Insolence and anteriority

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From Kathleen Parker in today's Washington Post:

Scene: An elevator in New York Presbyterian Hospital where several others and I were temporary hostages of a filthy-mouthed woman who was profanely berating her male companion. It wasn’t possible to discern whether he was her mate or her son, but his attire (baggy drawers) and insolent disposition seemed to suggest the latter.

Every other word out of the woman’s mouth was mother——, presumably a coincidental reference to any familial relationship. Finally, she shared with us bystanders her belief that said mother—— would not be welcome in her house (Hark! Good news at last!) and that he could very well seek shelter at his mother—-ing father’s house. Aha, family ties established.

The race and class of the woman and her companion weren't specified, but readers might have been able to divine those attributes from the particular word Parker chose to report (or was that the only vulgarity the woman used?), helped along by the setting at Broadway and 168th Street and the mentions of the separated father and in particular of the young man's "baggy drawers," which presumably were intended to convey some relevant information. (If it had been an upper-middle-class white woman screaming "motherfucker" at a phat-pantsed white preppie, communicative cooperativeness would have obliged Parker to mention that fact lest the reader draw the wrong conclusions.)

I've always found those nudge-nudge allusions to race and ethnicity immeasurably more vulgar than an explicit mention would be, in a sense of "vulgar" that's ought to be a lot more ethically troubling than the one that Parker is focused on — you think of the way people intimate someone's Jewishness by saying they're "very New York." But that's not the kicker…

After one of those more-in-sadness-than-in-anger diatribes about the cultural pathologies of American life of the sort that Peggy Noonan has made a specialty of, Parker concedes that, of course, "Context is everything… and delivery matters":

I attended a tea not long ago when the subject of Tiger Woods came up. A British woman, in her refined accent, said: “Oh, he’s such an ahs-hoal.” I told her we could use that word in any circumstance if only we pronounced it the way she did. Pinkies extended, all together now.

Now I can come up with at least five contexutal parameters that explain why the public harangues of the elevator expletiviste were obnoxious and offensive in a way that the English (one assumes) woman's wasn't. But the posteriority of the initial vowel of the epithet isn't one of them. Why should it be? Would the incivility of the first woman's rants have been tempered if she had called her son an asshole in an accent like Emma Thompson's? Would the tea party lady's reference to Tiger Woods be more offensive if the woman had sounded like Wanda Sykes? While we're on the subject of vulgarity — and insolence — can we linger for a moment on the smug suburban gentility of that word refined? You're left with the unsettling implication that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one's lips depends, in part, on how thick they are.

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116 Comments »

  1. Michael said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    And why the hell is "ahs-hoal" more refined that "asshole"? Confusing national dialect with class is bloody annoying.

  2. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Your link to the Post article is badly mangled.

    GN: Thanks, I fixed it.

    Here's a bit more, to reveal her theme and the character of her column:

    Her exit and our release were accepted with silent gratitude, but I have been fuming ever since becau1se, though she was gone, she didn’t really exit our lives. She managed in those fleeting moments to make a mark, to alter our lives in some way. A vile invader, she made coarse and unlovely a period that was not her own. What gave her the right?

     

    Let’s just say, the woman on the elevator had context and delivery issues. Her verbal fusillade may have been a random event, but her actions were neither singular nor disconnected from a broader range of cultural pathologies. Lack of civility in words bleeds into a lack of decency in behavior, and so it goes.

     

    Good behavior is nothing but good manners, simply consideration of others. Recently out of vogue, manners get hauled out the way most people attend church — at Easter and Christmastime. But manners aren’t just gray-haired pretensions practiced by smug elites on special occasions. They are the daily tithes we willingly surrender to civilization.

    An “MF” here or an “FU” there might not constitute the unraveling of society, but each one uttered in another’s involuntary presence is a tiny act of violence against kindness, of which we surely could use more.

    Using an unpleasant encounter with the lower classes/races as an example for the Decline of Civilization is, of course, a very old tradition for people like Parker in venues such as the Post. The "vile invader" bit is a nicely revealing, and vicious, touch.

    We could ask Parker why use this particular example and not another; why did this particular experience bother her so much? But, really, she's an easy target if we're hunting such things. The column is very nearly satire.

  3. W A said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    Sure, but it's always the same sort of people who scream obscenities with no regard to the people around them. And they're the same sort of people who blast music from their cell phones and who scream homophobic slurs out of their cars. Take a trip along the JMZ line in Brooklyn if you don't believe me. It's not race, it's culture. And I refuse to believe all cultures are equal.

  4. Peter said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

    @W A: sure, but by saying that frankly, you open up the possibility of a substantive conversation — about whether this is a real social breakdown, a cross-cultural misunderstanding, or just a post-hoc rationalisation of prejudices; if at all real, what factors have caused it; and in any case, what anyone can or should do in reaction.

    Nudge-nudge wink-winking like Parker’s has the opposite effect: it reinforces the idea that whether something is racist or not is nothing to do with its consequences, or its basis in fact, but simply a syntactic constraint on what words appear. If it explicitly mentioned race it would be racist, but since it doesn’t, it isn’t — right?

  5. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

    Nice catch, Geoff. And you didn't even mention the encoded paternity issues.

    To be fair, I suspect the "Pinkies extended, all together now" comment in the delivery section was meant, ironically, to defuse the assertion about the refined woman's delivery — suggesting, perhaps, that Parker didn't mean it after all — that speaking like a member of the tea-party bunch does not in fact give you license to say "ahs-hoal" any time you please.

    But I'm not sure I believe it. Winks and nudges cut both ways.

  6. RS said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    I might be missing something, but wasn't the repetition of "motherfucker" in the narrative more likely intended to draw out the humor of a mother calling her son one? Or the banality of calling her ex-partner one?

    I may be predisposed to miss the racial tone growing up at a time and place where if baggy drawers said something about race it was merely "non-Asian".

  7. JMM said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

    Are you sure about that W.A? Really? Because I spent a few years working tow stories below a few members of those 400 hundred families that control as much of the American GDP as50% of the people not in those families, and I got to tell ya' their elevator behavior was not all that good. Now was their consideration concerning what was going to be heard on 'their' elevator. But I doubt the woman who wrote this thing, would have cared; we gotta take care of the rich is a current meme among some USAians.

    But I gotta give this writer credit; how dare someone get emotional on a hospital elevator?

    And don't them non-rhotic folks just do it better? [I can remember when the Monty Python crew made fun of that accent, though they came by it the old fashion way: by going to public schools. Now even they pretend that Johnson dropped Rs.]

  8. simon said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

    I think you're understating the effect of the vowel change. It's commonly observed that the swear words of our native language have an almost visceral effect that goes beyond the linguistic level, and changing the pronunciation such words by a single phoneme is a common way of forming euphemisms. Heck, jeebus, feck etc are all more acceptable than the words they replace. So I think an American English speaker would not have the same reaction at all to "ahs-hoal" vs. "ass-hoal".

  9. JMM said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    There are several typos in that last rant. Repair them in the most charitable manner that you can, please.

  10. Simon Fodden said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    The "British" woman, if she actually existed, is saying "arsehole" I assume, not "asshole."

  11. DJ said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    Maybe I was asleep at the wheel when I read the column (before seeing it mentioned here), but like RS, the closest I got to race was "probably not Asian"; here in Texas, I see plenty of saggy pants on kids with skin of just about every color, I hear all sorts of moms illogically calling their children by that ironic epithet, and absentee fathers pretty much run the sociological gamut.

    I agree with Parker that I'd rather not hear the explosion in such close quarters, but I with "reality tv" revealing that saggy pants and missing fathers aren't necessarily the strongest correlation with thoughtless behavior or spewing epithets, I can't pin this one on racism.

    I also agree with JMM that we might have to cut a little slack to folks on hospital elevators; having been one of those women who was scared to death about raising kids alone without enough money to pay the deductible on insurance I was fortunate to have, I understand that nerves get thin there, even if the outcome of the visit is relatively favorable.

  12. James Kabala said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    I'm more surprised that the Post printed the British woman's utterance (however spelled).

  13. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 9:01 pm

    I hear all sorts of moms illogically calling their children by that ironic epithet…

    Do you really? I can't say that I've ever witnessed this in real life.

    The whole point of dog-whistle racism is its deniability. That any one individual claims to not hear the whistle is not in the least conclusive that it wasn't sounded.

    I'm somewhat hopefully curious to see what sort of discussion this post provokes because I was just thinking the other day that LL comment threads are, in general, far more collegially productive than elsewhere—so, if it's possible to have a productive conversation about encoded racism, it's more likely to happen here than most elsewhere. Although W A's comment doesn't fill me with optimism.

    True, if the posts and discussion are constrained purely to linguistic matters, as I occasionally argue they should, then that whole aspect of Parker's column is largely irrelevant. Instead, the focus should be where simon places it: do different dialectical variations in pronunciation strongly affect the offensiveness of taboo words?

    Of some interest, a "Room for Debate" discussion on the New York Times site quite likely mentioned here on LL at the time (hmm, let's see…nope. But note that there's a category of blog posts here named "taboo vocabulary") annoyingly titled "Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words?" included at least a couple of linguists and may be helpful. I just now found it in a search but have only quickly scanned it (as opposed to slowly scanned it, I guess).

  14. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    BTW, is it just me and my browser, or is the line-spacing of the third paragraph of Mr. Nunberg's post (the one beginning with "I've always found…") weird? It looks to me like it's single-spaced when all the others are one-and-a-half spaced.

    GN: Right you are. Fixed. (Our sharp-eyed readers!)

