Polysemous Pejoratives

« previous post | next post »

Geoff Pullum suggests that the flap over an MP’s use of nigger in the woodpile is overdone:

Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.…
Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

Oh, dear. As usual, Geoff's logic is impeccable, but in this case it's led him terribly astray.

As it happens, I addressed this very question in a report I wrote on behalf of the petitioners who asked the Trademark Board to cancel the mark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that it violated the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause. The team argued, among other things, that “the fact that the term ‘redskin,’ used in singular, lower case form, references an ethnic group does not automatically render it disparaging when employed as a proper noun in the context of sports.” The idea here is that the connotations of a pejorative word do not persist when it acquires a transferred meaning—as the team’s lead attorney put it, “It’s what our word means.” In fact, they added, the use of the name as team name has only positive associations.

I responded, in part:

Nigger has distinct denotations when it is used for a black person, a shade of dark brown, or in phrases like nigger chaser, nigger fish, or niggertoe (a Brazil nut), and in phrases like nigger in the woodpile. All of those expressions are “different words” from the slurring ethnonym nigger from which they are derived, but each of them necessarily inherits its disparaging connotations. The OED now labels all of them as "derogatory" or "offensive." On consideration, it’s obvious why these connotations should persist when an expression acquires a transferred meaning—for more-or-less the same reason the connotations of fuck persist when it's incorporated in fuckwad. The power of a slur is derived from its history of use, a point that Langston Hughes made powerfully in a passage from his 1940 memoir The Big Sea:

The word nigger sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America the slave-beatings of yesterday, the lynchings of today, the Jim Crow cars…the restaurants where you may not eat, the jobs you may not have, the unions you cannot join. The word nigger in the mouths of little white boys at school, the word nigger in the mouth of the foreman at the job, the word nigger across the whole face of America! Nigger! Nigger!

When one uses a slur like nigger, that is, one is "making linguistic community with a history of speakers,” as Judith Butler puts it. One speaks with their voice and evokes their attitudes toward the target, which is why the force of the word itself trumps the speaker’s individual beliefs or intentions. Whoever it was who decided to name a color nigger brown or to call a slingshot a nigger shooter could only have been someone who already used the word to denote black people and who presumed that that usage was common in his community. (Someone who was diffident about using the word in its literal meaning would hardly be comfortable using it metaphorically.) To continue to use those expressions, accordingly, is to set oneself in the line of those who have used the term as a racial slur in the past. Slurs keep their force even when they’re detached from their original reference. That’s why, in 1967, the US Board on Geographic Names removed Nigger from 167 place names. People may have formed agreeable associations in the past around a place called Nigger Beach, or a company called Nigger Lake Holidays, but they don’t redeem the word.

Tony Thorne says that, as late as the 1960s, it was possible to use the expression nigger in the woodpile “without having a conscious racist intention,” and Geoff argues that Morris’s utterance was not a racist act. That depends on what a "racist act" comes down to. It’s fair to assume that she didn’t utter the phrase with any deliberate intention of manifesting her contempt for blacks. But intention or no, anyone who uses any expression containing the word nigger in this day and age is culpably obtuse—all the more since nigger, more than other slurs, has become so phonetically toxic that people are reluctant even to mention it, in the philosophical sense, at least in speech. “Racially insensitive” doesn’t begin to say it.

It's that same obtuseness, I’d argue, that makes the Washington NFL team’s use of redskin objectionable, despite the insistence of the owners and many fans that they intend only to show “reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans” (even if the name of their team is a wholly different word). True, that word seems different from nigger, it’s only because the romanticized redskin is at a remove from the facts of history. Say “redskin” and what comes to mind is a sanitized and reassuring image of the victims of a long and brutal genocidal war, familiar from a hundred movie Westerns: the fierce, proud primitives, hopelessly outmatched by the forces of civilization, who nonetheless resisted courageously and died like me. (As Pat Buchanan put it in defending the team’s use of the name, “These were people who stood, fought and died and did not whimper.”)

In fact the most deceptive slurs aren’t the ones that express unmitigated contempt for their targets, like nigger and spic. They’re the ones that are tinged with sentimentality, condescension, pity, or exoticism, which are no less reductive or dehumanizing but are much easier to justify to ourselves. Recall the way the hipsters and hippies used spade as what Ken Kesey described as “a term of endearment.” Think of Oriental or cripple, or a male executive’s description of his secretary as “my gal.” Did that usage become sexist only when feminists pointed it out? Was it sexist only to women who objected to it? That's the thing about obtuseness, you can look deep in your heart and come up clean.

[Note: Just to anticipate a potential red herring, the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating the relevant clause of the Lanham Act didn't bear on the Redskins' claim that their name was not disparaging. The Court simply said that disparagement wasn't grounds for denying registration of a mark. The most recent judicial determination in this matter was that of the Court of Appeals, which upheld the petitioners' case.]



69 Comments »

  1. dw said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

    Geoff Pullum notes that the phrase in question occurred in several novels, including Agatha Christie's "Dumb Witness" (1937).

    This reminds me of a far more notable use of the N-word in Agatha Christie. Her most famous novel, today most commonly known as "And Then There Were None", originally featured a far more offensive title which can be seen on its Wikipedia page, and also here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4a/And_Then_There_Were_None_First_Edition_Cover_1939.jpg

    I'd be interested to find out what Geoff would say about a politician who referred to "Ten Little [N-word]s" in a campaign speech.

  2. Adam Field said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 10:09 pm

    Honestly, what comes to mind when I hear "redskin" is *only* the sports team – its usage to refer to Native Americans feels super-archaic, to the point where I have to consciously think about it, unlike the n-word, where I… obviously don't. At least it still *has* a connection, though, unlike, for instance, the verb 'to gyp", which I didn't learn was even *related* to gypsies until my mid-20s.

  3. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 10:27 pm

    > This reminds me of a far more notable use of the N-word in Agatha Christie.

    Pullum talks about this in the article this article discusses.

  4. Bartleby said,

    July 13, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

    Thank you. When Geoff Pullum's post appeared, I wanted to comment, to protest–but, as usual, he did not allow comments. I love Geoff Pullum's posts, both here and for Lingua Franca. And I heartily endorse his work as a grammarian. But he was way off base in this case. I was, frankly, stunned that he could write something so obtuse.

