!
The point is -- I consider that if I can't explain an idiom without also describing a system of bias or discrimination or oppression that gave rise to it -- the term is fundamentally discriminatory and/or oppressive.
And this is "just" Pardon my French! -- something I doubt most people think of as demonstrating bias (although I think it does) -- and the residents of France are not really all that disenfranchised as a group. Think about how the energy of oppression in these casually-expressed idioms are amplified when they involve groups and individuals who are more deeply other-ized.
You may be breathing an exasperated sigh at this moment and saying to yourself: "Oh PortlyDyke, do I have to always be thinking about every single word and phrase I use?"
No. You don't have to do anything.
However, in the text-saturated environment of the blogosphere, words and phrases are often the only tools we have -- and ostensibly, we are here to use those words and phrases to communicate to, and connect with, other people.
So, if there are words and phrases that I use, but haven't actually thought about -- idioms that may be so common that I don't have a clue about their etymology, but which I find are undeniably rooted in discrimination and oppression when I use the "explain it to a non-native speaker" exercise above (such as the phrase: "I got gypped" -- a slur against Romani people that I'm often surprised people don't know about) -- if I continue to use these words and people are offended by them and I say: "Hey, it's common usage! I didn't mean it like that" . . .
Well, if I do that, I think that what I'm really saying is:
"I want to use these phrases because they are an easy short-hand for me, and/or they make me sound hep, or edgy, or current -- and I want that more than I want to effectively communicate and connect with you."
Which, when I put it like that, sounds really shitty of me.