Date: Tue, 1 Nov 1994 02:00:00 LCL


Subject: Re: Preferred Terms

i think more than region, age is a factor in preferred term--see

papers by geneva smitherman and john baugh in _american speech_ wrt

"african american". polls about terms for people of african descent

are highly age-differentiated, due, i'm sure, to the fact that older

people lived through more positive usages of what are now considered

pejorative terms.

of course, the opposite can be observed in the reclamation of

pejorative terms, such as the word

"queer", which is much more enthusiastically embraced by younger

people. older people are stereotyped as claiming they can't get

over the pejorative use of it--perhaps because when they were subject

to taunts of "queer" (as youngsters), there were no positive role

models who were openly not heterosexual.

of course, anyone whose long-evolved self-concept is very based in

"race", "ethnicity", "sexual orientation", etc. will be more resistant

to accepting new terms, since this may call into question their self-

concept and interaction with the group, or may seem to invalidate

experience they've already had. e.g., if some people claim "we're

not american indians--that's white people's terminology, based on

their own ignorance", then if i've been living my (esp. adult) life

thinking of myself as "american indian", i've just been told that my

identity (which is nearly all that i am) is, in part, the

construction of someone other than myself, and, in particular,

someone who i define myself in contrast (and perhaps, polysemously,

in opposition) to.

i find the issue of prefered terms particularly troubling in

dictionaries. while i see the necessity of usage notes for terms

that are likely to offend, usage notes stating preference for a term

are a bit orwellian, i think, and, more importantly, often

inaccurate. (i argue this point in _dictionaries_ 1991.) for

example, the random house webster's college dictionary (1991)

states in the usage note for _black_ that "by the close of the 1980s,

African-American, urged by leaders in the American black community,

had begun to supplant _black_ in both print and speech, esp. as a

term of self-reference." now, i won't argue that "african(-)american"

is now used instead of "black" in some contexts. however, a few

other ill-supported assumptions are allowed here.

first, the "esp. as self-reference" part. as RHWCD was going to

press, the joint center for political and economic studies was

publishing the results of a survey showing that only 22-28% of

registered voters with predominantly black african ancestry prefered

"african american" over "black"--with the young, educated, and

northern u.s. respondents preferring it most.

however, the "mainstream" media replaced "black" with

"african(-)american" at a much faster rate, with _time_, _newsweek_,

_the new york times_ and many other newspapers making editorial

statements explaining their adoption of the term within 6 months

(usu. less) of jesse jackson's speech that introduced people from

outside the community to "african(-)american". (remember, it took

_the new york times_ nearly 20 years to give in to pressure to use

"ms." for women who prefer it.)

jackson, in that speech, continues to use "black" after stating a

preference for "african american", as do most people i know who

identify as "african american". however, it is not at all uncommon

in liberal white circles for a (white) person to be corrected by a

white person when s/he says "black" (saying "you mean, 'african

american'"). whereas "african american" seems to have been adopted

as a companion term to "black" in self-reference, it is supplanting

"black" in certain white circles. witness _self_ magazine's usage of

"african-american hair", as if hair has nationality and "african" or

"afro- caribbean" hair is not suited to the same kind of treatment.

(i have a lot of hair stories!)

the other issue is the orthography in this usage note. this is just

based on impression, but i've found that while many "mainstream"

media outlets hyphenate "african-american" (and some don't), most of

the media owned/edited/aimed at black americans and writing by

individual african americans (not subject to the editorial

conventions of mainstream media) don't (in my

experience) hyphenate. so, is "african-american" really supplanting

"black" as a term of self-reference? or is "african american"

joining "black" as a term of self-reference, while "african-american"

is supplanting "black" in use by some outgroup members?

didn't mean to write an entire paper here, but get me started and i

have a hard time stopping.


baugh, john. 1991. the politicization of changing terms of self-

reference among american slave descendants. _american speech_


murphy, m. lynne. 1991. defining racial labels: problems and

promise in american dictionaries. _dictionaries_ 13:43-64.

[no author] 1991. poll says blacks prefer to be called "black".

_jet_ 78(11 feb):8.

smitherman, geneva. 1991. what is africa to me? language,

ideology, and african american. _american speech_ 66:2.115-32.


M. Lynne Murphy e-mail: 104lyn[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

Lecturer, Dept. of Linguistics phone: 27(11)716-2340

University of the Witwatersrand fax: 27(11)716-8030

Johannesburg 2050 South Africa

"Language without meaning is meaningless." --Roman Jakobson