  15. John said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 9:18 pm

    If you think baggy trousers indicate race in America, you don't get out enough ro watch enough TV. I work on a college campus that's predominantly non-black and I can guarantee you that baggy – or sagging, which is what I take that to mean these days – trousers are hardly confined to the AfAm minority.

  16. Valentine said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

    I second John's motion and while the liberal use of "motherfucker" in public may well be indicative of class, it is not an indicator of race in the US. Do not let Samuel L. Jackson fool you, frequent use of it is not limited to AAVE.

  17. W A said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    JMM, the opposite sides of the spectrum are probably more alike than they'd care to believe. But I don't ride elevators too often, and the super rich don't ride public transportation, so I only speak of what I see everyday; as I said, not race, but culture.

    As for the nudge-nudge, perhaps Parker really is only talking about class. We're the ones filling in the blanks.

  18. Helena Constantine said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

    Although the distinguished Nunberg goes out of his way to be as cagey about race as the original author, I get the distinct impression he wants us to think the race in question is black.

    The strange part is that he thinks this supports that insinuation:

    "helped along by the setting at Broadway and 168th Street"

    The last I looked, the neighborhood around Presbyterian was mostly Puerto Rican (with a Dominican entrepreneurial class).

  19. Nathan said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    For me the weirdest part of Nunberg's framing of this is the notion that the obscenity in question is either race-linked, or stereotypically seen as such. I've never heard of that. Does anyone out there have some data?

  20. will said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    For the longest time I thought that the British were just saying "asshole" with a broad "a", the same way the vowel changes in words like bath and half. I still can't "hear" the r in areshole, the way I mentally add it in when I hear a non-rhotic speaker say "cars" or "wars". If the r in areshole never appears in rhotic accents, does it even really exist? Is there a dialect out there that uses arsehole instead of asshole, yet retains the r?

  21. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    Nunberg is implicitly discussing default assumptions in discourse about unidentified third-parties and which involve race and class. That such evoked default assumptions don't perfectly match reality (there are saggy-pantsed affuent white teens, female doctors, male nurses, profanity-soaked tirades from soccer moms) does not mean that those evoked default assumptions cannot exist. These sorts of default assumptions are noted for being tailing indicators of social change—they stick around long after reality itself has moved on.

    That's very likely a direct result of the fact that they carry a lot of narrative weight; they're efficient in communicating certain kinds of information.

    GN: Right; the question isn't what the woman's race actually was but how readers would interpret the description. The Post's editors may be playing coy with this as well, but the import hasn't escaped the commenter Clarence3, who writes indignantly::

    So I noticed every single post that suggested the loud-mouthed woman was an African American has been deleted by the moderators. When the comment section in an opinion article is too PC to even consider the facts, it's no wonder this vile behavior is increasing.

    Actually, the editors missed some; for example:

    Let me also guess the ethinc background you were hearing?????? Blacks in this country are about 14% of the population but about 90% of the cultural damage that has been inflicted since the late 1960's………Mother f———- is standard dialog, along with the "N" word and various other means of expressing the void in the brain that education cannot fill………Too assume that an education will erase this decline in our culture is a dream. These folks will continue as they always have. Once they have been affirmative actioned through the system and given a diploma in something, they will take their crude talk to some workplace, or back to the hood where they will contribute nothing to society except a bad attitude and a drain of the taxpayers…

  22. Nick Lamb said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    The picture in my head was of the kids I see outside my local bars (it seems these days they have to queue to get their ID checked, which is rough, I never carried ID), who wear trousers that seem to sorely need a belt but don't use one, presumably deliberately. I'm not sure, but I think if they were predominantly black (which seems to be the implication at work here?) I'd have noticed that at some point. I don't even associate this look with "black" culture, it's a "rich kids who don't work" thing, isn't it?

    When I read the phrase "insolent disposition" I think of every child confronted by the unreasonableness of the world and of their parents in particular. Whether it's a 8 year old told they can't have a pony, a 14 year old denied permission to watch a psychological horror movie, or a 23 year old informed that if they want all-night parties they're going to have to get their own place.

    Nothing new here then, and so not a fit subject for a newspaper. Mainly I come away from this thinking Ms Parker sorely lacked material and the Post ought to be able to find a writer who has something more interesting to say in 2011. But of course everyone with something interesting to say has a blog already.

    Also, yes, arsehole not asshole.

  23. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

    For me the weirdest part of Nunberg's framing of this is the notion that the obscenity in question is either race-linked, or stereotypically seen as such. I've never heard of that. Does anyone out there have some data?

    There is something called "Google" and this is what shows as the second result for me: The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words, by Jim Dawson.

    Dawson discusses the prevalence of the word in AAVE beginning on page 23, but long before this he quotes and cites many, many references which make it perfectly clear that its use is both old and frequent in AAVE.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

    @Nick Lamb and others: The Wikipedia article has what look like well-sourced indications that the style began among and was popularized by black Americans.

    @John: I think "baggy drawers" are underwear that's visible because of sagging trousers.

    @Simon: Yes, occasionally you see Americans using "arse", presumably because it shocks us less than "ass".

    All this reminds me of a story from a friend of mine, a white man who grew up in northern New Jersey. On his first day at high school, a teacher said in prim tones, "Class, this is high school English. In this class, we will pronounce words correctly. We will not say [mʌəˈfʌː]. We will say [ˌmʌ ðər ˈfʌ kər]." At this point he imitates his youthful look of shock.

  25. Matt_M said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

    @will:

    There are plenty of British accents that are rhotic: people from Scotland, Ireland, and much of the southwest of England use rhotic accents. And as far as I know, they all say 'arse' (with the 'r' pronounced) instead of 'ass' unless they are talking about donkeys or making some reference to American culture.

  26. Picky said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 2:54 am

    Why would Professor Nunberg think that the British woman must have been English, rather than, say, an RP speaker from somewhere else? And why would Ms Parker think that RP speakers or those from non-rhotic Britain extend their pinkies?

  27. Valentine said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 4:33 am

    @Keith M Ellis

    I tried out this Google thing you mentioned and found out Jim Dawson isn't a linguist at all, but a "self-described 'fartologist'" who writes comedy books. While I don't doubt has a long and distinguished presence in AAVE, I do doubt that is more prevalent than in other American English dialects. And I am still kind of perturbed by this whole post and it's assumptions about assumptions about assumptions.

  28. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 5:52 am

    I tried out this Google thing you mentioned and found out Jim Dawson isn't a linguist at all, but a "self-described 'fartologist'" who writes comedy books.

    Seriously? My use of Google reveals that he writes comedy books and books on cultural history, particularly those associated with American pop music. No, he's not a linguist. I didn't bother to check because when the book showed up in the search results, I read parts of it and found it to be almost overburdened with quotes and citations.

    I will rely upon authority when all else is equal, but in this case I had no cause to suspect the book's general reliability on this topic. However, if you have any reason to believe that the book is an elaborate hoax, then I'd like to hear it.

    Otherwise, I'll assume that you deliberately looked for an excuse to discredit this writer simply because you are, for whatever reason, emotionally invested in the idea that motherfucker has no exceptional history in AAVE. (Well, actually, the conclusion you're invested in is that Parker's column wasn't dog-whistling a reference to black culture, all else is probably subordinate to that. Because you're "perturbed".)

    However, I'll note that Geoffrey Hughes, in his book Swearing, mentions that motherfucker is a particularly major feature of "black parlance" in American English. I can't access the notes section of the book in Google Books for his citation. Try not to be too disappointed after you've checked Hughes's credentials in order to discredit him.

    If you're truly interested in verifying your intuitions on this, then this is probably where'd you'd start.

  29. Mr Pond said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 5:54 am

    There may be some dispute about the implied ethnicity in the opening paragraph, I grant that. That, after all, is the whole point of implication–it creates ambiguity. But the Tiger Woods reference seems to me to be not only confirming GN's worst suspicions, but adding insult to injury. As much as one may dislike Mr Woods, Ms Parker's implication that it's all just spiffy for Posh White People at Tea Parties to call annoying black people ahs-holes is reprehensible.

    (And Ms Parker suggests that we can know they're annoying because Tiger Woods is a creep and the lady in the public elevator invaded our tidy lives, which apparently she had no right to do.)

    So I'm in entire agreement with GN's concluding sentence: 'You're left with the unsettling implication that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one's lips depends, in part, on how thick they are.'

    Would Ms Parker have written this article if, instead of the elevator lady, she had seen–as I did, and the memory is still distressing–a wealthy white hotel patron screaming obscenities at a black receptionist? I have to doubt it.

  30. J Lee said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    any english-speaker can attest that AAVE uses the MF word much more often and not just as an expletive but also as a pronoun like the french 'on'. it is also not rare (cross-linguistically) to hear mothers calling their kids SOBs. but a reasonable assessment of current newspaper coverage, which refuses to identify the invented 'flash mobs' as being overwhelmingly composed of racial minorities as proven by video evidence, does not make this woman's column seem so menacing.

  31. UK Lawyer said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 6:29 am

    'You're left with the unsettling implication that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one's lips depends, in part, on how thick they are.'

    Am I alone in detecting a cultural difference that has nothing to do with race? A middle-class English lady referring to a philanderer as an arsehole may have entirely different parameters of acceptability in England to her US cousin calling someone an asshole in the US. In an English context, it sounds like a well-calibrated expression of disapproval, the strength of the swear word excused by the strength of feeling and not beyond the pale in many social settings (not a word you would use to HM the Queen, but one you could imagine Princess Anne using it). I really don't hear any racial overtones.

    Bugger is another word that, I am told, is much milder and more acceptable in England than the US.

