Date: Tue, 25 Oct 1994 02:00:00 LCL


Subject: offensiveness

after months of no epithets on the ads list, i unsubscribed for a

couple of weeks while i was away, and returned to find a string i am

most interested in, already in progress. my name ain't murphy fer


i'm interested in decisions re: offensiveness in dictionaries (not

sure how this string got started) and noted with alarm that the buro

van die woordesboek van die afrikaanse taal has decided not to define

any "racially offensive" terms. this troubles me greatly--it seems

that the way some south african dictionaries are dealing with the

legacy of apartheid is to try to shove some of its linguistic

ugliness under the rug.

what also troubles me is the special status given to racial epithets

in dictionaries and in popular thought. while something such as

"nigger" or, in SA, "kaffir" is so unspeakable that some dictionaries

won't include them, it's not clear to me that they are as important

to their supposed referents as they are to us whiteys. for instance,

i asked my assistant if it unnerved him to have to type definitions

of words like "kaffir" and "darkey" into a database for me, and he

said "no, these words are used so much they don't mean anything."

(similarly, i have another friend who likes to introduce himself to

white people as "hi, i'm a kaffir, but i'm a FIRST CLASS CITIZEN."

so, now some of his friends, of all ethnic backgrounds, refer to him

as "hey, kaffir." the word is reclaimed and its affect diffused quite


now, consider the excruciating rates of suicide among gay teenagers,

and wonder how many of those were brought on by one too many taunts

of "sissy" or "fag" or "bulldagger." yet these terms (and related

ones, e.g., moffie and lettie in SA) are not treated with the hands-

off attitude that racial epithets are.

i think the dictionary policies come down to not "what's the right

thing to do", but "what will we get in trouble for"? a white person

can't get away with 'When i called you a nigger, i was only kidding'

but a straight person can get away with "i was just joshing when i

called you a faggot, can't you take a joke?" or a man can get away

with "so, i called you a 'broad', don't get uptight!" i don't think

this has a lot to do with the seriousness of the offense, but with

the acceptability of different kinds of prejudices. while racist

prejudices are deeply ingrained in white people, most of us know

they are wrong, or feel guilty about them, or are loathe to admit

them. but where only "extremists" say things like "black people are

intellectually or morally inferior to whites" (though, certainly,

more people think it, but would never admit to it in liberal

company), it is not, at this stage, shameful for people to say "women

should stay at home" or "gay people are perverse." the epithets used

against these people are at least as harmful to their addressees as

racial terms, but social mores determine who is ok to offend and who

is not.

none of this is meant to say that racist terms aren't offensive or

harmful--just that they're not the only game in town and context is


lynne murphy


M. Lynne Murphy

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

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

Johannesburg 2050 e-mail: 104lyn[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

South Africa