    GN: I hope I haven't given the impression I thought Geoff was being obtuse—he would never use that phrase himself. More like, well, contrary.

  5. wally w said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 12:30 am

    Yeah, it seems to me that the more the team uses the word redskins the more this neutral or positive connotation overwhelms any negative one. Like Adam if I heard it used in a negative way I would think it was an allusion to something in the 19th century. Which brings me to the word Oriental. Until this post I had no idea that it was any more negative than say the descriptor Scandinavian. Am I missing something?

  6. RP said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 2:31 am

    @Adam Field,
    ("the verb 'to gyp", which I didn't learn was even *related* to gypsies until my mid-20s.")

    We don't know for sure whether "to gyp" is related to gypsies. The OED etymology relates it to the noun "gyp", about which it then says: "Etymology: perhaps short for gipsy n. or for gippo n.1 2." (The latter being a term from French with no relation to "gypsy".)

    Of course, the OED isn't always up to date with the latest thinking on etymology so I could be wrong… but I think people assume there is a relationship without any clear evidence.

  7. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 4:34 am

    I agree with Nunberg that "anyone who uses any expression containing the word nigger in this day and age is culpably obtuse," and I agree that nigger "has become so phonetically toxic that people are reluctant even to mention it, in the philosophical sense." Ms. Morris was stupid to utter the phrase, and she deserves blame for that. But suspension from the party because of one culpably obtuse utterance of an idiom long past its use-by date? And accusations of making a "racist remark"? That's going too far. It defocuses the issue of what real racist talk is like, and it promotes a silly form of phonetic-level word taboo. There's nothing in what Nunberg says that I really want to disagree with, except for "Geoff's logic [has] led him terribly astray." I don't think I'm terribly astray when I make the case that (if I may repeat myself): "we shouldn't be squandering moral capital on suspending people from their parties for using crass archaisms that will die out naturally; we should be concentrating on the real signs of racism in public life."

  8. richardelguru said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 6:56 am

    I too think there was, perhaps, an over reaction.

    Utterances at "a public meeting" may well be unscripted, and using the expression "real nigger in the woodpile" is fairly obviously (and in spite of her claim) not a reference to a 'real' black person in an actual woodpile.

    It is not that much of a stretch to compare the reaction to her poor choice of phrase with taking offence at words like 'niggardly' or 'snigger'.

  9. B said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 7:10 am

    > The idea here is that the connotations of a pejorative word do not persist when it acquires a transferred meaning—as the team’s lead attorney put it, “It’s what our word means.” In fact, they added, the use of the name as team name has only positive associations.

    Does this change at all when you factor in that the team isn't only represented by the word (big-R) "Redskins" but also by the logo, a profile image of an American Indian man? Granted, it isn't an cartoony image like, say, the Cleveland Indians, but it was still meant to represent a particular race of people.

    GN: That not to mention the team's fight song, which begins with an apostrophe to "Braves on the warpath," and which until recent times contained the verses "Scalp 'em, swamp 'em, we will take 'em big score." In fact the team has a long history of using Native American stereotypes. Its founder George Preston Marshall was an unapologetic racist of the old school—he was the last NFL owner to integrate his team, and then only under threat of losing his stadium—and he made the name the occasion for a kind of minstrelsy in redface, complete with marching bands in headdresses, cheerleaders in Indian costumes, and a halftime show featuring a leggy Indian maiden dancing with someone dressed as a horse. Marshall even had his players take the field wearing war paint while the coach stood on the sidelines in a Sioux headdress.

    As for the term redskin itself, over the period from the late 19th century to the 1960s, when the team's trademark was registered, its connotations were overwhelmingly pejorative. Across tens of thousands of newspaper accounts from 1880 to 1980, the odds that a writer will use redskin rather than Indian are highest when the word is paired with modifiers like crafty, wily, infernal, and pesky. Writers are anywhere from five to fifteen times more likely to refer to Indians as redskins when they’re described as treacherous, hostile or marauding than when they’re described as peaceful, friendly, courageous or loyal. It's true that for many younger speakers, those associations are blurred or absent, particularly when they live in a part of the country in which Native Americans are not a visible presence. But their ignorance of the word's history doesn't detoxify it.

  10. ===Dan said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 7:56 am

    Geoff Pullum said "Ms. Morris was stupid to utter the phrase, and she deserves blame for that" but that the suspension was "going too far." But one could see this action not as some sort of punishment for a misdeed, but rather as a result of determining that Ms. Morris lacked the judgment necessary for a position in party leadership. It's not an unreasonable determination; her words demonstrated not just stupidity, but hurtful stupidity, and could reflect poorly on the party.

    And I see nothing related to phonetics–in any form– in finding fault with her language. The word she uttered is precisely the word with the precise meaning that is (nearly) universally seen as offensive, hateful, and hurtful– not just "taboo." The fact that she used the term idiomatically and metaphorically without being directed to a specific individual doesn't change that. The word is the same word that offends and causes harm. While she may not have had racial animus in mind when she said the phrase, she still did show massively poor judgment, from a position that can do real harm to the interests of her party.

    Of course, direct racial slurs are worse, and must be fought. But concern about one does not preclude concern about the other.

  11. MattF said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 8:12 am

    One thing that's been left out in the continuing discussion of this matter is that Morris is a professional politician and she was speaking in public– she should have known better and she should have done better. If she was just someone's little old grandma, saying something at the dinner table– well, it's an error but not so bad. But I can't see how one can assume that she's just pea-brained, and became an MP just… sort of unintentionally and without any notion of added responsibility.

  12. Aaron said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 8:24 am

    I particularly appreciate your quote from Hughes in this context; I think it adds a crucial layer. When discussing a remark like Morris's, there can be a powerful focus on the speaker's intent, but little or none on how a black person might have felt on hearing what she said. What cruelties, what injustices, what terrifying dangers might the word evoke in a person for whom this debate is not so academic?

    The fact that it is often easier, even for the most well-intentioned people, to find sympathy for a white person's mistake than for a black person's emotional injury is not an accident, nor a historical curiosity. It reflects the struggle against subtle (and unsubtle) prejudices within ourselves that we still face today.

  13. languagehat said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 8:37 am

    Thank you. When Geoff Pullum's post appeared, I wanted to comment, to protest–but, as usual, he did not allow comments. I love Geoff Pullum's posts, both here and for Lingua Franca. And I heartily endorse his work as a grammarian. But he was way off base in this case. I was, frankly, stunned that he could write something so obtuse.

