Date: Tue, 25 Oct 1994 02:00:00 LCL From: "M. Lynne Murphy" <104LYN[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA> 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 nuthin. 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 easily.) 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 everything. 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