  32. Picky said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    Well, I don't know, UK Lawyer. I think there is nasty evil racial prejudice, expressed in a form so obscure that it requires some work by Professor Nunberg with brush and trowel to reveal even its faint outline, and merry, jolly old racial prejudice, overtly expressed, but perfectly OK because, when it comes down to it, it's just a joke at the expense of the English, isn't it? Have I got that right?

  33. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    I'm an RPing Briton down in Texas, and I find (and have found in many other parts of the US) that absolutely anything I say is perceived as a sign of (probably in reality non-existent) intelligence and refinement by a sizable segment of the US public, however ignorant or unrefined that utterance may be.
    Possibly relevant to this discussion is this SMBC.

  34. Kris Rhodes said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 7:12 am

    I have no idea what race the woman discussed in the article is. GN said it's not important what race she actually is, but rather, what's important is how the text is coyly pretending not to talk about race when in fact it actually is. But if I don't know what race the woman is, and if a lot of other people don't know what race the woman is, it's hard for me to see how the text is actually talking about race. If it were, I'd think we'd all have a clear idea what race the woman is.

    Were there comments appended to the article which concluded the woman was black? What this seems to mean is that there are some racists who assume a certain race from a description of behavior. This does not show tha the text is "really talking about race," rather, it illustrates that racists will read their assumptions in.

  35. Greg Gates said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 7:16 am

    Absolutely, Richard. UK Lawyer, whether or not "arsehole" is less offensive in the UK than "asshole" in the US, Parker's point is clearly that WE AMERICANS can avoid her sanction when saying "asshole" so long as we do so with a sufficiently British inflection to indicate that we're refined and sophisticated (it helps if the asshole in question is Tiger Woods, presumably, rather than Fred Hiatt). It's not the word, you see, it's the context and delivery. Classless women of unspecified race can't pull this off, and just make everyone uncomfortable. They won't be invited to tea.

  36. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    Oh! and p.s. to UK Lawyer. I think you may be right about 'bugger', but I've used it in the singular and the plural at least 50 times in broadcast essays over here and no one has ever disparaged the usage. Another obvious example of what we should call the 'ahs-hoal effect'.

  37. Kathryn said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 8:29 am

    "It wasn’t possible to discern whether he was her mate or her son, but his attire (baggy drawers) and insolent disposition seemed to suggest the latter."

    Why, in writing where space is limited and word count counts, would the writer choose attire and then specify which item of attire, as a major significator of the relationship, unless there was something peculiarly telling about that item? Because baggy drawers suggest youth, and the woman appeared older? Then why not refer to their apparent relative ages? The cool thing about using the baggy drawers is precisely that many people will rush to assure those who unravel the code that they are mistaken, because they are now a multicultural phenomenon.

    I also wonder just how she discerned the man's insolent disposition–doesn't sound as if he had much chance to speak, and looking sullen in face of a diatribe is slender evidence of actual disposition. But "insolent" reinforces the coded value of the drawers, while being unassailably neutral on its face.

  38. Brett said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 8:37 am

    @UK Lawyer and Richard Howland-Bolton: "Bugger" is not really idiomatic American English. The vast majority of Americans, even if they might have heard it from speakers of other dialects, have no idea that it is a reference to sodomy. I assume that most Americans would therefore perceive it to be among the mildest of insults, through association with one or another meaning of "bug."

    BTW, Richard, I loved your radio essays back when I lived somewhere that they broadcast Weekend Radio.

  39. ENKI-][ said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 8:50 am

    If this refers to the united states in the past fifteen years, it's exceedingly unlikely that baggy pants and overuse of the word 'motherfucker' is intended to say anything about race, though it is probably intended to say something about class.

  40. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    Then why not refer to their apparent relative ages?

    I think your argument is exactly right, but you've missed one additional but quite important thing: the baggy shorts are doing double-duty.

    She doesn't want to merely identify the people involved as mother and child (which surely would have been sufficient for her purposes of describing a disturbing scene on the elevator) because she also wishes to imply that they are closer in age than we'd otherwise expect. (Note too that she sneaks in the strong implication that the mother is single.)

    She's remarkably efficient. Parker paints an expertly detailed picture with very few words or explicit details. It's a picture which just happens to perfectly match the American stereotype of inner-city black culture and the ways in which it matches that stereotype directly evoke the related diagnosis of that culture's supposed moral decay. And moral decay is the theme of her column.

    This column is like a bookend to David Starkey's recent comments except that Parker, being a contemporary American, has the more refined ability to race-bait without doing so explicitly.

  41. Picky said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    I repeat, Mr Ellis, in her depiction of the British woman she very definitely does do it explicitly. But none of us is concerned.

  42. bianca steele said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    I wonder if Americans might thing "bugger" is an alternate spelling of "booger" (which I don't think has any racial connotations incidentally, though there are a couple of different ways that could seem to be the case).

    I wonder whether the Noonan column could have been some woman-to-woman jab at English (presumably) liberals.

    (I read the OP quickly and thought it was using "thick" in a different sense, which seemed plausible.)

    I know nothing about Parker except what I just read on Wikipedia, but it is astonishing that someone who's appeared on the O'Reilly show would complain about people speaking "vilely" in public and "invading" the mindspace of we innocents.

  43. Kathryn said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    Picky, um, I've reread the quoted paragraph about the British woman, and I'm having a really hard time seeing anything racial in it. Some class and possibly ethnic coding, although it seems prejudice in favor of the class and ethnicity. What am I missing?

  44. Mr Punch said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    I got no racial implication from the Parker piece. The language, in my experience, is widely used among whites. Also, "baggy drawers"? Drawers are underpants; it's a hospital; people riding hospital elevators in their underwear are likely to be patients in hospital-issue garb, which does tend to be baggy whatever one's race. Move along, nothing to see here.

  45. Picky said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    You don't think there's any stereotyping there, Kathryn? Nothing derogatory in the pinkies stuff?

    Good. I found it patronising and condescending. But I confess I saw nothing racial in the stuff about the loudmouths. I'm a long way away, of course.

  46. Kathryn said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Picky: Oh, I saw the "pinkies extended" as code (ethnic and class)–but given that the writer was prepared to accept a seriously vulgar anatomical reference because of the accent she apparently associates with those of that ethnicity and class, I didn't read it as derogatory, patronising, or condescending in this context, although I'll concede that I might do so in other contexts. Hm. Probably would do so in most contexts, in fact. Coding can work in different directions, after all. But, I definitely don't see "pinkies extendeded" as racial in any sense.

    Um. We ARE understanding the phrase the same way, yes? A reference to the manner of holding the teacup?

  47. Trimegistus said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    So we're not allowed to be offended if a person with darker skin unleashes a tirade of profanity in a confined space? That seems to be the thrust of your objection to the quoted article.

    How is that not racist? Dark people can't be expected to understand proper context and behavior? Standards are only for the pink or Asian people? I cannot imagine a more patronizing, insulting attitude.

  48. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    That seems to be the thrust of your objection to the quoted article.

    That's funny because the very last sentence of his post states his objection quite clearly, and there's nothing in it about him objecting to someone taking offense at someone with darker skin unleashing a tirade of profanity in a confined space. (Or obscenity, even. You really might have been reading a different post. Did I miss one?)

  49. Kylopod said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 10:17 am

    Parker's response to the English lady's pronunciation of asshole caught my attention, not only because the paper apparently allowed that word, or at least Parker's transcription of how the British lady pronounced it, but also because I was reminded of how the subtitle to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was censored in England and other countries because shag is an obscenity there. What's interesting to me is that, partly courtesy of the Austin Powers series and certain British films that have become popular in the States, a lot of Americans now know what shag means and that it's an obscenity in England. But this hasn't made shag into an obscenity in the U.S. It is somehow perceived as relatively mild slang for sex, akin to bang, screw, hump, etc., rather than to our f-word. What's striking to me is that the knowledge of a word's meaning and even the knowledge that the word is taboo someplace else isn't enough to make it taboo to those with that knowledge, because it lacks the cultural history that would make it resonate as an obscenity.

    And in Parker's column, there was almost an assumption that "asshole" sounds somehow more respectable in an English woman's mouth, which could be because she pronounced it differently than Americans do, making it effectively into a different word, or it could be because of a deep cultural assumption that the British are somehow less coarse than Americans, so that their way of rendering our obscenities automatically makes them less profane than when we utter them. You could see that assumption in Parker's reference to the woman's "refined" accent. Was it refined because it was RP, or was it refined because all British are refined, from an American standpoint?

    And finally, did anyone detect the slightest trace of irony in Parker's broad use of cultural and racial stereotypes? I hope so, but I couldn't see it myself.

  50. Elliott P. said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    I read the blurb without one thought of the people's race. If anything, I probably subconsciously assumed they were white since Parker is also.

    I feel sorry for people who can't ready something, anything, without looking for hidden racism. Get a life.

  51. Picky said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    Kathryn: yes we are. (And the joke is that extending the pinky while drinking would actually be seen by a middle class British woman as very unrefined.) I see Kylopod's take on it is quite different from mine, too. It seemed to me to fit a stereotype of Britons as snobbish and faux-refined, and to do so in a rather sneery way.

  52. Kathryn said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    Picky. You know, I was aware of that class issue in British perception, and it flew right by me this time. That, of course, is the downside of unravelling such codes–what we perceive is significantly informed by our own experiences and, um, prejudices. As an American who had an anglophilic childhood and adolescence, I used to be quite adept at perceiving those distinctions; that seems to have faded with time. So–hard to say what Parker intended. And. . .I do think that much of the subtext in what she wrote may well have been subconscious, in both parts of the piece quoted.

  53. Picky said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    That's right, Kathryn. What interested me from the start was that Professor Nunberg seemed to work very hard to unearth prejudice in the first part, while the stuff in the second part just flew right past him, too.