    Exactly what I came here to say.

    GN: I hope I haven't given the impression I thought Geoff was being obtuse—he would never use that phrase himself. More like, well, contrary.

    A distinction without a difference in this case.

    The fact that it is often easier, even for the most well-intentioned people, to find sympathy for a white person's mistake than for a black person's emotional injury is not an accident, nor a historical curiosity. It reflects the struggle against subtle (and unsubtle) prejudices within ourselves that we still face today.

    Hear, hear!

  14. Judith Strauser said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 9:11 am

    @Aaron @Dan I totally agree, and this is also by I continue to disagree w/ Geoffrey Pullum – not only his post but his very comment on this one.

    There is a lot of emphasis put on the idea that for an utterance to be racist, the intention of the speaker has to be racist, while in fact the modern and in my view more useful characterisation of racism (as a systemic, institutional and social process oppressing racialized people) tells us that the ACT of uttering such a term is racist regardless of intent, precisely because it inflicts harm.

    I do not care to know what resides in Morris's heart and don't need or want to decide if she _is racist_ – it is enough for me to know that as a person speaking in public (and far from new to doing precisely that) she DID speak that word, which DID inflict racialized harm. In other words, she performed a racist action, whether wittingly or un-.

    That's not only "displaying poor judgment" and possibly harming her party's image (all which might be reason enough for an organisation to wish to reprimand her for it or put her in a position where she cannot do it again), it's _also_ doing something racist. As they say in anti-racist activist circles, "intent isn't magic". The consequences of her utterance do not depend on her heart or opinions; they simply happened. Racial harm was perpetrated, however slight one might want to deem that harm (especially of course as compared with many much, much worse utterances).

  15. Judith Strauser said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    oops, "why" not "by" in that first sentence. Apologies.

  16. a George said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    In my view, the Washington Redskins case should be viewed with trademark glasses. It is my belief that the doctrine that even a common phrase may acquire trade mark distinctiveness through use could equally be applied here: Washington Redskins had become the trademark for this particular sports organisation through its use. Unless a trademark is "well known" (such as "Kodak", which was frequently quoted in literature), the trademark is only related to the goods in question, and specifically as a registration, for the goods for which it was applied for. Hence, there is no further significance, except to historically inclined persons, who more or less instantly grasp the broader etymology of the expression.

    I had never heard about the woodpile thing before I read Geoff Pullum's post. However, with quiet satisfaction I realised that the expression was archaic, and more or less what it had originally intended to convey. Etymology is never far from my perception of words and phrases, their history is inextricably involved. It is quite possible that others have no concept of history in their language use, and that some sages have considerably more than me.

    When I saw the reference to the use of the woodpile expression in U.K. parliamentary debates I quickly downloaded all 163 of them, because such references on the web are endangered species. The way that the worry culture is developing, such references will be expurgated, and while they will not go to the trouble of burning the printed versions, the Worriers will surely see to it that all web traces are removed. What is next? Well, Niagara will have to go, because to some dyslectics it may look like the n-word. Together with Falls it is an absolute outrage.

    I pity those who feel they are attacked by words and expressions; they have lost a freedom. They are unfree, because they feel fettered by the words of others. I personally have no problem with being called anything by anybody. I am what I am, and it is only if I have been fitted into a given class, and if such a classification is detrimental to my personal freedom or opportunity for development that I feel the need to react, because that would be unlawful. Hence it is not the word or phrase, but the actions of others that is dangerous. Somebody may call me a "son-of-a-bitch", meaning it literally, but that will only reflect on me if Lamarckism were a proven and believed fact. And then it is still only a classification!

    My grandfather was a devout Catholic, and when I discovered books on his bookshelf that were on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, he said that that list was only made for the uneducated. I tend to believe that the uneducated and their guides, the Worriers, will rule the World.

    Life is hard, and if one word cannot be used to taunt, another one will. There is no way but to outgrow the teasings. If somebody is not offended, there has always been people around to tell him that he ought to be. Those are the Worriers of today. The same Worriers that warn students that the knowledge they are about to receive may be offensive to their feelings. What kind of expurgated society are we going to have?

    In haste — this whole thread is in danger, because it uses the "n-word".

  17. languagehat said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 10:27 am

    I pity those who feel they are attacked by words and expressions; they have lost a freedom.

    I pity those who cannot empathize with the sufferings of those less fortunate than themselves; they have lost humanity.

  18. KeithB said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 10:56 am

    If you really want to use a First Nations reference as a sports team, it is easy. Just use the tribe's name. CF, the Florida State Seminoles.

    Apache or Comanche come to mind.
    References:
    "Empire of the Summer Moon"
    "The Apache Wars"

  19. AndrewD said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 11:02 am

    I think GKP has misinterpreted the Conservative parties stance, they on the whole, probably do not care about the phrase used(in fact the Conservative supporters would argue that it is innocuous) but we have just fought a bitter election campaign and will face a new one soon. I am betting on October. The Tories high command recognised that this speech was a potential stick to beat the Conservatives with and as minority support will be important, needed to defuse a potential line of attack. I think it will fail as we know they are a toxic heap of excrement.

  20. bratschegirl said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 11:02 am

    I thank languagehat for saying what I want to say, better than I would have been able to.

    With toxic and charged words such as the ones we're discussing, I believe it is far better to be guided by the prevalent current standard that only members of the class referred to by such words can use them with impunity. What, after all, is truly precious or valuable or even necessary that is lost, in that case?

  21. Bathrobe said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    In fact the most deceptive slurs aren’t the ones that express unmitigated contempt for their targets, like nigger and spic. They’re the ones that are tinged with sentimentality, condescension, pity, or exoticism, which are no less reductive or dehumanizing but are much easier to justify to ourselves. Recall the way the hipsters and hippies used spade as what Ken Kesey described as “a term of endearment.” Think of Oriental or cripple, or a male executive’s description of his secretary as “my gal.” Did that usage become sexist only when feminists pointed it out? Was it sexist only to women who objected to it? That's the thing about obtuseness, you can look deep in your heart and come up clean.

