Date: Tue, 1 Nov 1994 12:32:15 -0400


Subject: offending idioms

Sali writes

Having lived in the South for 10 years with African-American and White

American friends, I have a hard time contextualizing Roger Vanderveen's

claim that the term "Nigger" is acceptable and used by lots of people in

the South.

Although I suspect that a lot of people here are getting pretty tired of this

topic (as I am) I guess I can't let it go without saying how ridiculous the

term "African American" sounds to me. Many of

the persons so denominated haven't been anywhere near Africa for a hundred and

fifty years. And I have to add that if I saw it paired with "White

Americans" on a freshman theme I'd mark it "Parallelism !". White American

goes with Brown American, Red American, Yellow American, Black American--if

we believe in UFO's maybe Green American. Actually, this may be better than

the geographical division, though. Here we are forced into a denominational

thicket--European American (probably a bare majority these days),

Scandanavian American, Southeast Asian American, Phillipine Island American,

South American American. And we're still not out of the woods, since we

don't know if Sali includes Egyptians, Moroccans, Algerians, et al., among

African Americans. What's wrong with blacks? Most of the people I know have

have used it since the sixties, and in those halcyon days it was beautiful.

In my opinion, no offensive term is less abusive than any other. If a

person resents any term used in reference to them [sic], then users of the

term should discontinue using it. It is a simple matter of civility.

Of course, this sounds great, and civility and good manners are the foundation

of a society worth living in. But its universality here is disturbing. Are

we truly barred from any language that anyone might find unpleasant? No

one can feel good about being crippled, but should we really expunge the word

from the vocabulary? Do we stop reading Shakespeare and Chaucer, or Bowdlerize

them? Many people without hair don't like to hear the work "bald." What do we

call them? Hair Challenged? It is all too possible to sanitize language

until it's essentially dead, and it seems to me we're well on the way.

I am deeply embarrassed to hear someone say

"nigger," I think mostly mostly because it carries such a historical freight

of hatred and contempt. (Same for "faggot," though, and quite a few others.)

But I think we need to be very careful about PCing words just because

they might upset someone. There's a lot of hypocrisy in PC, and language

shapes thought. If we can only think in abstractions we've lost touch with


Bob Lancaster

SUNY-emeritus, English