    Of course I accept that some sorts of prejudice carry more weight than others and are more worthy of condemnation. Stereotyping of the British usually is part joking (at least, it is from Americans), and in any case is unlikely to do me much harm.

  54. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    "So we're not allowed to be offended if a person with darker skin unleashes a tirade of profanity in a confined space?"

    No no no. Geoff's point is that Parker seems to be alluding to race, and associating race with behavior, without ever coming out and saying so. It's the way Parker chooses certain details, at the exclusion of other possible details, the makes the thing linguistically interesting.

  55. bianca steele said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    I see now that "the Noonan column" was actually part of the same column by Parker. Now I have difficulty understanding what she meant by it.

    @Keith
    Maybe in hir dialect, the last sentence of an utterance is always false and to be understood as such.

  56. DaveK said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    I do think that Parker is expecting her readers to assume the woman is black–the stereotype of the black woman as leather-lunged harridan is all-too pervasive in our culture. By the same token, the British woman mentioned could have been black, but but I'm sure Parker just assumes that the reader will imagine her as white.
    It's worth noting that no one in the elevator apparently spoke up and said "Hey lady, would you hold it down–there are other people in here, you know" They were probably too absorbed in the show. I bet Parker was, too.

  57. Kathryn said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    One thing I find fascinating is that Parker twice describes the woman's language as profane (the second such use isn't quoted above), and we all accept that as an accurate description. But the word she references is obscene, not profane; there is a difference.

  58. Ellen K. said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    @J Lee
    any english-speaker can attest that AAVE uses the MF word much more often…

    I don't think gross exaggeration helps the discussion.

    I presume you know your statement is not literally true. I can't for the life of me think what you actually mean by it. I do know I personally can't attest that. And I assure you I do speak English.

  59. Greg Gates said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    It's telling that that the concern troll objection to this post goes: "There's obviously no coded racism here because I assume that if a white person is telling a story, all characters are white unless she explicitly says otherwise."

  60. bianca steele said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    Is there a significantly-sized gap between what the writer thinks is implied by what she writes, and what readers are actually inferring? (IANAL and though I think this is interesting, I don't know if it's interesting linguistically.) Or is her writing pretty much what any reader of her newspaper would expect (if such a thing is possible)?

    If there is a gap, could the writer be trying too hard to be subtle, or should we assume there is no irony in what she's written?

    If there is no irony, how is it possible to interpret metaphors and other figures of speech in her column?

    I don't know how to answer these questions, but when I can't answer these questions, I'm less interested in trying to make sense of the writer.

  61. J Lee said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    ironically a black british woman has become a youtube star for unleashing her leather lungs on some looters.

    i think the stereotype of blacks as loud in public (most popularly movie theaters) is distinct from a general 'poorer folks are obnoxious' idea. the writer of that article was being facetious the whole time (everyone recognizes 'refined British accent' as a meaningless collocation) and if she didnt opt to identify the woman's race it was probably anticipating reactions like this.
    people like peggy noonan believe that illegitimacy, which among blacks is an astounding 70%, is the cause of most social ills.
    why is it that although publicized racial episodes are almost always either nonissues or actual manufactured hoaxes, the credulity of people eager to find it never diminishes? our prof here even believed that the backness of the vowel really mattered to the writer.

  62. Peter Taylor said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

    I'm bemused.

    The columnist writes

    It wasn’t possible to discern whether he was her mate or her son, but his attire (baggy drawers) and insolent disposition seemed to suggest the latter.

    The linguist comments

    The race and class of the woman and her companion weren't specified, but readers might have been able to divine those attributes from the particular word Parker chose to report (or was that the only vulgarity the woman used?), helped along by the setting at Broadway and 168th Street and the mentions of the separated father and in particular of the young man's "baggy drawers," which presumably were intended to convey some relevant information.

    She tells us that the "baggy drawers" convey relevant information, and it's obvious from context that the relevant information is about the man's age. How on earth do you get from that to a presumption that they're meant to convey relevant information about a subject which hasn't been mentioned?

  63. GeorgeW said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    I am white, Southern American and have not been to NYC in years but there is no doubt in my mind that Parker was describing an African American.

    FWIW, Huges in "Swearing" says, "Mother-fucker apperas to have developed initially in negro communities, proliferated in the Vietnam War and then sperad across America socially and geographically with the returning troops"

  64. davep said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    Keith M Ellis: "She's remarkably efficient. Parker paints an expertly detailed picture with very few words or explicit details. It's a picture which just happens to perfectly match the American stereotype of inner-city black culture and the ways in which it matches that stereotype directly evoke the related diagnosis of that culture's supposed moral decay. And moral decay is the theme of her column."

    Yes. And then later she talks about upper-crusty people (implied white) criticizing about some one well-known to be black. (Or course, she is also talking about class).

    ===========

    It's a bit surprising that some people here don't realize that the "droopy shorts" and "mother fucker" is not associated with "urban" culture.

    ===========

    There is one thing that people (including Nunberg) are missing.

    I think Parker is being ironic with the "I told her we could use that word in any circumstance if only we pronounced it the way she did. Pinkies extended, all together now." comment (since the direct meaning of that comment is clearly absurd).

    That is, she is trying to say that "ahs-hoal" might not be any more acceptable (and that the acceptability of "offensive" words might depend on the cultural group in which they are used).

  65. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    She tells us that the "baggy drawers" convey relevant information, and it's obvious from context that the relevant information is about the man's age. How on earth do you get from that to a presumption that they're meant to convey relevant information about a subject which hasn't been mentioned

    This:

    …that he could very well seek shelter at his mother—-ing father’s house

    …tells us (without the ambiguity of the baggy pants implication) both the age and the relationship. From this statement, she knew (not just suspected) both. She could have simply asserted these two things.

    Given the ambiguity of the baggy pants and the unambiguity of the other statement, the detail of the pants has little utility for the purpose you assert. On the other hand, it has much greater utility for implying race.

  66. davep said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    Mr Punch: "I got no racial implication from the Parker piece. The language, in my experience, is widely used among whites.

    "Widely used" by white mothers? Repeatedly? In public? Really? Where?

    The phrase isn't exclusive to any particular ethnicity/race but it is associated with "urban" culture. One also has to consider how it became to be "widely used" by the particular group of whites you are talking about.

    Mr Punch: "Also, "baggy drawers"? Drawers are underpants; it's a hospital; people riding hospital elevators in their underwear are likely to be patients in hospital-issue garb, which does tend to be baggy whatever one's race. Move along, nothing to see here."

    You have to look at the rest of the sentence. Your "interesting" interpretation doesn't hold-up because the "baggy drawers" indicates (Parker says) that he's her -son- (not a patient).

    Parker: "It wasn’t possible to discern whether he was her mate or her son, but his attire (baggy drawers) and insolent disposition seemed to suggest the latter."

  67. davep said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    me earlier: "It's a bit surprising that some people here don't realize that the "droopy shorts" and "mother fucker" is not associated with "urban" culture."

    It's a bit surprising that some people here don't realize that the "droopy shorts" and "mot her fucker" IS associated with "urban" culture.

  68. J Lee said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    @Ellen K.

    i say speakers of black english use the MF word more often than speakers other dialects (even if only because of the many more functions it seems to have) and make no other judgements about the matter. obviously it is just one of the countless black terms that became mainstream, and the IPA given by an earlier commenter even displays a contracted form never used by standard speakers.

  69. Adrian said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    1. I didn't pick up on the racism at first, but that's not because it isn't there but because, being white, I initially assumed the people involved were white.
    2. From my experience, I associate the MF expletive with black people. I think that those commenters who state that use of the term no longer necessarily conforms to racial stereotyping are probably correct, but I don't credit Ms Parker with as much insight.
    3. I'm surprised that no-one has picked up on the word "mate". "Her mate"! Gor blimey. To people in the UK a mate is either a friend or a zoo animal, and it would be jaw-dropping stuff if a British newspaper called a black woman's partner "her mate".

  70. J Lee said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    actually i considered sarcastically pointing out 'mate' but i was doubtful that even the most rabid comments would go quite so far off the deep end to the realm of self-parody. from her writing style it seems probable that the word choice was benign and that she in fact was not trying to dehumanize all black people in the Washington Post.

    everyone is always forced to concede that racism exists in america to some degree, a lame ritual, but no one says the reverse, that the type of vicious overt racism necessary to write something like that is probably no longer cultivated anywhere. which is why no serious black leaders would have racism in even the top 3 causes of problems black people have. this is the mindset of the peggy noonans and kathleen parkers, so they are less attuned to what words might offend.

  71. Acilius said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    My local paper carries Parker's column, and I've tried to read it on many occasions. I gave up when I found my frustration with its weak arguments turning into personal dislike for her.

    Conversely, I read Language Log every day, because its authors usually present arguments that are much stronger than anyone has a right to expect to find offered for free on a blog. So it was a bit of a disappointment to see that so distinguished a scholar as Professor Nunberg has used this platform to launch an attack on such an easy target.

    It was an even worse disappointment to see how inadequate that attack is. As Helena Constantine pointed out at 9:49 PM, the location of Presbyterian does not give us any reason to suppose that the people Parker is describing were African American. As several others have pointed out, the clothing she describes long ago ceased to be the cultural property of African Americans, if indeed they ever were so. The most specific thing that phat pants are likely to signify to the readers of newspaper editorial pages is "Kids Today." Given Parker's description of her initial uncertainty as to the relationship between the two, it may just signify "Slobs."

    As for "motherfucker" being so rare among well-to-do American whites that "communicative cooperativeness would have obliged Parker to mention that fact lest the reader draw the wrong conclusions," one can only envy dear Professor Nunberg his isolation. As JMM pointed out at 7:22 PM, this group is not to be noted for the delicacy of its manners.