    What a low, dishonest paragraph this is. The term "Oriental" only became "reductive or dehumanizing" because one Edward Said decided to make it so. The assertion that it was "obtuse" is nonsense. It was a neutral term that only became a dirty word because a single person made its demonisation his greatest purpose in life. Despite Said's efforts, the dichotomy still lives on with little change. The Eurasian continent is still artificially divided into "Europe" and "Asia". As long as this persists, "Asian" is going to be little more than a stand-in for "Oriental", based on similar fault lines and cultural and racial biases. Why pretend that "Oriental" is a "deceptive slur" when the whole structure that underlay Said's criticisms still stands intact? In order to get rid of the "sentimentality, condescension, pity, or exoticism" that this post is claiming, unequal terms like "Europe" and "Asia", which privilege Europe over the rest of the continent, have to be consigned to the compost heap of history.

    As Dimitri notes below, Asian American was coined in the 1960s (Said's book was published in 1978), and the OED takes Asian in this sense back to 1953. Asian and Oriental are neither synonymous nor co-extensive; the former is defined by place or origin, not physiognomy, and includes, notably, South Asians, who would not have been considered Orientals. Oriental is now widely felt to be either inappropriate or offensive, other than in reference to, e.g., carpets, particularly by younger speakers. (The American Heritage labels it "often offensive.")

    I do like "the compost heap of history," as an ecologically correct improvement on Trotsky's remark.

  22. Marc Foster said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 11:32 am

    This was also noted in another thread on this subject, but I think that Mr. Pullum's suggested etymology for the phrase (a reference to an escaped slave hiding in the wood pile) is wrong. My memory from growing up in the American South in the 1960's is that the phrase referred to unacknowledged black heritage in a person passing as white. More specifically, the reference would be to the black father of a baby born to a white woman which was claimed to have a white father. This origin is confirmed by Wikipedia (although I realize that that is not completely ironclad proof). This etymology is much more inherently offensive than the one that Mr. Pullum provides. I am curious as to the source of his account of the origin of the phrase.

  23. RP said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 11:50 am

    @Marc Foster,
    That statement about the term's "original" meaning has only been added to the Wikipedia article a few days ago. Also, it contradicts what the same article says in its origin section.

  24. spherical said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

    Maybe it would be useful to look at the incident in the light of similar cases in the past: Take for example Andrew Mitchell's Plebsgate scandal, in which the offensive wording (though less offensive per se) clearly falls on the "use" side of the use-vs-mention divide. Then there was the case of an ESPN host in 2012 who was fired over his use of the phrase "chink in the armor", which it takes either Evergreen-grade levels of brainwashedness or a serious gap in one's education to find racist.

    I think Morris falls somewhere in between. Unlike the ESPN case, the imagery of Morris's metaphor actually refers to a person rather than flaw in one's defensive cladding that happens to be homophonous with a racist slur. Unlike Mitchell's case, her use of an offensive word is metaphorical rather than direct.

    Should she be punished? I think that the idiom reveals a staggering lack (at least momentarily) of reflection and empathy, and certainly deserves harsh criticism. Like Lord Dixon-Smith's use of the same phrase in 2008 (no suspension), it also offers an embarrassing insight into the environment in which Tory politicians appear to spend their formative years when it comes to language acquisition.

    However, I think that suspension from a political party over their choice of metaphor is excessive. It is also sympomatic of the economics of outrage that appears to drive public discourse these days and distracts from actual issues. On balance, I'm with Professor Pullum on this one.

    Let

  25. spherical said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

    Please accept my apologies for the typos.

  26. RP said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

    I see no reason to regret the suspension of Ms Morris. It seems to me that the severity of this penalty is simply a reflection of how serious an offence we today consider the thoughtless use of a racist epithet, regardless of intention and regardless of the fact that it was considered an acceptable metaphor in the past. No one is in disagreement (I think) that it was extraordinary that a public figure should misjudge the public acceptability of the term so badly.

    Interesting side-note, the piece about this in The Atlantic stated that "In 2008, Tory leader Lord Dixon-Smith apologized for saying it during a session in the House of Lords" ( https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/anne-marie-morris-suspended/533220/ ). At first I thought that it was a simple error that Dixon-Smith was described as a "leader". But then I read ===Dan's comment above about "determining that Ms. Morris lacked the judgment necessary for a position in party leadership".

    So there may be a difference between BrE and AmE here. Neither Dixon-Smith nor Morris is regarded as a Tory leader, nor ever has been. The term "Tory leader" refers to the party's national leader. In appropriate context it could also refer to the party's leader in a regional assembly or on a particular local council, but the term would never be used indiscriminately to refer to Tory parliamentarians in general.

  27. RP said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 1:13 pm

    (One should also not overstate the severity of the penalty. The vast majority of times that MPs have "the whip" suspended, they get it back in less than a year. Even in the meantime it in no way affects their rights as an MP. It just means their membership of the parliamentary grouping is suspended. In the vast majority of cases it doesn't stop them from standing again as the party's candidate at the following general election.)

  28. Sergey said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

    Um, why do you see the "disparaging connotations"? The only way I can read it is that you say that being black is bad. I can't really think of a more racist notion than that.

  29. William Berry said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

    Silly comments by "a george" and "Bathrobe".

    What "Marc Foster" said.

    I grew up a poor southern lad in the 1950s and 1960s, and can attest to having heard uses of the phrase in question in the wild. In every case, it was the "shameful miscegenation" sense that was intended. To my mind, this only makes the use doubly offensive.

  30. RP said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

    @William Berry,
    I think we've established that this is or was a well-known interpretation in the American south. But in the UK that meaning was and is unknown. There is also no reason to think that meaning was the original, no matter how familiar you may be with it.
    The OED has only one definition of the woodpile idiom (the definition familiar in the UK) and gives its etymology as connected to escaped slaves hiding.

  31. Gwen Katz said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

    Then there was the case of an ESPN host in 2012 who was fired over his use of the phrase "chink in the armor", which it takes either Evergreen-grade levels of brainwashedness or a serious gap in one's education to find racist.

    Or looking at the original context, which referred to Jeremy Lin, famously the first Chinese-American NBA player in history (and a frequent victim of racialized hate, especially before he made it big).

    It's interesting to me the lengths people will go to deny obvious meanings (or double meanings) when they're racialized. It's akin to denying that a headline is a double entendre because it is just referring to the name of the person involved, that's all.

  32. Peter Taylor said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

    … who nonetheless resisted courageously and died like me.

    gave me pause. I checked the context and it's not a quote from a novel, so I presume it should be "like men".

  33. William Berry said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

    @RP: The racial ancestry sense predominates in most sources I found in a casual search ('etymology: "nigger in the woodpile"'). Of course, that isn't dispositive of anything; the phrase is a colloquial vulgarism (likely seldom appearing in print), the real origin of which could surely never be definitively established.

    So, I am going with the probabilities. Given the malicious, supremacist cast of racial attitudes in the historical American South, its origin there seems at least plausible. I suspect a (relatively generous) UK misinterpretation of a borrowing.

  34. Stephan Hurtubise said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

    Judith Strauser said: There is a lot of emphasis put on the idea that for an utterance to be racist, the intention of the speaker has to be racist, while in fact the modern and in my view more useful characterisation of racism (as a systemic, institutional and social process oppressing racialized people) tells us that the ACT of uttering such a term is racist regardless of intent, precisely because it inflicts harm.

    I'd be curious to hear your (or others') thoughts on some of the conceptual issues Scott Alexander raises (http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/06/21/against-murderism/), about defining racism in terms of consequences, rather than motives. I'll paste (some of) the relevant bits below, for convenience. (Though, please don't feel obligated to respond if you don't want to. And don't necessarily take this as an endorsement of the whole of the idea. I just find it to be an interesting point-of-view, and am curious what others have to say.)

    "First, by this definition, racism can never cause anything. People like to ask questions like 'Did racism contribute to electing Donald Trump?' Under this definition, the question makes no sense. It’s barely even grammatical. 'Did things whose consequence is harm minorities whether or not such harm is intentional contribute to the election of Donald Trump?' Huh? If racism is just a description of what consequences something has, then it can’t be used as an [sic] causal explanation.

    […]

    Third, by this definition, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say a particular person is racist. Racism is a property of actions, not of humans. While there are no doubt some broad patterns in people, the question 'Is Bob racist?' sounds very odd in this framework, sort of like 'Does Bob cause poverty?' No doubt Bob has done a few things which either help or hurt economic equality in some small way. And it’s possible that Bob is one of the rare people who organizes his life around crusading against poverty, or around crusading against attempts to end poverty. But overall the question will get you looked at funny. Meanwhile, questions like 'Is Barack Obama racist?' should lead to a discussion of Obama’s policies and which races were helped or hurt by them; issues like Obama’s own race and his personal feelings shouldn’t come up at all.

    Fourth, by this definition, it becomes impossible to assess the racism of an action without knowing all its consequences. Suppose the KKK holds a march through some black neighborhood to terrorize the residents. But in fact the counterprotesters outnumber the marchers ten to one, and people are actually reassured that the community supports them. The march is well-covered on various news organizations, and outrages people around the nation, who donate a lot of money to anti-racist organizations and push for stronger laws against the KKK. Plausibly, the net consequences of the march were (unintentionally) very good for black people and damaging to white supremacy. Therefore, by the Sophisticated Definition, the KKK marching the neighborhood to terrorize black residents was not racist. In fact, for the KKK not to march in this situation would be racist!"

  35. Zeppelin said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

    @Sergey

    Sophistry. That Geoff Nunberg doesn't share the prejudices expressed by the word "nigger" doesn't mean he can't recognise that it expresses them. If words have any shared meaning, then a slur is disparaging regardless of one's personal beliefs about the people it insults.

  36. Thorin said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

    I'd like to get people's opinion on usage of the word "uppity" while we're all here.

  37. Dimitri said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

    "The term "Oriental" only became "reductive or dehumanizing" because one Edward Said decided to make it so." Oh really?

    "Historian Yuji Ichioka coined the term 'Asian American' in the second half of the 1960s as he and others of the Asian American Movement rejected 'oriental' as racist and imperialistic." (Esther Kim Lee, "A History of Asian American Theatre" [Cambridge 2006], page 7).

  38. spherical said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 5:15 pm

    @Gwen Katz: Thank you for pointing out the original context. I stand corrected.

  39. a George said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

    I like the juxtaposition provided by languagehat at 10:27! It all hinges on the term "fortunate", and it would be wise to ponder that, because it contains an element of "destiny". And the question as to the greatest loss — freedom or humanity — well, that can only be judged by the individual based on personal experience. And don't I just love a sweeping statement like William Berry at 1:26: "silly comment". So very meaningful!

  40. RP said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

    @William Berry,
    I don't think you are going with the probabilities.
    If (as is the case) neither the OED nor the unabridged Webster's Third includes the Southern US meaning of the phrase, the chances are that wasn't the original meaning. And if the OED (citing a US publication from 1958) finds the escaped slave etymology the most plausible (and mentions no other possibility), then that should be our starting point until we find a reliable source arguing otherwise… After all, the OED isn't infallible, but a lot of the pages you'll find online pontificating about the meaning and origin of this or other phrases are unreliable and don't cite sources or have academic credentials. It doesn't matter how numerous they are if they are just recycling myths (which are very common in the field of etymology).

    GN: Indeed, the OED etymology is far-fetched on the face of things and references only a contention in a 1958 number of the N.Y. Folklore Quarterly that is not substantiated by any contemporary citations. In the immortal words of Smith and Dale, I'm dubious.

  41. Acilius said,

    July 14, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

    If there is some question as to whether the Tories were right to act as harshly as they did towards Anne Marie Morris, I think we should point out that she is from a faction of the party which drives young voters away by perpetually seeming to be on the point of using ethnic slurs. By committing that lapse at this moment, she all but offered herself up to the party as a sacrificial victim in its efforts to mollify the voters who made last month's general election such a disappointment for them.

  42. wtsparrow said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 12:12 am

    @Marc Foster

    In 1977, President Carter's ne'er-do-well brother Billy used the woodpile expression in a way that I can only understand to be sexual and clearly has nothing to do with runaway slaves. Here's a bit of the story from the WaPo archive: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1977/04/10/billy-carter-refuses-to-apologize-for-joke/da0cb329-0465-4c39-b931-cc0713b59ed1/?utm_term=.f5fac3e9fb34. As Carter used the expression, it would have been a matter of a white man and a black woman.