    As for the alleged "kicker," what Professor Nunberg has given us leaves open the possibility that Parker might be saying, in all earnestness, that vowel articulation is the difference between unacceptable coarseness on the one hand and a pleasant familiarity on the other. It also leaves open the possibility that she might be saying this without earnestness, as a way of softening her point, as it leaves open the possibility that she is not saying this at all. Indeed, his argument is so cursory that he does not exclude any possible interpretations whatever. All in all, a profound disappointment from the estimable Log, all the more so considering that it emanates from one of its brightest lights. No more like this, please.

  72. dazeystarr said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

    A number of folks have discussed the phrase "baggy drawers" and whether or not it conveys information about race and/or culture, but their discussion seems to center on the act of wearing one's "drawers" baggy. So I'm curious: does the word drawers itself not convey such information to everyone?

    I ask because as soon as I read that word I assumed that the person being described was African-American. I'm a European-American who grew up and went to school in a city in New Jersey that is primarily African-American, and I have only ever heard "drawers" (pronounced /drɔz/) meaning "underwear" in AAVE. Unless, of course, a non-African-American is using it to make a point about race, as I assumed the writer in question was doing.

    Am I wrong? Do non-AAVE speakers say "drawers"? If so, which other dialects does it appear in?

  73. Eric P Smith said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    @dazeystarr: “drawers” meaning underwear was formerly used in the UK, but I have not heard it in the last 50 years, except in period drama, and in the humorous Flanders and Swann song, “Ma’s out, Pa’s out, let’s talk rude: Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers.”

  74. Ellen K. said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Replying to the comment from Keith M Ellis at 2:31 pm.

    No, the statement about the child's father does not tell us the the author knew what the relationship was; it tells us she knew that at a later point than what she is narrating when she mentions the baggy pants. She's telling a story, telling us what her viewpoint was at that point. She even adds "Aha, family ties established.".

  75. Ethan said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    @EricPSmith:
    "drawers" was used in the US in the same period. There is, for instance, a reasonably memorable quote from _The Music Man_ (1957 Broadway hit). _MM_ was set in Iowa, but I don't know whether the dialog is more authentically midwest than NY.

    [on a hot July day]
    "Citizens of River City: Good morning, Mayor Shinn!
    Mayor Shinn: It is if you wanna go around in your drawers all day!"

  76. GeorgeW said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    It seems to me that some of the commenters are missing the comparison of the social acceptability of "ahs-hoal" vs. the crudeness of "mother–" as evaluated by the very same writer.

    The former was spoken by a "British woman, in her refined accent" and the latter by "a filthy-mouthed woman." The former was undoubtedly white, upper class while the latter, almost certainly, black, lower class.

    This is a sociolinguistics issue.

  77. Jason said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    The irony is that in between sneering pieces about the speech and manners of working class blacks, republicans like Kathleen Parker also accuse Democrats of being elitist, ivory tower Liberals out of touch with the common people. It would be an interesting exercise in social psychology to try to ascertain how Kathleen Parker displaces the apparent cognitive dissonance between these two positions.

  78. Acilius said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

    @Ethan: That's exactly the example that came into my head!

    @Eric P Smith: I've heard southerners of all hues use the word "drawers," and while I'm reluctant to spend enough time sorting through the various uses of "drawers" that a CoCA search returns to say for sure, I can say that the half dozen or so results I found on the first page that match that meaning were evenly divided between references to African American and white southerners. According to Wikipedia, Parker grew up in Florida and currently lives in South Carolina, so I'd suspect that word is likely a regular part of her lexicon.

  79. John Burgess said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    I've had a lot of experience with regional American dialects, but rural and urban. MF trips readily off of tongues both black and white in urban and rural environments, in the north and south. I've heard mothers (generally considered 'trashy', but that is not an indicator of actual economic class) berate their kids with the MF epithet on elevators, in supermarkets, and on the street.

    By the time I hit my teens, in the early 60s, MF was common across all racial groups. It certainly blows no silent racial whistles for me.

    Droopy pants and/or shorts (as in short pants) rings no racial bell, either. I see kids of all races–including Asian–dressed in that manner. It's a style and an attitude, not a racial marker, no matter how it may have started.

    The article's conclusion, with a jibe at the expense of Brits, was a joke and meant to be a joke. I believe Parker intended to say that if vulgarities were all slicked up in an RP accent, then perhaps they'd be less objectionable. She was exhibiting that trait Brits seem to find lacking in Americans: irony.

    The one thing in Parker's article that did stop me was her use of 'drawers'. To me, that is underwear, in my idiolect and in all I know. Thus, I had to parse her statement that the kid's underwear was actually droopy and visible only because his trousers/pants/shorts were even lower. It's an accurate enough image, but it took a re-scanning of the picture to get there.

  80. Lane said,

    August 22, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    Two things: New York Presbyterian has several locations, and somehow I imagine Kathleen Parker's niece giving birth at the one at York and 68th more than the one at 168th; I don't think the hospital's name was a coded reference to Harlem or Washington Heights.

    Two: You're undoubtedly right about her wink-wink nod to race, but I think she was fairly decent not to mention it. Parker's been one of the most decent conservatives out there lately. I'm inclined to give her a pass on this one.

  81. Geoff Nunberg said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 12:54 am

    I was sort of surprised to see that there are some people who say they don't associate motherfucker with AAVE. I'd rather lay this to youth rather than disingenuousness. Maybe it's a generation thing (but if you're over 35 or so I can't think of any way to get you off the hook). Mine — the white segment, anyway — grew up guffawing over jokes that presumed the connection, like:

    Black mother: Little Leroy said "mother" today.
    Black dad: Just ten months old and he already knows half a word!

    A search on the word together with 'jokes' and some word for African Americans (though not that very one, probably) will turn up lots more — they are still festering out there. (Punchline: "The Pole, because the African American stopped to spray-paint 'motherfucker' on the way down.")

    As for the drawers, the fact that the style is worn by whites doesn't divest it of its default associations, no more than the fact that whites sing hip hop, as an image search on "ghetto pants" makes clear.

    Plainly a number of Parker's readers picked this up and ran with it (see the comments on her piece above), as she had to know they would. What makes it creepy is that the failure to explicitly mention race implies that that was irrelevant to her point, even as she was making it gratuitously clear. As Keith Ellis says, it creates deniability: Shocked, shocked! to suppose I wanted you to think she was black!

  82. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    …which is why no serious black leaders would have racism in even the top 3 causes of problems black people have.

    There is so much wrongness (and by "wrongness", I mean something not unlike evil) packed into a mere sentence that this is awesome, in a perverse way.

    Whenever I come across discussions of racism on the Internet, I'm always somehow just as surprised, every time, that the anti-anti-racist arguments follow the same patterns (like those described here). Some of this is merely a symptom of partial success: portions of the overt, institutionalized aspects of racism have been eliminated from American society (and some others) and thus many people confuse this with having nearly eliminated the problem.

    But there's also a big element of the fruits of a sustained, deliberate, and malicious effort by racists to confuse, distort, and mislead. One example is the relatively recent development that anything other than being purely "colorblind" is inherently racist. This is insidious and clever, because—as we've seen happen in this thread with several example comments—it allows anti-anti-racists to invalidate prima facie any claims of observed racism by asserting that it's the anti-racists who are the ones who are, in fact, being racist by claiming that race is involved in the first place. It's diabolical.

    It's astounding to me, really, that otherwise intelligent and educated people would believe and assert that something like racism could be mostly eliminated through the destruction of a relative handful of explicit institutions (social, legal, political) when such folk otherwise have far more realistic and nuanced views of social phenomena—you know, such as language. Well, that's generally a poor example because the prescriptivists have similarly simplistic, unrealistic, and authoritarian views on language. But here at LL, presumably most commenters are better informed. If only it were so with regard to racism.

  83. J Lee said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 2:58 am

    overt forms of racism are the only kind democratic institutions can regulate, unless you want to stipulate otherwise.

    what is the minority claim to equal status with whites if not to establish equality under the laws of the land? when it is something as egregious as favoring arbitrary quotas, it seems to me the wronged party — measurably more qualified and deserving under all American tradition — is being adversely affected because of uncontrollable conditions and cannot be racist for protesting. that is the real a priori slander and it is reinforced only by white guilt.
    so that wasnt a refutation with facts or examples as much as a self-righteous rant. it is funny when LL professors have revealing moments like myl's before.

  84. hector said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 3:37 am

    Moral decay, pfft. I still remember my bemusement when in grade 6, in suburban Toronto in the 1950s, our new classmate, an immigrant from Glasgow, used "fuckin'" every third word or so. As in, "I couldn't fuckin' go to the fuckin' movie because my fuckin' brother wouldn't give me back the fuckin' money I fuckin' lent him." (I am not exaggerating. If anything, he would have figured out some way to stick another "fuckin'" or two into that sentence.)

    My impression is that "motherfucking" started in the black community, and has largely replaced "fucking" in those parts of the American white community that are partial to talking like this.

    Doris Lessing once wrote that whenever she, an immigrant, wrote about the class-ridden nature of England, she would receive many indignant letters, obviously from their diction written by members of the middle class, protesting that class was no longer a problem in England. The U.S. counterpart seems to be those who deny instances of racism.

  85. Christopher said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 5:57 am

    Race aside, I was caught up by Parker's rather amazing misreading of George Carlin's "seven words you can’t say on television" sketch, which she says "now can be viewed as a period piece."

    Now, there's a reason it's not called "seven words you can't say on an elevator with Kathleen Parker". In fact, I don't think I've ever heard the word "cocksucker" on a TV show outside HBO et al. This despite the fact that most of what I watch is on cable, which, if I understand correctly, is not subject to the same FCC regulations that broadcast TV is.

    I've seen late-night cable programs that still bleeped out the word "Jesus", for crying out loud.

    So rather then being outdated, the taboos Carlin identified are now self-enforced, rather then imposed by outside actors like they were back in the day.

    This jumped out at me because I'm fascinated by the way different art forms have different taboos about what they can depict.

  86. Tom Saylor said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 5:59 am

    @ Geoff Nunberg

    It's not a generational thing. The white kids I grew up with in the 1960's and 1970's used 'motherfucker' constantly. The fact that there are jokes that turn on the use of the word by African Americans proves nothing. There are lots of jokes about drunken Irishmen, but if someone describes a man as drunk, we don't take it as a coy suggestion that the person in question is Irish.

    To adapt the adage, if you misremember the sixties, you must have been there. Drunks aren't seen as borrowing the practice from the Irish, but motherfucker was regarded in this period as a creation of ghetto culture. As Mark Rudd (the Columbia SDS leader, one has to add now) wrote in 1970 of the use of the word by radicals at the time:

    We co-opted the word [motherfucker] from the ghetto much as we adopted the struggles of blacks and the other oppressed as our own. When young people start calling those in power, the people whose places we're being trained to fill, 'mother fuckers,' you know the structure of authority is breaking down. … At that time, shocking language had the advantage of selectively targeting established population elements: in addition to social-class differentials, young people did not find crude language as offensive as did older ones."

    Apropos, Rudd ended his famously impertinent 1968 letter to Columbia's president Grayson Kirk: "I’ll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I’m sure you don’t like a whole lot: ‘Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick-up." (Linguistic aside: in The Sixities, Todd Gitlin observed that Rudd’s disregard for bourgeois strictures didn’t extend to flouting the rules for using whom.)

  87. Andrew F said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    @will,

    In parts of the UK without the trap-bath split, arse is different to ass and grass, which have short 'a'.

    For a rhotic arse, have you seen Father Jack?

    Like Adrian, I was taken aback by "mate". It seems an inexplicable substitute for "partner" unless it's intended to nudge and wink at other implications.

  88. Ellen K. said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:28 am

    I was sort of surprised to see that there are some people who say they don't associate motherfucker with AAVE. I'd rather lay this to youth rather than disingenuousness. Maybe it's a generation thing (but if you're over 35 or so I can't think of any way to get you off the hook).

    I'm 42, and really don't feel I need to be let off any hook for not associating that word with AAVE.

    But, no, it's not disingenuousness. And probably not a matter of how I've seen the word used. Maybe it's a matter of how I look at the word, and a failure to categorize people into groups.

    I'm not doubting the associations that others have brought out here. But please don't insult those of us who, for whatever reason, don't have those associations.

  89. Ellen K. said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Oops… I meant to write: Maybe it's a matter of how I look at the world. Nothing to do with how I look at that word. :)

  90. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    @Ellen K: Oh, I'm pretty sure you categorize people into groups. In fact, I know you do. Why would you claim that you don't? It's that sort of thing that leads people to make accusations of disingenuousness.

  91. Ellen K. said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    @Keith. I didn't claim that I don't. Read again. Notice the lack of any absolute terms. Not that you have any good reason to think I ever do categorize people. You don't know me. But, nonetheless, speaking of my "failure to categorize people into groups" is not saying that failure is complete and absolute. Rather, it's saying it's likely operated in a specific instance under discussion.

    How about we assume that people are posting in good faith, instead of assuming they think just like us, and have just the same experiences, and therefore must be lying when they make claims of viewpoints so different from our own. People really do have different ways of thinking, different ways their brains work. Different things they notice, even with the same experiences. And, on top of that, people have different experiences.

  92. Ken Brown said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    @JMM said: "And don't them non-rhotic folks just do it better? [I can remember when the Monty Python crew made fun of that accent, though they came by it the old fashion way: by going to public schools. Now even they pretend that Johnson dropped Rs.]"

    Well, only three out of six of them went to public schools (that works in both BrE and AmE!) but most of them probably came by their non-rhoticity the real old-fashioned way, by imitating their parents. Whatever a Lichfield accent was like in the 18th century, by the mid-20th the east and the south-east of England was already non-rhotic and most of it had been for generations. Public school or otherwise.

    For some values of "south-east" – I'm from Brighton and I live in south London – so I count rural Hampshire as the West Country ;-) But even there most people don't speak like John Arlott any more. Ooooh Aarrrr.

    @will: "Is there a dialect out there that uses arsehole instead of asshole, yet retains the r?"

    Yes. Lots of the west of England. Also possibly some Caribbean speakers – my memory isn't good on that. Even in the south-east of England people might say "arris" humourously or in imitation of a west-country accent. And people who were at school with me in the 60s and 70s whose surname was "Harris" got puns made on the name. The R is in there and we pronounce it the way we pronouce most postvocalic Rs – as a sort of vowel glide. If you were brought up in Brighton the way you say an "R" after a vowel sounds like a vowel to someone brought up in Bakersfield. We are pronouncing our Rs, its just they aren't consonants any more.

    @J Lee "any english-speaker can attest that AAVE uses the MF word much more often and not just as an expletive but also as a pronoun like the french 'on'."

    ANY English speaker? Really? I can't. I live among large numbers of black people but they aren't Americans. I might be able to tell you something about how third generation Jamaicans and second-generation Nigerians living in London speak, but most of what I know about AAVE comes from TV. And out of the 500 million or more first-language English speakers or the possibly 1500 million with some knowledge of English, how many come face to face with large numbers of speakers of AAVE in their daily lives – or any other accent of English other than their own for that matter?

    @Kylopod: "… Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was censored in England and other countries because shag is an obscenity there."

    Even more fun with words – it possibly came into English from Yiddish (or else is accidentally similar to a Yiddish word). So presumably Ms Parker would call it a very New York word.

  93. Acilius said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    Dismal as this discussion is, I'm sure it's wrong of me to help keep it alive. But I will anyway.

    @Keith M Ellis: "@Ellen K: Oh, I'm pretty sure you categorize people into groups. In fact, I know you do. Why would you claim that you don't?" But she didn't! She wrote "Maybe it's a matter of how I look at the [world,] and a failure to categorize people into groups." She's allowing that she may be a guilty of "a failure to categorize people." As in, perhaps she ought to have categorized people into groups this time, but she failed to do it. If she'd wanted to claim that she never categorizes people, she could presumably have written "Maybe it's a matter of how I look at the world, such as the fact that I never categorize people into grohttp://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3379#commentsups."

    @Professor Nunberg: "if you're over 35 or so I can't think of any way to get you off the hook." Well, you could read The Naked and the Dead, wherein the (white) main character is shocked when a fellow soldier calls him a "motherfucker," since he'd never heard the expression before. That novel was on the bestseller lists in 1948, so that the word would certainly have had some currency among whites as well as African Americans by the end of the 1940s. In 1956 the journal American Speech carried an article by Arthur M. Z. Norman called "Army Speech and the Future of American English" (http://www.jstor.org/stable/453436) in which "motherfucker" was discussed as a "new obscenity symbol" that white soldiers as a group had learned from African Americans. Here's the relevant passage, from page 111 of that article:

    "This gradual rehabilitation of the obscenity symbol [Norman's term of art for "fuck"] and other forbidden words, credit for which I assign to the US military, has left a gap in the inverted taboo which the frequent use of the obscenity symbol represented. This linguistic vacuum is being filled by a new obscenity symbol, motherfucker, which goes far beyond the simple obscenity symbol itself by outraging the most ingrained of human sensibilities.

    "The new obscenity symbol is new only in that it never had much currency in the army as a whole until recent years. Its use apparently dates from the integration of white and colored soldiers, which began during President Truman's second term. (Anyone visiting a predominantly white Army barracks will certainly hear the new obscenity symbol far less often than in a barracks filled predominantly with colored troops.) The word is so forcefully repugnant that it suffices to use the first two syllables, however illogically, in calling a man a name, in describing the state of the weather, or the like."

    So, in 1956, a time so remote in the past that "colored" was the preferred term for African Americans, the word "motherfucker" was already in general use among white soldiers in the US Army, albeit less common than among African Americans. In those days of the draft, most American men passed through the ranks of the military for a few years in their lives, so that army slang was very likely to spread into the population at large. If we are to take seriously your idea that no one over 35 can fail to associate "motherfucker" with African Americans, therefore, we would have to believe that the word did not gain in prevalence among American whites in the years 1956-1976, a patently absurd contention.

    You note that Mark Rudd was in 1970 under the impression that "motherfucker" was a word that he and his fellow 60's radicals had taken from the ghetto. I knew Mark Rudd slightly in the 90s, and he is quite impressive when he's talking about subjects he knows well. I'm sure his math students could have been better served. I wouldn't regard him as a particularly well-informed observer of lexical change, however, and I very much doubt that he would claim to be so. Certainly he was not such an observer when he was in his early 20s and was busy trying to overthrow the US government.

    GN: This is a confusion that keeps coming up here, I'm not sure why, even though other commenters have pointed out the fallacy. The question isn't what the facts of usage were or are, but how people perceive the word, whether they are merely "under the impression" about it or not. (There are vast number of non-Jews who use maven, kvetch, goy, and shikse. What does that have do with the price of eyer?) Rudd could assert with unassailable authority that he and others regarded motherfucker as ghetto. So do a great many people today, whatever the facts. And so, I'm quite sure, do Parker and numerous of her readers.

    (BTW, some blacks resented white use of motherfucker as a co-option. Miles Davis was once told by a while road manager to do an encore: "Get back on the stage, motherfucker." Davis was furious, he later said: "Thiis wasn't like any motherfucker I'd ever heard before. It was a while motherfucker with too many Rs in it.")

  94. Acilius said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    "I'm sure his math students could have been better served." Er, could not have been better served, I meant to say.

  95. Kylopod said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    >it possibly came into English from Yiddish

    Not according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which traces it to an obsolete 14th-century verb shag that may be related to shake (which itself sometimes has sexual connotations).

    In any case, most Yiddishisms in English came via American English, so I highly doubt a Yiddish origin for shag or even Yiddish influence (which isn't prevalent in British culture). What Yiddish word did you have in mind as being coincidentally similar?

  96. john said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    I notice in Prof. Nunberg's original posting, Parker's original "I attended a tea" and "a British lady" somehow get elided into Nunberg's "tea party lady." What's going on there? Why the choice of that particular collocation "tea party"? What dark recesses of Nunberg's mind are being revealed?

    Anyway, I don't know Parker, but I assume she does not live in NYC. She experienced something that any visitor to the city experiences: the very high sage level of vulgarisms (Language Loggers: any statistics available on that? Breakdown by class/sex/ethnic group?) It seems to be true of both sexes. I lived in New York for several years and you get used to it. A critical point here is that I never noticed a racial component to it. It seemed to apply across the board, except that younger people indulged in it more. Parker herself just seems unaccustomed to it, and reacted accordingly. Also, her non-mention of race probably has more to do with editorial policies regarding mention of race if it doesn't seem relevant. (I should say I've always thought her a content-free columnist, a real airhead, but accusing her of crypto-racism based on this, that's a stretch.)

  97. Acilius said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    @Professor Nunberg: "Rudd could assert with unassailable authority that he and others regarded motherfucker as ghetto. So do a great many people today, whatever the facts. And so, I'm quite sure, do Parker and numerous of her readers." What makes you sure of this? You haven't provided a single piece of evidence to support this serious allegation.

    As for Rudd's remark from 1970, note that I replied to it by referring to a novel from 1948 and an article from 1956. All three of these show that at midcentury "motherfucker" was rapidly losing any exclusive association with African Americans long before many Americans over 35 were born. Therefore, your remark that ""if you're over 35 or so I can't think of any way to get you off the hook" represents yet another draft of the shovel with which you have dug yourself into this hole.

    On the other hand, the line from Miles Davis makes an interesting complement to the thesis of the original post. So it might be nice to hear more about that sometime.

  98. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    Therefore, your remark that ""if you're over 35 or so I can't think of any way to get you off the hook" represents yet another draft of the shovel with which you have dug yourself into this hole.

    Oh, please. Nunberg's mention of Yiddish words was a good example—quite a few Yiddish words have entered into wide usage in the US and have been so for a hundred years and yet are still associated with Jews.

    This idea that once in wide usage a word's origin will quickly lose all prior associations is asinine. Furthermore, unless the AAVE association has been entirely forgotten (which it clearly hasn't), then it's irrelevant that the word has wide usage because it's just one detail among several which work together to create a racial identification, that's the whole point. That's how stereotypes work.

    All of these counter-arguments would apply to even the most crude black racial stereotype—what particular detail of such a stereotype is exclusive to black people? "Oh", I can imagine someone writing, "Americans of all kinds like watermelon and fried chicken…you're the one with the racist tendencies if you see racial connotations in this description." The most blatant racist stereotyped image/description I can imagine could be criticized just exactly as people are doing here, arguing that each particular detail doesn't suggest race to them because the detail isn't exclusive to a particular race.

    You're doing that ridiculous thing where you've abandoned the basic point in contention—because numerous people were arguing that motherfucker has no history as a part of AAVE—and have narrowed it down to a gotchya of a particular, mostly irrelevant claim that Nunberg made about how old you need to be for the association to be strongest…while using the historical association of motherfucker with AAVE as part of your argument and about which your citations extensively discusses. It's absurd and embarrassing to see.

  99. Reed said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

    Louis CK has some words on the subject at the beginning
    http://www.hulu.com/watch/256324/louie-moving#s-p1-so-i0

  100. Ellen K. said,

    August 23, 2011 @ 11:43 pm

    @Keith: Yes, correct, the original claim was not that everyone over a certain age recognizes AAVE and if they say they aren't they are being disingenuous (ie lying). Still, those of us insulted by that claim, once it was made, have a right to speak out against it.

    GN: I'm sorry, I shouldn't have left you with that impression: I was overgeneralizing. How about if we add ten years, and drop the dis-.

  101. JimK said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 1:48 am

    Maybe it's a generation thing (but if you're over 35 or so I can't think of any way to get you off the hook).

    I'm over 35, but add me to the column of people who were surprised by the conclusion Nunberg drew about race. Nunberg's "already knows half a word" joke would have gone straight over my head as well. Obviously the stereotype exists, or else the joke wouldn't exist. Maybe it's not just generational but also regional?

    Any stereotype about baggy pants would obviously be a more recent development, but I've never picked up on associating it with blacks more than whites. At least in my neighborhood it's a style that crosses racial boundaries.

  102. Tom Saylor said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 5:47 am

    @ Geoff Nunberg:

    I'm not misremembering the sixties. Mark Rudd may (or may not) have accurately described how the word came into use among SDS members, but he certainly did not accurately describe how the kids in my neighborhood picked it up. We used to sing "Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker!" on our way to grade school. We'd heard the song on the album "Have a Marijuana" recorded on the streets of NY in 1968 by David Peel & the Lower East Side–a bunch of white hippies. Peel was parodying what police would shout at hippies during a drug bust, and I very much doubt that he was encouraging listeners to imagine the arresting officer as black.

    But whatever the word's provenance, the undeniable fact is that many non-black people use this word without any sense that they're adopting or imitating black speech. To suggest that it's naive to think that this word could be used without some sort of racial implicature is not just insulting–it's bad linguistics.

  103. Ben Graves said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    How Hollywood's 'f-bombs' are impacting overseas markets — ouch!

    Glenn Whipp, an Associated Press entertainment writer with a great
    aptonym, too, likes to whip out his facts now and then and hit readers
    over the read with the new rules surrounding those (bleeping)
    expletives that are becoming more and more prevalent in American
    movies.

    I say ouch because as an American living in Asia for the past 20
    years, I come up against the F-word every day and it's not a pretty
    picture overseas. I just
    want Hollywood producers and screenwriters to know what they are doing
    to the rest of the world, outside the borders of the Lower 48 and
    Alaska.

    When I first came to Japan in 1991, I was greeted on the streets by
    little children holding up their middle fingers at me and shouting
    "Fuck you! Fuck you!" I had
    to do a few double-takes to figure out what was going on, but finally
    I learned from the kids and my Japanese friends in Tokyo that this was
    just the children's way
    of saying "hello, nice to meet you" to a visiting American. I swear I
    am telling you te truth. All over Asia, from Tokyo to Taipei, young
    kids think "fuck you" is a cool way
    to say hello to Americans they meet on the streets. The middle finger
    salute just add to their mirth and guffaws.

    But they mean no harm by this way of greeting Westeners. They learned
    the words from Hollywood movies, and without a real grasp of English,
    they think it must be a
    cool word. Therefore the F-bomb has become part of Asians vocabulary
    now over the past 30 years. But they use it in a friendly, warm way.
    It does not mean "fuck you". It means
    "Fuck you, nice to meet you!"

    And the middle finger salute, they learned from their TV shows in
    Tokyo and Osaka, means "welcome to my home".

    So see! This is what Hollywood is doing to the rest of the world. I
    just thought I'd let you know.

  104. Acilius said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    "Nunberg's mention of Yiddish words was a good example—quite a few Yiddish words have entered into wide usage in the US and have been so for a hundred years and yet are still associated with Jews." That's evidence that some words are still associated with the ethnicity of their coiners after they've entered widespread use. That isn't the claim for which we need evidence, however. The claim in question is that "motherfucker" is still so likely to bring African Americans to mind that Parker's mention of it in connection with someone of whom she disapproves shows that she is engaged in "nudge-nudge allusions to race and ethnicity." Since at least as many words that made the transition from one group's cultural possession to widespread use as many decades ago as did "motherfucker" no longer bring their origin to anyone's mind, we need a close analysis of Parker's column and some scholarship putting passages from that column into a broader context before we can entertain that thesis. Granted, that's a lot to expect from a blog, but it is precisely what Language Log and Professor Nunberg in particular have delivered consistently for years. So the post is a profound disappointment.

  105. maidhc said,

    August 24, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

    I once talked to someone who'd been a guard at Alcatraz in the 1930s, and he said that MF was by far the most common insult among the prisoners. And he described the majority of them as "hillbillies".

  106. Diane said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 2:47 am

    There seems to be two camps:

    1) Parker was clearly referring to a black woman and son.
    2) There is no way to tell the race of the woman and son from Parker's description.

    Nothing wrong with being in Camp 2, but what I don't quite understand is why some people in Camp 2 seem to conclude that because *they* didn't get a racial vibe from the description that Parker didn't intend one.

    Obviously, judging by the comments here and on the original article, a great many people *do* associate baggy pants and the MF word with African Americans. More than half, I'd estimate.

    So I'd say the odds are better than even that she does, too, and by extension, that she knew exactly what conclusion people would draw when she wrote that description.

  107. Peggy said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 4:54 am

    Greg Gates: "It's telling that that the concern troll objection to this post goes: 'There's obviously no coded racism here because I assume that if a white person is telling a story, all characters are white unless she explicitly says otherwise.'"

    What? If anyone here claimed that the people in the anecdote must have been white, I missed it. The point is that the story doesn't have a racial angle, so some of us didn't rush to impose one on it like Nunberg did. Maybe we're a bunch of disingenuous closet racists, like you imply. Or maybe we're just a tad less race-obsessed than you are.

    Keith M Ellis: "The whole point of dog-whistle racism is its deniability."
    The whole point of accusations of dog-whistle racism is their unfalsifiability.

  108. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

    The whole point of accusations of dog-whistle racism is their unfalsifiability.

    No. That is a false statement and a false equivalence. My assertion that this is so is not an opinion, it is a fact. By definition, "dog-whistle racism" is intended to be deniable. "Accusations of dog-whistle racism" has no comparable attribute. Your implicit argument is entirely invalid.

    I'd like to think that you'll read this and be a little embarrassed that you put attempting a clever rhetorical retort ahead of avoiding self-evidently false assertions as a sort of a warning that you're due some introspection. But I'm not that optimistic.

  109. Acilius said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    @Diane: "I'd say the odds are better than even that she does, too, and by extension, that she knew exactly what conclusion people would draw when she wrote that description." It's possible that Parker might have meant her readers, or some of them, to assume that the two were African American and to bring prejudices against African Americans to bear on their reading of the story. But I don't see any information here that we can use to estimate the probability of such an intention on her part.

    Moreover, if Parker were doing that she would be guilty of a grave misdeed. Racism is not merely an obnoxious personal characteristic, it is a force that has exacted and continues to exact an immense cost in terms of human suffering. As a writer whose work reaches an audience of hundreds of thousands, if Parker were propagating racism she would deserve, and might receive, a penalty in the form of a sharp curtailment of her career. Therefore, even a probability of more than 50% is not sufficient to judge a person guilty of racism. If we are to focus our efforts to fight racism so that they have a chance of making the world a better place, we must be very cautious in considering charges of racism.

    @Peggy: "Keith M Ellis: "The whole point of dog-whistle racism is its deniability." The whole point of accusations of dog-whistle racism is their unfalsifiability." That's going a bit far, surely. One ought to be charitable to people with whom one disagrees; one form of charity is to assume that when a logically defective argument can be made valid by the addition of an unspoken premise, the speaker has omitted the simplest possible premise that can achieve that result. So, suppose I ask you "Are the sidewalks wet?" and you reply, "They must be- it's raining." You've then made an argument that could be presented thus: (Premise) It's raining. (Conclusion) The sidewalks are wet. By itself, this argument is invalid. The simplest way to make it valid is to add, as a second premise, "If it's raining, the sidewalks are wet." It would be an uncharitable listener who refused to make so small a cognitive leap in the course of a conversation.

    Likewise, if one were to encounter an invalid argument that could most readily be made logically valid by the addition of a racist idea as an additional premise, it would be charitable to consider the possibility that the person making the argument has simply omitted that premise. I could mention some newspaper columnists who in fact do precisely that on a regular basis.

    I'd extend that maxim of charity beyond the logical structure of arguments to the emotional response people exhibit to various stimuli. If, for example, Parker were usually happy when she was required to share a confined space with white people repeatedly shouting obscenities, but unhappy when an African American did the same thing, and she spoke as if no explanation was necessary for this difference in reaction, then charity to Parker would warrant the assumption that she was right, that the reason for the difference was in fact so simple that anyone could find it without an explanation. Charity to such a speaker might lead us to suspect the speaker of race prejudice.

    Again, the column under consideration obviously does not meet this description. However, it is far from rare for people to exhibit emotional reactions to stories about misbehavior among African Americans that are not only grossly disproportional to the reactions the same people exhibit when they have heard similar stories about people of other ethnic backgrounds, but which also kick in long before any evidence is presented showing that the stories are even true. When that happens, it is neither irresponsible nor unfalsifiable to claim that racism is at work.

  110. Daniel said,

    August 25, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

    This post doesn't really need any more comments, but after reading all the above, I thought I'd add a few notes that haven't been touched on that much.

    1) dazeystarr was the first to point out the connotations of the word "drawers," which I definitely associate with AAVE. I think that is almost more damning than the fact that they were baggy.

    2) Just because that fashion style seems to be prevalent across cultural boundaries does not mean it always has been or has no association with black urban culture. When I was in high school in the SF bay area 7 years ago, it was common to deride people with a similar style (along with other characteristics) as "acting black" or "being ghetto."

    3) Based on Parker's writing style, I doubt the British lady/tea vignette was meant sarcastically. It is framed by the following sentences: "Like most Americans, I’m willing to have my sensibilities offended rather than surrender the freedoms that permit such offense. Context is everything, and (non-obstetric) delivery matters…[vignette quoted in post]…Let’s just say, the woman on the elevator had context and delivery issues." Rhetorically, that is clearly implying that the British lady did not have context or delivery issues. Anyway, her writing style is particularly overwrought–she seems like someone who might say "up with which"–and she doesn't seem to have a very sophisticated grasp of irony.

    4) We don't even have time to get to the ridiculousness of the idea that language is eroding culture!

  111. Acilius said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    @Daniel: 1. "This post doesn't really need any more comments, but"- Yes, I sympathize. It's as hard to stop as it is to stop eating a salty snack. An angry, angry salty snack.

    2. ""drawers," which I definitely associate with AAVE." The structure of this debate seems to be, S1: Parker reports (item.) I associate (item) with African Americans. Therefore, Parker wants her readers to associate the people she is denouncing with African Americans." In reply, S2: "I don't associate (item) with African Americans."

    The least involved premises we can add to S1's assertions to make them into a logically valid argument would surely be "I am the sort of reader Parker had in mind when she wrote her column, and she should have known that I would associate (item) with African Americans." In the absence of any data about what Parker's readers think of when they think of these various items or about what she has reason to expect from her readers, we have no reason to suppose that these premises are true.

    3. "Rhetorically, that is clearly implying that the British lady did not have context or delivery issues." Let's remember the context and delivery Parker describes in her opening vignette. She was on an elevator, which is to say, in a confined space. A person entirely unknown to her joined her and several others in that confined space. For a few moments, this unknown person shouted obscenities. Anyone might feel uncomfortable in that situation.

    By contrast, Parker met the British lady (if British and lady she in fact was) in a situation where she was free to move about. Parker and this second person were introduced and participated in a conversation. In the course of that conversation, the second person used a word that often classified as objectionable. Parker did not object to it. In fact, she made a little joke to forestall objections.

    What, then, is the simplest explanation of the difference between Parker's response to the two situations? Is it that person 1 was of a different ethnicity than person 2, and that Parker is hostile to the ethnic group person 1 represents and friendly towards the ethnic group person 2 represents? Or is it that she would rather engage in a conversation at a social event with someone who clearly poses no threat to her than be trapped in an elevator with an angry stranger?

  112. Mar Rojo said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    Geoff said: "You're left with the unsettling implication that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one's lips depends, in part, on how thick they are."

    Goes back a long way: "In the press, in the House of Commons, in reports to government departments and in popular folklore there emerged the evacuee stereotype — a dirty, lice-ridden and foul-mouthed urchin who wet the bed with monotonous regularity, preferred fish and chips to a proper three-course meal and was about as domesticated as a wildcat; similarly, the evacuee mother appeared as a negligent slut, impossible to live with and having the vocabulary of a Billingsgate fish porter."

    From: War and social change: British society in the Second World War. Smith, Harold L. Manchester: Manchester Univ Press, 1986, pp. 3-31.

  113. Mar Rojo said,

    August 26, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    W A said: "Sure, but it's always the same sort of people who scream obscenities with no regard to the people around them."

    Could I introduce (the "refined") Mr Fry's opinion on swearing?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_osQvkeNRM

  114. Picky said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    Well, I'm sure you might, Mar Rojo, assuming the LL vice president (content) approves. But what, pray, is the relevance?

  115. Svafa said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    Acilius said, "@Diane: "I'd say the odds are better than even that she does, too, and by extension, that she knew exactly what conclusion people would draw when she wrote that description." It's possible that Parker might have meant her readers, or some of them, to assume that the two were African American and to bring prejudices against African Americans to bear on their reading of the story. But I don't see any information here that we can use to estimate the probability of such an intention on her part."

    I'd agree with this assessment. Perhaps she did mean to allude to African Americans, but I didn't make that connection until the LL post surprised me with its assertion. It may have been different if I lived or grew up in New York City. My apparent blindness to the racial allusions might also be due to living in a city with a nearly 50/50 white/black demographic.

    But that's not to say the allusions were missed entirely. She certainly painted a good picture of a single mother with a teenager, but that's descriptive of a large segment of American households, race and class irrelevant.

  116. Adrianne said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    I'll stick with many of the other commenters here – perhaps because I'm 30 and live and work in downtown Houston. My initial picture of the people in Parker's description was what's sometimes referred to as "white trash," actually. Probably because that's generally the people involved in loud familial altercations in and around the downtown branch of the Houston Public Library (I'm attached to the archives at that same location). There are of course a great number of black patrons as well (among other racial/ethnic groups), but they seem to get themselves thrown out by security or arrested on the plaza rather less frequently. You're either dating yourself or have exposure to a rather different range of society if you think that it's an obvious allusion to black people…

    Having lived several years in England, I don't find the "pinkies" comment offensive, either – it's rather commonly used there (and indeed also in the "Britcoms" on PBS) to denote pretensions of refinement, which would easily apply to an American trying to mask obscenity with a "posh" accent. Then again, YMMV. I get bothered when people tell my (brown) husband what he should be offended by (it annoys him greatly as well), so conversely I oughtn't to tell people what they shouldn't be offended by…

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