  43. wtsparrow said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 12:27 am

    The discussion about the Washington team's name seems a bit abstract. It's not so abstract if you are Indian or know people who are Indian. Over the past decades I've attended a couple of protests outside Vikings-Washington games in the Twin Cities where I live. These were organized by native organizations, including tribal officials, and attended by lots of Indian people. I can't say that every native person in the Cities agrees with them, for want of polling data, but it's clear that a large part of the native population is deeply offended by Washington's team name.

    To me this is the determiner: how do the oppressed people feel about the words used by the dominant society to describe them? In the case of the Washington NFL team, there's no question that they should change their name.

  44. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 7:01 am

    Let me explain once again why I don't usually click the "Allow comments" button, especially not when touching on controversial subjects, because several people seem frustrated by my policy. It is this: I have no objection to there being dive bars where people gather to criticize what I've said. I just don't want to take on the unpaid work of being the barkeeper — maintaining the premises, calming unruliness, showing spam commenters the door, mending the furniture, and so on. I see my good friend Nunberg doesn't mind taking on such work. That's his choice.

    Both Bartleby (23:05) and my much-admired friend Language Hat (8:37), disagreeing with Nunberg, call me obtuse. But about what? Commenters seem to be trying to explain to me that nigger is offensive, and utterances of it do "inflict racialized harm" (Judith Strauser, 09:11). I know that. The very word, in any context, can cause shock and hurt. Anne Marie Morris should have known that. She deserves criticism for her stupid choice of an offense-causing phrase.

    Incidentally, Nunberg is exactly right in calling the word "phonetically toxic" (a remark that "===Dan" at 07:56 did not follow): the very sound of the word is so toxic that people have faced charges of racism for using an unrelated word with a similar syllables: see Wikipedia on controversies about the word niggardly.

    I'm suggesting that perhaps this focus on tabooing a word is wasting moral energy on rather unimportant marginal cases where no abuse of black people is involved; the real signs of racism in the political culture of both the UK and the USA should receive more of our attention. To be a bit more harsh, maybe some of the outrage about stray uses of tabooed words is just virtue signaling, which is easy, not real opposition to racism, which is hard.

    But my disagreement with some people's priorities does not imply inability to discern their arguments or their values. And it certainly doesn't mean that I approve of or defend racist language.

    But you must excuse me; I have some beer glasses to wash and there's a broken chair to clear away.

  45. ===Dan said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 7:22 am

    a remark that "===Dan" at 07:56 did not follow"

    Maybe I didn't follow what was packed into that "phonetic" phrase, and maybe I still don't. But I am well aware of the controversies about "niggardly." I was saying explicitly that it was not the sound of the word spoken by Ms. Morris that gives offense, but rather the meaning. I said that the use of metaphor and idiom does not change what the word means, even if the phrase has an unrelated meaning. In Ms. Morris's speech, it is still the word and its meaning, not the sound of the word, that gives offense. (In the case of "niggardly," I believe that there's more than the "sound of the word" at stake too, but that's another issue.)

    (Regarding RP's comment, perhaps it is a language issue. I was taking "whip" as a leadership position, as in an official appointed to maintain party discipline. But I don't think it was an important part of my comment.)

  46. RP said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 7:44 am

    @===Dan,
    To clarify, we do have whips in Britain, but they are seen more as enforcers of the leadership's position rather than as leadership positions themselves.
    In any case, Morris wasn't a whip.
    The phrase "to withdraw the whip" refers to suspending someone from the parliamentary party (which means they are no longer subject to the whip – which sounds like a good thing, but actually they will probably have to continue following the whip anyway if they want their suspension to be lifted at a later date).
    I accept it wasn't central to your point, but there it is, in case anyone is interested (since it does have to do with language).

  47. languagehat said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 8:15 am

    Both Bartleby (23:05) and my much-admired friend Language Hat (8:37), disagreeing with Nunberg, call me obtuse. But about what?

    About this:

    I'm suggesting that perhaps this focus on tabooing a word is wasting moral energy on rather unimportant marginal cases where no abuse of black people is involved; the real signs of racism in the political culture of both the UK and the USA should receive more of our attention. To be a bit more harsh, maybe some of the outrage about stray uses of tabooed words is just virtue signaling, which is easy, not real opposition to racism, which is hard.

    You are so focused on "virtue signaling" by smug progressives (which irritates me as well) that you ignore the fact that actual black people hate this word even in contexts which you, a white person, have decided are "rather unimportant marginal cases where no abuse of black people is involved." I think you should let black people decide what is or is not marginal and when black people are being abused. I will again use what I consider an apposite comparison and suggest that no gentile should tell a Jewish person when and when not to be offended by anti-Semitic terminology. I will also remind you that back in the '50s well-meaning white liberals were always ready to tell black people that they shouldn't worry so much about lunch counters and buses — hey, it's not as bad as lynching! — and should certainly not protest so obnoxiously; just let the political system take its slow, inevitable course, and someday things would be better. Martin Luther King had very pointed things to say about that.

  48. ngage92 said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 10:37 am

    "no abuse of black people is involved". Yikes. Maybe it's time to stop digging.

  49. a George said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

    Hooray, it turns out that languagehat is capabable of more than just coining a snappy phrase! However, from basic principles I cannot agree with him in his argument about terms that are disagreeable to certain listeners.

    It is a sad fact of in particular childhood that some of us suffer at being called names by others. These names may relate to about anything that identifies the individual in the situation or in the memory of other children witnessing the naming. What are the reactions to hearing such verbal abuse? Well, some are so quick that they can coin a phrase in return, perhaps re-direct the laughter at the original taunter. Some will put up a fight, and it ends in fisticuffs. Some complain to their parents, and the father will perhaps upbraid the taunter. Little does it help, however, if the taunter is able to make a credible case for "my father can beat your father". At a little older age, perhaps the taunted is able to alert a group of like-minded and beat up the original taunter, and we might have a nice little streetfight on our hands.

    All of this childhood taunting and coping builds personality, but obviously many carry scars well into their adulthood. Those who do military service (men, mostly) will be subjected to verbal abuse of the worst kind, but it is done precisely to build character, to create soldiers that are united because they have been subjected to the same abuse. They are now part of a group in which there are no weaklings, because the physical training will have eliminated them.

    Listeners subjected to taunting may be individuals ("southpaw, southpaw", "fatty"), groups ("greenhorn", "wasp") , or nations ("kraut", "frogeater"). It is all a question of "us and them", and that is common to all societies. Some of the taunting is related to age and is merely a stage to be passed, and those previously taunted will carry on the tradition.

    Now, languagehat thinks that "….. you should let black people decide what is or is not marginal and when black people are being abused." Well, why on earth? How many does it take to be a group that decides that it does not want certain phrases, in other words censorship? What is the difference between black people as a group and gardeners as a group? Sadly, I need to state that no offence is intended by this juxtaposition, I am merely considering the "group" as phenomenon. Society is full of people who all use what humans are best at: the classification and naming of phenomena and putting them in groups. If we permit groups to censor the expression of how the individual sees the world we shall end up with having a group that gets into legislative power and prevents freedom of speech, and which then curbs democracy as we know it. Or like it. Examples abound.

    Let me draw a parallel: a public building is accessible via stairs and more recently via a ramp. Just because there is a ramp there cannot be a prohibition on using the stairs. We have created equal opportunity for entering the building, but that is as far as it goes. I am sure the Worriers (my term at July 14, 2017 @ 9:40 am, but I think "bleeding hearts" is the more common term) will try to mount a case for prohibiting stairs. And I am sure that they are in denial about the stairs originally devised by the architects. Although classification is all about discrimination, such classification must not create unequal opportunities. That is how simple little me see things.

  50. ===Dan said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

    Sometimes, we may be able to judge reasoning by the predictions made on its basis. How long do we have to wait for someone of any public significance to mount a case for prohibiting stairs before we can conclude that a George's reasoning is flawed? (My own conclusion became foregone when a George had to ask about the difference between black people as a group and the set of all gardeners. Or maybe a little sooner.)

  51. Porlock Junior said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

    @wtsparrow 12:12am

    Thank you for the Billy Carter link. How soon one forgets. (I was living in Oakland at the time.) Actually, the first thing that struck me was "The day after causing a racial stink, that bozo threw out the first ball in an Oakland A's game??" I can't see that happening today. Or if it did, the papers would run that item as background to some much louder and more interesting stories about the reaction to his showing his ugly face there. My home town has changed in a mere 40 years. Good for it, however much one deplores violence and threats thereof.

    Also, but to the point: Carter Minor left no room for doubt about _his_ interpretation of the expression. And without doubt it expresses the view of millions of his fellow Americans, mainly but not exclusively Southern. This is of interest to a West Coast guy who has hardly ever heard the expression used and never wondered about its source or meaning.

    Then again, a folk etymology can be fairly old and still be wrong. The OED rejects by-our-Lady for Bloody, and Hoc est corpus for Hocus-pocus. Either of the woodpile etymologies could easily have been back-derived from the expression if the other were correct.

    PS: W. C. Fields, at least 60 years ago, on observing something suspicious, suspected "an Ethiopian in the fuel supply."

  52. languagehat said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    a George's reasoning speaks for itself. I will let Geoff Pullum decide whether he wants to be associated with it (at the risk of getting up with fleas).

  53. Levantine said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

    Professor Pullum, Language Log is one of the few websites where the comments are, for the most part, interesting, informative, and respectful. I shouldn't think that your colleagues have to spend too much time (if any) keeping bar.

    Given your descriptivist tendencies, it's interesting that you are so resistant to what, by your own admission, is the consensus regarding Morris's use of the word in question. Her apparent indifference to its noxious associations–associations of which she cannot have been unaware–reveals a level of insensitivity and thoughtlessness that is in itself racist. As others have pointed out, we're not talking about some elderly person sheltered from public discourse; she has no excuse.

  54. Adrian said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 6:35 pm

    I agree with Mr Pullum on this. It's a taboo word for sure, but we must surely make allowance for context when appraising any transgression. There must, for example, be a difference in response towards someone who uses such an epithet towards somebody, and someone who uses it in a stock phrase they learned in their younger years. (Americans will hopefully appreciate that the word has never had as much currency in the UK as in the US so such a mistake is at least possible.) The MP made a bad mistake (apparently a first offence); she should apologise; case closed.

  55. Levantine said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 7:21 pm

    Adrian, 60 is not particularly old, and an MP — especially one who used to work as a corporate lawyer and marketing director — cannot claim to be unaware of the word's potential to offend. That she may have learnt the phrase at a time when it was deemed acceptable is irrelevant; she's had plenty of time to think better of it. I'm British and in my mid-30s, and I certainly knew the word to be an offensive slur on the rare occasions I encountered it growing up in London. To be sure, it wasn't until the mid-'80s that British editions of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None were retitled (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_Then_There_Were_None#Publication_and_title:_English_language), but three decades have passed since then. It's simply disingenuous to pretend that Brits are clueless on this matter, all the more so in the case of a well-educated, professionally experienced public figure like Morris. Anyone in her position who still uses such language is a racist, whether knowingly or out of sheer thoughtlessness.

  56. languagehat said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 8:13 am

    Some of the comments remind me of the judges who let bank officials and other magnates go with a slap on the wrist (men who have wrecked entire economies and ruined the lives of millions) because "he's a good person who made one mistake" (i.e., he's of the same race and class as me, probably went to some of the same schools, we probably have friends in common, I can imagine myself making the same sort of "mistake," so how can I throw the book at him?).

  57. languagehat said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 8:14 am

    And no, for the slow of wit or disingenuous of temperament, I'm not equating using the phrase in question with ruining the lives of millions. It's an analogy, not an equation.

  58. Bartleby said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 8:43 am

    @ Geoff Pullum (7:01 a.m.): "Both Bartleby (23:05) and my much-admired friend Language Hat (8:37), disagreeing with Nunberg, call me obtuse."

    Maybe it's too fine a distinction, but I don't believe I called you obtuse. I said that what you wrote was obtuse. As a general rule, I find you the very opposite of obtuse. Which is why I was so surprised when I read your post.

  59. spherical said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 8:48 am

    Beginning with Professor Pullum's original post, I believe we all agree that Ms. Morris's turn of phrase is obnoxious. The debate is about the interpretation of the event and the severity of the sanction it merits.

    On one hand, we have the interpretation that "anyone in her position who still uses such language is a racist" (Levantine): The fact that Morris used a phrase once is enough to qualify her character as racist, with all the implied consequences (e.g. unsuitability for public office, I should think).

    On the other hand, Professor Pullum argues that while Morris used an idiom that relies on racist imagery, the context in which she did so was unrelated to race, therefore her statement was not racist. Criticism is still due for her choice of wording, but turning the incident into a scandal about racists in public office is an exaggeration.

    Personally I don't want to live in a society where personalities are judged and careers are ended based on a single turn of phrase no matter how ugly. This includes the personalities and careers of people who I consider to be on the other side of aisle politically.

    I would see things differently if Morris had a history of racist or anti-immigrant rhetoric – does she?

  60. languagehat said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    I second the emotion of my worthy constituent Mr. Bartleby.

  61. Levantine said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 10:48 am

    spherical, whether or not it was a one-off utterance, the very fact that such a word remains part of Morris's lexicon reveals something about her mindset in general. She's had years to expunge the word from her vocabulary and has neglected to do so, despite having witnessed the change in public discourse that has been going on for decades now. Such indifference is in itself a form of racism, for it shows her to be unconcerned about, or at the very least insensitive to, the feelings of black people.

    Some of the commenters here are acting as if Morris, either because of her age or lack of exposure, simply failed to keep up with recent shifts spearheaded by the PC brigade. But this was no innocent slip of the tongue: the phrase has been obsolete for a while now, and Morris, as I said in my earlier comment, is not elderly. Would we be so quick to forgive a middle-aged person who "accidentally" lit a cigarette on the Tube or a plane based on what was done in years past? All of us have had to update our behaviour and language during our lives, especially so as not to cause harm or offence to others. A professional politician like Morris should be held to the highest possible standard of conduct.

  62. James Wimberley said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

    Bartleby: there may be a Zen saying that the same pair of lines make an acute angle and an obtuse one, seen from different sides.

    Zen koan #2: tired metaphors are like unexploded bombs. You never know if they will explode in your face. In this case, Ms Morris committed a solecism if style, using a dead metaphor that had she listened was clearly to king inside.

  63. James Wimberley said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

    Bartleby: there may be a Zen saying that the same pair of lines make an acute angle and an obtuse one, seen from different sides.

    Zen koan #2: tired metaphors are like unexploded bombs. You never know if they will explode in your face. In this case, Ms Morris committed a solecism if style, using a dead metaphor that had she listened was clearly ticking inside.

  64. Adam F said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 3:03 am

    It's true that Morris wasn't calling anyone "nigger", but she was definitely using rather than mentioning the word. I'm not convinced by the "in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved" argument — if anything, that might make it worse, because she was dragging a racial/racist reference in where it was irrelevant.

  65. ===Dan said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 8:58 am

    I wouldn't think this needed to be said, but some of the comments makes be believe otherwise: It seems to me there are at least two different ways to use the word. You can use it as a direct slur directed against a specific person, an expression of situational hatred. That's not what Ms. Morris did.
    But you can also use the word generically, disparagingly, not as a direct, personal, verbal attack. This second usage ties together the concepts of "black" and "contemptible" (or something like that), and implicitly accepts and expresses the idea of black people being contemptible. That word, in this usage, contains and speaks hatred for black people, generically. This hatred is imbued in any idiom or metaphor using it, and the message of hate is understood by (probably virtually all) black people as applicable to them. It's possible to use this word of hate unthinkingly (as Ms. Morris seems to have done), but it still causes harm based on the unquestionable meaning of the word, and this harm should be perfectly expectable to just about all adults, and certainly to public figures. Ms. Morris absolutely should have known better; this was a mistake that she never should have made. I can think of many other kinds of harm that can be caused unintentionally but predictably, and it's often the case that lack of intent is no shield from responsibility or consequences.
    I can mostly understand the decision by some in this thread not to hold it against Ms. Morris, but not as much the apparent suggestion that the Tories were unreasonable in their reaction (in light of their responsibility to make clear where the party stands).

  66. Graeme said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    To say cultural context is key would be an understatement. A US politician being quartered for this is understandable. A British one, less so. Perhaps she is paying for the historical sins of her party (eg http://swarb.co.uk/charter-v-race-relations-board-hl-1973/ )

    Intention must matter at least in the sense that one can be innocent of the loaded meanings. A term like 'Redskin' meant little more than a red iceblock or lolly to me in Australia. Until my father had me read 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'. Australia's first Aboriginal Senator was Neville Bonner, in the 1970s. His wife Heather, a white woman, used to refer to him as her 'nigger in the woodpile'. In a loving context: http://www.theroar.com.au/2015/08/05/truly-goodes-thing/

  67. ajay said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 6:44 am

    Asian and Oriental are neither synonymous nor co-extensive; the former is defined by place or origin, not physiognomy, and includes, notably, South Asians, who would not have been considered Orientals.

    This is not the case – for example, London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, which included India as part of the Orient from its foundation as the School of Oriental Studies (it trained, among others, Indian Civil Service staff). As the SOAS website records, "125 students enrolled in the first year [1917], following courses in Classical, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Syrian Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Pali and Urdu, Hausa, Swahili and other Bantu languages, Japanese, Malay, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Turkish. The History of India and Indian Law were also taught."

    GN: The name of the School of Oriental Studies (now Oriental and African Studies (a) dates from its founding in 1916; (b) would in any case not be taken as delimiting its areas of study, no more than the name of the London School of Economics would lead one to conclude that the field of economics included sociology, anthropology and history; and (c) most importantly, involves the use of Oriental as an adjective, not as a demonym, which is what is at issue here. In that sense of the term, the noun Oriental has not been used in modern times to refer to the peoples of South Asia (much less of Syria), though there was a time when the word could be used, e.g., of Jews.

  68. Bathrobe said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 7:20 am

    The Oriental Bird Club is concerned with the region bounded by:

    * the Indus river, Pakistan in the west through India and south-east Asia
    * the Wallacea line, East Indonesia in the east, and from
    * Mongolia, north-east Russia (E of 90°E) and Japan in the north
    * the Lesser Sundas and Christmas Island in the south

  69. Levantine said,

    July 18, 2017 @ 9:13 am

    Graeme, as has already been discussed here, the N-word's associations are very well known in the UK, and have been for decades. To claim otherwise is simply dishonest. A better example of what you're talking about would be "Oriental" when used of people; while problematic in the States, it remains current in British English, though I sense it's becoming less common.

    On the subject of the Orient more generally, the term used to encompass (and at one time primarily denoted) the Islamic Middle East, including North Africa. This is the sense of the word that Said was concerned with.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment