Pakigate, Sootygate, Gollygate

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I bring American readers news, not previously discussed on Language Log, of not just one or two but three scandals concerning public use of allegedly racist language in Britain that have been thought serious enough to merit the post-Nixonian word-formation suffix -gate. All three have been big stories for the newspapers and other media. They are known as Pakigate, Sootygate, and most recently Gollygate.

1. Prince Harry (one of the Queen's grandsons) was recently in deep trouble for uttering the word Paki on the soundtrack of a cell phone video of some of his army buddies.

2. Prince Charles (the Queen's son) was the subject of another newspaper outcry when it was learned that he followed others in addressing a long-time polo-playing Indian friend of his by the nickname Sooty.

3. Carol Thatcher (daughter of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher) used the word "gollywog" in conversation and has now been removed from her role on The One Show, a BBC program she regularly contributed to.

I should make it clear that racism is a significant issue to me. Nobody hates it more than I do. I think it is the single greatest social evil in the modern world, and more than that, for me it's personal. My son Calvin is black. When he and I and his black Jamaican mother Joan lived together in Britain and later in the USA for many years, and we did sometimes see racism rear its ugly head. For us, it was not an abstraction. Joan and I have been spat at in the street (in Britain, by the way — never in the USA) for just walking along together. That gets pretty close to home.

What I am concerned about in the latest three scandals is whether racism is simply being trivialized (however unintentionally) through dim-witted word taboo. But it is not at all clear.

Prince Harry was serving in the army when he took a few minutes of video of some of his friends using his cell phone. His unit was waiting to ship out to Afghanistan, and they were sitting around, some of them dozing. Harry went around recording them, just for something to do, and as he did a shot of his friend Ahmed Raza Khan he mumbled on the soundtrack that this was "our little Paki friend Ahmed." The abbreviation "Paki" was not used as abuse. It was just a shortened form of Pakistani (Ahmed is indeed from Pakistan), an ethnic/national nickname like Brit, Aussie, pom, frog, or kraut (the British have a whole United Nations of such abbreviatory epithets). The newspapers exploded with politically correct but somewhat implausible horror. A royal apology was demanded, and was contritely given. Episode over.

Prince Charles's friend is the Indian businessman Kolin Dhillon. He has said that he has borne the nickname Sooty since his schooldays, and doesn't mind it at all. "You know you have arrived," he said, "When you acquire a nickname." But Prince Charles was damned anyway, for having become known to have used the familiar nickname. The story did not have any real legs, and faded away.

It is the case of Carol Thatcher that I at first thought was the silliest yet; but it may instead be the least silly. It is not yet possible to tell.

What happened, it seems, was that she was sitting around in the Green Room, a large glass of white wine in her hand, in a group of a dozen people in an interval during a recording of The One Show, and she referred to a black professional tennis player as a golliwog. It is important that she was not among friends in a private place. The group included guests, production staff walking in and out, and a journalist or two. Although it was not broadcast, it was on BBC premises during working hours.

More than one member of the group was offended by the golliwog reference, and said so. There was some kind of altercation between Thatcher and the comedienne Jo Brand. Later a complaint was made to the BBC management. The BBC says it tried for five days to get a "sincere and fulsome" apology out of her and failed. She holds that she was in a private conversation, and was merely a joking remark not calling for any apology. So the decision was made that she would not be contributing to The One Show any more (she is a freelancer who sometimes gets work on BBC shows, not a career BBC staff member).

We need a transcript of the episode, of course. Everything depends on what exactly was said, but of course no one can tell us — it was not recorded, and non-linguists are not competent to provide a precise report of the utterances made in the correct sequence and with the correct intonation. (Plenty of linguists get their transcriptions of even quite short utterances wrong.)

Press reports imply that Thatcher may have expressed amusement at the way the tennis player resembled the golliwog on the jars of marmalade she remembered from her youth. This would been the familiar cartoon figure, a stereotyped negro with a black face and fuzzy hair outline, that appeared on the label of every jar of such marmalades as Golden Shred and Silver Shred, manufactured by James Robertson & Sons. The Robertson company used the golliwog logo right up till 2002. (See this site for a wide variety of images of the Robertson golliwog on badges and so on. Some of the badges depict the golly with a tennis racket.) Everybody refers to the golliwog on Golden Shred jars as the Robertson golliwog; there is no other name for him, other than the abbreviation golly (said to originate as a childish pronunciation of dolly).

It is now known that the tennis player Thatcher referred to was the 23-year-old Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But what exactly did she say about him? Suppose it had been, "He always reminds me of golliwog on marmalade jars; he's so sweet." Would that be racism? (It would certainly be wildly inaccurate; Tsonga is of mixed Congolese and French parentage, a serious young man with short hair and brown skin who looks rather like the young Muhammad Ali; the white British player Andy Murray on a mad hair day looks more reminiscent of the Robertson golliwog in silhouette than Tsonga.) But suppose instead she had said, "I was so glad when that fucking gollywog was knocked out of the Australian Open." That would be different, wouldn't it?

Language Log's view is that when the alleged crime is linguistic, the utterance involved must be accurately reported, in detail. In the case of Gollygate, that condition is not met. We simply do not know if this was a case of politically-correct overreaching or a case of reasonable maintenance of workplace standards of behavior in a public institution.

[Brief update: Tons more in the comments below. But let me just add that at this site we now learn that Thatcher called Tsonga a golliwog several times, and also referred to him (compounding her racial and national epithets) as a golliwog frog. Not looking so nice, is it? I've tried to set things out objectively above (though of course I repeatedly get called a naive fellow-traveller of racism below), but I really do get the impression that I personally wouldn't want to sit around the Green Room at the BBC drinking white wine and listening to Carol Thatcher and her merry jokes.]


  1. Rachael said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:20 am

    "Paki" is a racist slur. To say that it's not because it derives from "Pakistani" is very naive, like saying "nigger" isn't racist because it derives from "negro".

    To give Prince Harry the benefit of the doubt, maybe he was being that naive and didn't mean any harm by it. But to imply that it isn't racist in general is a failure of descriptive linguistics.

    [I didn't say that it isn't a racist slur; nor did I say that its origin as a clipping shows that, Rachael. You're being extraordinarily careless. Let's not blame "descriptive linguistics" for something that neither I nor any other linguist ever said! I said that in this context it was not used as abuse; it appeared to be a genuine instance of its abbreviatory function, since Ahmed is indeed a Pakistani. It certainly can be used as abuse. It's like dyke, which is sometimes used as a vicious sexist taunt used to humilate a woman for not being responsive enough to male sexual come-ons, and sometimes as an ordinary common noun used by lesbians and their friends as a colloquial term for lesbians. It all depends on the intent and the context. To say that every occurrence of Paki is a racist slur would be overkill — it leans too far in the direction of word taboo. What we need to oppose politically is the motives and values of those who do use it as a racist slur against all South Asians. —GKP]

  2. Dreynardine said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:30 am

    I'm afraid I also disagree with your assessment of the word 'Paki'. In my experience it is unfortunately much more loaded with negative connotations than 'Brit' or 'Aussie', even more so than 'Frog' which is rarely, if ever, used in a positive context. Just because 'Paki' is often used by ignorant bigots to refer to all people with brown skin, whether they be Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, etc. and Prince Harry was actually referring to someone from Pakistan here doesn't negate the fact that he is using an extremely loaded term. Note that the word 'Paki' is proceeded by 'little' and followed by 'friend'. While I have no idea about the actual size of the person referred to here, the 'little … friend' is, at best, rather patronising and when combined with a term as loaded with negative connotations as 'Paki' quite clearly a racist remark.

    [See my remarks after the comment above. Incidentally, I didn't even discuss the issue of whether a Prince of the blood royal should make a clearly patronizing (if joking) remark involving an ethnic epithet about a fellow soldier while on duty in Her Majesty's armed services and recording himself doing it. Of course Prince Harry shouldn't have done that. It was a really stupid moment. He's a young man, and he was totally out of line. But that's about his duties as an extremely important public figure. My remarks were about whether the mere use of the term is something that should be treated with such outrage. Given what else goes on, I think there might have been a certain amount of feigned indignation in the newspapers over the term itself. —GKP]

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:49 am

    Is it worse, in that way, than "kraut" or "yank"? "Nationalist" seems more descriptive.

  4. Jongseong Park said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    It is my impression that "Paki" is often used for generic "brown" people regardless of actual national origin, and thus functions more like a racial term. I would put it in a separate category from "kraut" or "yank", which, as used by white people, are not racial terms.

  5. Reg Delmot said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:00 am

    It depends upon the culture and context, I believe that in Australia for example, 'paki' is a standard and totally inoffensive term for those of Pakistani origin. However in the UK it has long been used as a derogatory and racist term, and use of the term over here would at best I think indicate culturally insensitivity, and at worst outright racism.

  6. Harry said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:01 am

    "Is it worse, in that way, than "kraut" or "yank"?"

    Yes, I think so. As a datapoint, in 2000, 60% of British people in a survey ranked it as 'very severe' or 'fairly severe'. I don't suppose 'yank' was even on the survey, but somehow I don't think it would score anywhere near those numbers.

  7. Rachael said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:02 am

    Nathan: But the kind of people who say "paki" say it of anybody brownish: Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangaldeshi, or originally-of-Indian-ancestry-but-fourth-generation-British.

    I think it's a pond difference, to some extent: Asians, and racism against them, are more common here in the UK, whereas Latinos and racism against them are more common in the US. I don't have much clue what racist terms Americans use for Latinos, nor how relatively offensive those terms are.

  8. Harry said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:09 am

    Similarly, when there was a previous race incident on a reality show called Celebrity Big Brother, there was a bleeped out word referring to an Indian participant, and Channel 4 quickly issued a clarification to the effect that 'Jack referred to Shilpa as a 'cunt' not a 'Paki" with the definite implication that 'Paki' was the more offensive word.

  9. Jason said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:11 am

    A guide to Aussie lexicon:

    Paki, short for Pakistani = Derogatory
    Leb, short for Lebanese = Derogatory
    Lezzo, short for Lesbian = Derogatory
    Seppo, short for Septic Tank, rhyming slang for Yank = Derogatory
    Muzzie, short for Muslim = Derogatory

    Aussie, short for Australian = Non-derogatory.

    It's simple. When we give you an abbreviation and we hate you, it's derogatory. Otherwise, it's a mark of pride. Subtle, I know.

  10. hjælmer said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:39 am

    The phrase "our little Paki friend" adds to the offense. It seems to make him into a mascot, rather than the fully functioning colleague he presumably is.

  11. Rob said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    I would definitely second the notion that "Paki" is far, far more severe than any of the other national names you mentioned. It's really something that can't be used without abuse, since it's so universally offensive—something not true of, say, "pom", which is quite frequently used as a joshing term of endearment. I'd venture that among the majority of the British population it's one of the most offensive words full stop.

  12. Rachael said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:51 am


    I didn't say you "said" it wasn't a racist slur, I said you "implied" it wasn't, and I still stand by that. There was no indication that you knew it was generally a racist slur but you were making a special case for Prince Harry not using it that way.

    [This is really astonishing. Rachael seems to be forgetting that we can all read what she wrote just a few comments above:

    "Paki" is a racist slur. To say that it's not because it derives from "Pakistani" is very naive, like saying "nigger" isn't racist because it derives from "negro".

    The word implied is simply not there. Yet the verb say occurs twice. Did Rachael think we wouldn't notice? Or is this even greater carelessness than before? —GKP]

    Also, I'm not "blaming" descriptive linguistics for anything. I thought your post exhibited "a failure of descriptive linguistics", in the same sense that someone might accuse someone of "a failure of logic".

    And reclaiming of offensive words by the target group is a good thing, but doesn't mean the word wasn't offensive in the first place.

  13. Victoria Martin said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 7:07 am

    "He always reminds me of golliwog on marmalade jars; he's so sweet." Would that be racism?

    It associates the referent with a racist sterotype, and racist stereotypes are offensive by their very nature."Gollywog", like "Little Black Sambo", is one of those designations where you have to twist over backwards into all kinds of contortions to think of a context where the speaker might conceivably have just been being stupid and unthinking rather than actively racist.

  14. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 7:47 am

    Sad but not surprised to hear of the casual racism of my fellow-countrymen.

    I used to work for a German but largely Anglophone organization in West Africa and as a consequence knew several couples who were African + European and had experience of living in Germany, the UK, and the USA.

    All of them agreed that much the best of the three from the casual in-the-street racism angle was the USA, where they just never had problems at all.

  15. Dreynardine said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 7:51 am


    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment.

    I only intended to point out that whatever the Prince's intentions were, many (I would say most) Pakistanis living in Britain would interpret being referred to as 'our little Paki friend' as abusive. To compare 'Paki' with abbreviations such as 'Brit' and 'Aussie' implies that it can be used and will be understood in a similar manner. I don't think many British or Australian people would be offended by being referred to as a 'Brit' or 'Aussie', but someone coming to Britain and referring to Pakistanis repeatedly as 'Pakis' will find that they very quickly cause offence. I didn't want anyone reading your article to unwittingly make that error.

  16. Andrew said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 7:52 am

    I thought I understood that words don't have intrinsic meaning to the letters, but only within context. "Paki" isn't merely an abbreviation of "Pakistani", just because it's the first four letters of the word It exists within a cultural context.

    Within Britain that context is this: if your appearance is like the majority populations in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, then you'll probably have learnt the word "Paki" in childhood: it's what got said, often prefixed by an intensifier such as "bastard" or "fucking", just before you got your head kicked in. "Pakis" was written on your front door in faeces when you got home from school, often as part of a sentence telling you to "go home", or "die", or simply "out". Sometimes, even now in the 21st century, it's spat at you in the street, and foreshadows another beating.

    The only people in Britain that I've come across excusing its use as a non-offensive abbreviation are those who've established their racism already, or who are within particular social or professional groups where racism is endemic or institutional.

    Similarly, "golliwog" is rooted in, and only acceptable within, a value-set where black people are grouped either as amusing or dangerous savages.

    This Language Log post saddens me. It seems to be so ignorant of the cultural contexts behind the words under discussion.

    [Hey, who are you calling ignorant? I'm well aware of the cultural contexts for all three of the terms. But I thought I would try and describe what had happened, mainly for the eyes of Americans, who would mostly not have heard about these stories, and not simply join in the general deploring and decrying that the newspapers were engaging in, or pretending to engage in, or trying to whip up (forgive me, but I do not always trust the sincerity of some of the British papers on such matters: they are committed to shocks and scandals, not to opposing racism). —GKP]

  17. a. y. mous said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    Re: Paki

    I find it surprising that many people object to Paki. After all, Paki means Pure, as in 'Land of the Pure' – Pakistan. And I am as brown skinned as can be. I say, wear that badge with pride.

    The derogatory sentiment associated with the sound "Paki" would be equally valid with the sound "Pakistani". "Paki" should not, in my opinion, add to the hurt and pain of what is anyway a less than civil sentiment.

  18. Adrian said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    "The abbreviation "Paki" was not used as abuse. It was just a shortened form of Pakistani…" is a ridiculous statement. The word Paki may be derived from the word Pakistani, but that has little or no bearing on whether or not it is a racist term, which it is. The epithet Paki belongs in the same group as Chinky, Wop and the N-word.

    [Another commenter who is being amazingly careless with language (or amazingly dishonest). I said the term "was not used as abuse", and Adrian quotes that correctly; but he wants to accuse me of "a ridiculous statement", so he simply switches the topic to the question of "whether or not it is a racist term"! There is a big difference between whether a term is a racist epithet (in that it can be thus used) and whether it was being used as one on a particular occasion of utterance. "Nigger" is perfect example. Certainly it is a racist term: it is used by whites to hurl the worst kind of abuse at blacks. But sometimes it is used by young black rappers about each other, and in those uses it functions as a friendly colloquial marker of solidarity, a sign of belonging within the community at which whites hurl their abuse. Adrian seems completely blind to this distinction between the term and the intent of using it on a certain occasion, and far too ready to violate Language Log's comments policy by hurling his own abuse like "a ridiculous statement". Shape up, guys, if you want to see open comments space on Language Log. —GKP]

  19. outeast said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    I'm pretty sure that those above who say that 'paki' is by its very nature derogatory are quite correct. As Prof Pullum pointed out, though, even a word which is uncompromisingly insulting (cunt, for example) may be robbed of its sting by its use in an in-group context – and contra Rachel, the 'in group' does not have to be comprised of the people for whom the term was coined. Here the 'in group' would be the army unit, in which context the use of what seems like abuse could be an aspect of bonding: note that even in the limited evidence of that video the Prince was ribbed over his ginger hair colour in a way that would certainly be inappropriate in most other workplace environments. This doesn't resolve the issue, but it does mean there is a genuinely plausible reason not to assume vindictive intent.

  20. Bobbie said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    The BBC says it tried for five days to get a sincere and fulsome apology out of her and failed.
    Fulsome means "disgusting or offensive, esp. because excessive or insincere" so why would the BBC want that kind of apology?

    [I've now added quotation marks, and written a whole new post about this word. According to Times Online "Thatcher’s spokeswoman has said that she used the word as a joke in what she saw as a private conversation, and offered a 'fulsome apology' when challenged by the corporation." The Telegraph even said the BBC "demanded a more fulsome climbdown"! Clearly fulsome is being used to mean "full" or "wholehearted" here, not "insincere". And the dictionaries support this usage. —GKP]

  21. Plegmund said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    Rightly or wrongly, 'golliwog' was the focus of a lot of heated argument in Britain (not least in connection with Robertson's long rearguard action in defence of its popular collectable badges) before the word and the traditional toy were finally eradicated from polite society. Someone of Thatcher's age and profession could not have been unaware of this, so she was at best being deliberately controversial. Perhaps she thought confronting 'political correctness' would raise her profile in the long run? The BBC keeps talking about how good broadcasting is 'edgy' and 'in your face', and how if a programme doesn't offend some people it can't be much good. Not like this, perhaps.

    What will the media call it when there's a big scandal about water, btw?

  22. language hat said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    It amazes me how many people are leaping in to lambast Professor Pullum for being ignorant and tolerating racism when clearly neither is the case: he is from the U.K. and (as he took care to point out) is personally familiar with the terrible effects of racism and hates them as much as you do. He is discussing the details of each case, not the fact that, say, "Paki" is in general an offensive term. Of course it is, and of course he knows that. But apparently it's far more important to loudly proclaim your own impeccable anti-racist credentials ("I hate that word!" "Well, I hate it even more!!") than to actually read and respond to what he wrote.

    Channel 4 quickly issued a clarification to the effect that 'Jack referred to Shilpa as a 'cunt' not a 'Paki" with the definite implication that 'Paki' was the more offensive word.

    Talk about two nations separated by a common language!

  23. Merri said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    Belgian students commonly use the word 'Paki' to refer to any Pakistanese-held copy shop, of which there are many. Surely it isn't derogatory, considering how much they need those shops. The word has even been used to refer to any copy shop, which could perhaps cause problems when, as is also occasionally the case, it is held by an Indian. And then it could be called 'the Indian Paki'.

    My feeling is that a word is derogatory when the person using it means it as derogatory, and only then.
    When my aunt says "Ma fille a l'air d'une Youpine' – 'My daughter looks like a Yid", surely *her* use of the word isn't derogatory.
    Especially as, after all, 'Yid' is the Jewish word for 'Jewish'.

    So, I'm more with Jason, in saying that abbreviations can be strongly derogatory, but only when the person they represent is indeed low in our estimation.

    And then the context may change everything.
    "You're too Brit", said to a non-Brit, will be either :
    – positive : you're so imperturbable
    – negative : you're so stiff

  24. Steve said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    As many commenters have noted 'paki' is certainly a term of racial abuse in Britain. Anybody who pretends to the slightest sensitivity in such matters avoids it as a matter of principle. It is not used – as 'nigger' and 'queer' are – to refer to fellow members of a group. It is purely a racial insult and can have no other meaning – this may well be 'overkill' and it is certainly irrational, but it is a cultural fact at the present time in contemporary Britain. In other parts of the world – including Pakistan – it may be an innocent abbreviation, but in Britain it has a history that cannot be undone, no matter how logical and cogent one's arguments may be (and as they always are in Professor Pullum's case.) Professor Pullum has probably not lived in Britain long enough to fully appreciate that the term is at least as offensive as it would be if someone called his son 'that nigger', but Prince Harry ought to know better. It also makes a difference that, unlike Prince Harry, Professor Pullum (so far as I know) does not have a history of appearing in public with a swastika on his arm, and does not come from a family notorious for making rascist comments (unless he considers describing the Chinese as 'slitty-eyed' is merely descriptive.)

    [Professor Pullum suspects he has spent more time living in Britain (where he was born) than young Steve has been alive, actually, and is well acquainted with the repellent tradition of violence known as paki-bashing. For Americans who were not aware, the mention of the swastika is a reference to a costume party which two of the young princes attended in Nazi uniforms. To repeat, I must say there is no denying the fact that Prince Harry has been having some trouble learning how a public figure is going to be expected to behave. He really has behaved like a stupid asshole on some occasions. —GKP]

  25. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:33 am

    I partially, but only partially, second outeast above: 'Paki' was probably used by Harry as an in-group bonding marker, or whatever you would like to call it (pragmatics-related vocab not being among my strengths). Probably. As in, 'look, we're such good chums I can call him names'. (But I can't imagine it being used as an abbreviation of 'Pakistani'.) However, what I think gives away Harry's remark as not-so-innocent after all is the word 'little'. 'Our little friend' would be, I think, patronising on its own, even in this context. Combining it with 'Paki' just made it an easy target for PC-fuelled criticism. But we'd have to know much more about the relation between Harry and Ahmed to pass any final verdicts.

  26. Stephen Jones said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    To say that 'paki' is clearly racist is to ignore the fact that 'going to the paki shop' is quite common parlance.

    The problem with 'racist' words is deciding exactly how offensive they are. Take 'kraut' and 'yid'; I have never seen either of them used in anything but a disrespectful way and yet 'we're playing the krauts next week' is pretty unoffensive in a way that 'we're playing the yids' certainly wouldn't be.

    Thatcher's just been set up by a load of hypocritical scum, and manufactured outrage. Whilst 'gollywog' has been used as a racial taunt, for a large number of British people (I would say the majority) its main association is with rag dolls and marmalade. It's not very ladylike to be commenting on a tennis players hairstyle, but there isn't a shred of evidence that Thatcher's comment was intended to be racist.

    In China it is common for white people to be referred to by the Mandarin word for ghost. It is clearly an unfriendly racial slur. On the other hand if a Chinaman made the comment 'You look like a ghost' it would be quite wrong to presume he was doing anything else than remarking how you looked really under the weather.

  27. Chandan Narayan said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    My father still recalls having a car full of men shouting "Get out of here, Paki!" while walking down the street in 1968 Waterloo, Ontario. It was his first experience with that term, which left him dumbfounded because he is from Bangalore! The term, as a racist epithet, has particular gravitas in Commonwealth countries where immigration rules became less stringent in the 1960s.

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    Tsonga is of mixed Congolese and French parentage, a serious young man with short hair and brown skin

    Perhaps he had a haircut after hearing Carol's description of his coiffure.

    [Ah! Yes. Take a look at the photo on the above page. That is a bit more like the hairstyle that is traditionally supposed to be associated with a golliwog. There has been more than one hairstyle in this young man's career. —GKP]

  29. Mark P said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    This appears to be a good example of the difficulty of rationally discussing any emotional issue.

    Regarding Harry: I think you can be sure that Harry and all his chums have used much worse terms among themselves and for each other than "Paki." They are, after all, young and in the Army. The biggest blunder is doing it so it became known publicly. But after all, they are young and in the Army.

    Regarding the treatment of blacks in the US compared to some other countries: I think a difference is that blacks in the US, no matter how poorly regarded in the past (and by some today), have been considered to be "us" for a long, long time.

  30. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    @language hat:

    Very well put, I'll second that just to change the signal to demented honking ratio of these comments.

    There is such a thing as context, there is such a thing as intent, and they are relevant here because people in general tend to be more relaxed when in a friendly setting. People rib/riff on their friends; if it's just polite conversation then it's not quite friendship and openness yet. Also, since when is a "little X friend" assumed, by default, to be condescending? "little X" used to be understood as endearment.

    The whole "gollywog incident" was superbly explained my prof. Pullum, so if people didn't get how the word could be used in two different ways then … Nothing negative need be implied by the first possible utterance that prof. Pullum provides. It is our willingness to see racism that puts it there in this SPECIFIC case.

    Finally, I am always amazed at the popularity of racist language (definitely it gets used a lot, newspaper headlines say so!), because everyone I ask seems to be firmly opposed to it. This can't be just sample bias. Surely it is very easy to feign indignation as some sort of reassurance that some private slip was just a mistake and won't show up on youtube.

  31. kip said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    Linguistic question: Do epithets and derogatory in a language show greater-than-average regional variation? For example, as an American, I would never have thought "Paki" would be a big deal, but I know that the terms "cunt" and "fag" seem to be much more offensive here than in Britain (although I've never actually been there so maybe my view is skewed). And I would be surprised if British people were even familiar with racist words sometimes used in the US to describe hispanics.

    So what I'm thinking is that these terms are not usually used in professional business or broadcast media, they are only spread through word of mouth with people we feel comfortable using the terms with, so it stands to reason that their usages (and relative offensiveness) would be tend to have a lot of regional variation. Then again, there are a lot of other very common, banal words with regional variation (windscreen vs windshield, for example).

  32. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    Channel 4 quickly issued a clarification to the effect that 'Jack referred to Shilpa as a 'cunt' not a 'Paki" with the definite implication that 'Paki' was the more offensive word.

    Hmm, well, according to a Dec. 2000 study commissioned by the BBC (discussed here), British speakers ranked cunt as the most severe swear word, with Paki coming in at #10. However, the perceived severity of Paki was on the rise at the time, since it had been ranked #17 in a study conducted in 1998.

  33. John Cowan said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    In one of Orson Scott Card's novels, he reports a conversation set on a planet with three intelligent species. A Piggy and a Bugger (insectoid, all puns intended) are talking:

    "Why do the humans have derogatory terms for us, while we have none for them?"

    "'Human' is a derogatory term."

    (Quoted from memory.)

  34. Paul said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    Responding to Stephen Jones: "going to the Paki shop" sounds seriously racist to me, however common it is. The use that the word "Paki" has been put to by violent racists in the UK has meant it's lost all neutrality.

    Thatcher hasn't just been "set up by a load of hypocritical scum". Noone forced her to compare someone to a golliwog and, as has been said before, it's inconceivable that she would be ignorant of the impact of that word. Yes, things have got blown up since, but a broadcaster (like her) and the child of a prominent politician (like her) should be aware of the impact of what they say. (I don't remember Maggie Thatcher using racist language, by the way, though she wasn't always as diplomatic as she might have been in what she said: she was very skilled at polarising the country.)

    And if Harry didn't know the way "Paki" is used in the UK someone should have bloody well told him. If the Army is seriously interested in "hearts and minds" they ought to be stamping this sort of thing out, though perhaps they're too tied up in their loyalty to the crown to be too harsh on the Queen's grandson. Royalty does get special treatment in the armed forces. They're very keen on rank, I hear.

    What would be the reaction in the States, I wonder, if Hillary Clinton were to be caught referring to Barack Obama as "our little nigger friend over there"? At least you can vote your heads of state out of office if you don't like what they do.

  35. KYL said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea that intent and context matters. However, I'm not sure that argument really has a lot of depth if you look at it. Except in the most personal situations, we never know what the real intent or relationship between the speaker and the listener and the target of the slur is. There are social situations, say, where a person's "friends" will call them by an ethnic slur, and that person must grin and bear it for fear of appearing to be unable to "take a joke." I don't think we should tolerate or encourage this kind of "joke."

    If a term and its specific use satisfies the following three conditions:

    (1) it, in general, is derogatory;
    (2) it has been claimed, sometimes, by the people in the designated group in an ironic/defiant manner to empower themselves;
    (3) in this particular instance, the person who is called by that term says he is not "offended"

    I still think we should be outraged that it was used. The word "nigger" satisfies all these conditions, and I don't see why we shouldn't be offended if an army officer used that term to "jokingly refer to his little black friend," even if said friend is not personally offended.

    I've never really understood why we care if the person who was called that term is personally offended or not. The harm and "offense" of racism is not limited to the individual who was targeted with that slur. A Chinese immigrant who just arrived in this country does not know the term "chink" and will not be offended if a group of teenagers address him as "Mr. Chink" and laugh uproariously. But we should still be ashamed and condemn the teenagers for their behavior.

    The bottom line is this: racism is not about silly taboo words, but about social attitude. It is incumbent on all of us to make it clear that racism is not tolerated. And where there's ambiguity, erring on the side of not tolerating the use of racial slurs is better than tolerating them.

  36. dw said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    GP (response to first comment):

    ["Paki"] certainly can be used as abuse. It's like dyke, which is sometimes used as a vicious sexist taunt used to humilate a woman for not being responsive enough to male sexual come-ons, and sometimes as an ordinary common noun used by lesbians and their friends as a colloquial term for lesbians.

    I was not aware that "Paki" has, as your response seems to imply, a use as an "ordinary common noun used by [South Asians] and their friends as a colloquial term for [South Asians]." I haven't lived in the UK for 11 years, but I grew up there in Birmingham, a city with a large South Asian population. The only time I ever heard the word "Paki" was as a racist insult of the most severe kind. Could you point to any link or source on this non-racist use of "Paki" in the UK?

    [Yes, I can now, thanks to Saif (below): see —GKP]

  37. Rick S said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Perhaps it would be better if the word taboo prevailed, driving "Paki" so far underground that its sound never again disturb the air around polite company. Then hater-haters would be forced to consider the intent behind "(fucking) Pakistani (bastard)" versus "(intimate) Pakistani (friend)" and confront real acts of racism, instead of dissipating their moral outrage against a word. Eradicating the word will not eradicate racism; "Paki" is merely a mirror reflecting the true enemy. I suspect that its attraction as a target is that it doesn't fight back.

    Nor will attacking your allies make the job any easier. If you want to draw people you perceive as fencesitters into your camp, it makes more sense to strafe the enemy's entrenchments than to snipe at the middle ground.

  38. Tom said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    Suppose it had been, "He always reminds me of golliwog on marmalade jars; he's so sweet." Would that be racism? (It would certainly be wildly inaccurate; Tsonga is of mixed Congolese and French parentage, a serious young man with short hair and brown skin who looks rather like the young Muhammad Ali; the white British player Andy Murray on a mad hair day looks more reminiscent of the Robertson golliwog in silhouette than Tsonga.)

    Actually, yes, I think that might well still be problematic – precisely because it's so inaccurate. Compare, for example, someone who said a particular black person 'looked like a monkey'. Monkey is often used as an insult towards black people – at least in some parts of Europe – but it's nonetheless possible that a particular person might genuinely bear some resemblance to a monkey. If they did, then saying that might be justifiable (though still probably pretty insensitive). If they didn't, however, then it would look a lot like either a) a deliberate insult or b) a strong tendency to homogenize people of that particular race and think they all look the same.

    Likewise, there might well be some people out there who do look a lot like the golliwog toy. But comparing someone to a stereotype of their race – whom they personally look nothing like – seems pretty offensive to me, regardless of how cute the particular stereotype is.

  39. vanya said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    Speaking of intent and context, here in Massachusetts a "Packie" is a store where you buy beer (short for "Package store"). So if any Brits in Boston hear someone saying "hey, who wants to go on a Packie run?", please do not take offense.

  40. JLR said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    I suspect that 'golliwog' has much less powerful racist associations to the (white) British than it does to Americans. I was once at a small party at the house of a British co-worker, who I'm fairly sure was not at all racist, and he was talking about his beloved doll from his youth which he then produced. It turned out to be a golliwog doll. I was absolutely dumbfounded. I have trouble imagining that any white American would so innocently produce such a doll. I think that such a thing would only happen with Americans if all the people involved were either intimates or die-hard racists.

  41. Sili said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    For what I am about to pun, please forgive me:

    In Denmark we just had Pearlygate.

    A Danish copper is accused of calling a demonstrator by the derogatory "perker" (~Paki). He – and the chief of police – claims that it is common parlance in the force to refer to people as "perle" (~pearl).

    The linked article quotes a forensic linguist – there is reference to spectrographic analysis and caveats for background noise. It strikes me as surprisingly sober reporting of a linguistic subject.

    Professor Jørn Lund blogs about the semantic aspects.

  42. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    When I was a young boy taking piano lessons I learned to play a piece by Debussy called "Gollywog's Cakewalk." If only I had known that one of my favorite composers was a racist!
    Several commenters brought up the matter of Latinos in the US. Well, there is a standard slur (spic) that's unequivocally derogatory, more or less equivalent to wop and kike. (I wish some pragmaticist would devise an offensiveness scale for ethnic slurs.) More commonly, the seemingly innocuous "Mexican" (sometimes slurred — no pun intended — as Meskin) is used for those Latinos (not necessarily of Mexican origin) who are dark-skinned (mestizo or indigenous); those who are European-looking (the likes of the recently deceased Ricardo Montalbán) are usually called "Spanish." And guess what: those Latinos who are not Mexican take "Mexican" as offensive.

  43. Bill Walderman said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    I'm sure I'll be lambasted for saying this, but sometimes, in private, and maybe especially among men, the use of otherwise derogatory racial epithets or stereotypes (as well as derogatory non-racial epithets) can be an expression of the highest form of affection.

  44. Dance said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    JLR, I think you may be too optimistic about Americans. There is a thriving US market in collectibles along those lines—better to recall a favorite doll that happens to be racist than to say "hey, I'm gonna collect racist stuff!"

    Also, I'd agree that this version:
    "He always reminds me of golliwog on marmalade jars; he's so sweet."
    is as just as racist, if less mean-spirited and more patronizing. It's the likening of a human being to an imaginary caricature that is problematic, regardless of intent; that the caricature is widely accepted as racist makes it difficult to assume innocence.

    I'd strongly suspect there were a lot of racist attitudes and assumptions behind the original nickname of Sooty, even if it is accepted by all now and the man in question has "reclaimed" it.

  45. HeyTeach said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    I come down on this with KYL.

    As a teacher of mostly Mexican students, I sometimes hear my students referring each other in derogatory terms — "beaner," "mojado" (translation: "wetback"), etc. When I correct them, I always meet with resistance along the lines of, "But we're both Mexican, so it's okay."

    It isn't okay, I tell them. If you want people to treat you with respect, it would be good for those people to see you treat each other with respect, and to see you respect yourselves. How you speak goes a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

    AND …

    It has always interested me that White Americans don't really have an insider slur to use with each other in the vein of "nigger" or "beaner." I'm going to say "honkie" doesn't count. Correct me if I'm wrong (not that I need to give permission here), but could that be because of dominant-group dynamics? The group that imposes its will on a weaker society simply doesn't develop linguistic quirks like that?

    It's not that I think my life would be richer if I could speak to other whites with racially charged slurs; I'm just interested.

  46. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

    As mentioned in earlier comments, one complicating factor is that there are genuine (but not always easy to quantify) regional variations in the level of offensiveness of a word.

    For example, the word "cunt", though certainly a taboo word everywhere, seems to be slightly less offensive in the UK than in North America. In the UK, men as well as women can be called "daft cunts" or "silly cunts" in a manner that's not quite as laden with anger as the word usually comes across here.

    I grew up in southwestern British Columbia, Canada, in the 1980s, and always considered "paki" to be a pretty offensive word, rivaling "chink" or even "nigger". However, meeting people from other regions (e.g. New Zealand) made me realize the word doesn't have exactly the same connotations everywhere. (Obviously, it's still best to avoid it.)

    In the place and time I grew up, there were a significant minority of South Asian folks (usually Indian, not Pakistani), and unfortunately, something that accompanies that is the existence of stereotypes about, and derogatory words for, that population. By contrast, there were not very many people of Latin American background where I grew up, so I never developed an internal gauge for the level of offensiveness of various words that exist for that population. (Still, it clearly makes sense to err on the side of caution and not use a word if you're aware some people in some places are offended by it.)

  47. kdede03 said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    I always thought it was called a "bad hair day" (1.6 million raw ghits). "Mad hair day" returns 4k raw ghits. Another instance of a people divided by a common language? An eggcorn?

    [Not an eggcorn. I just felt like calling it mad hair rather than bad hair. A bad hair day can be one where it's all crushed on one side or won't hang right. On a mad hair day it sticks out as if you've been electrocuted. —GKP]

  48. Bloix said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    The Golliwogg was the hero of a series of wildly popular children's picture books at the turn of the last century. A new one was issued every Christmas and almost every child got one under the tree. They were one of the precursors of modern "picture books," and they led to spin-offs like dolls (as popular as teddy bears) and advertising. Debussy wrote a short piece about him ("The Golliwogg's Cakewalk"). In the books, the Golliwogg was resourceful, brave and clever. The illustrator, Florence Kate Upton, invented the name and based his image on a minstrel doll she had played with when her family lived in New York in the 1870's. More about the Golliwogg here:

    To me there's no doubt that the modern usage is racist. The actual Golliwogg character is long forgotten and what remains is the blackface image. The use of the name as a generic term for a black person is no different from the use of "Sambo' in the US.

    In my experience the English educated classes are more accepting of expressions of casual racism than we are. Perhaps that's because they did not go through the sort of wrenching civil rights struggle that we did. This is not a defense of Carol Thatcher, merely an explanation of how a person in a public setting could use a racist expression and feel no need to apologize for it.

    BTW, the most likely origin of "wog" meaning a person of color is that it's short for Gollywogg.

  49. bulbul said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    maybe we should just adopt one. There are two prime candidates in this bit by Christopher Titus.

  50. S Hawkins said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    Certainly the use of language and insults that would be generally held as socially inappropriate is a common mark of strong bonds. It marks the closeness of the group (including a diverse group of army buddies), that they are able to use such dangerous language with comparative freedom. However, to say that therefor the usage is not racist is problematic. It's power for marking solidarity depends precisely on its objectionable meaning. The violation of the taboo is the whole point.

    While there has been much arguing here over whether particular terms or usages are racist, it is intriguing that there has been no discussion about what "racist" means. Does it mean an intentional slight to another person based on racial identity? Does it mean patterns of behavior that perpetuate social and economic inequalities among racial groups? Should one look for racist intent or racist effect? The categorization process depends on definition, and it doesn't seem like there is any consensus on the issue, either here or in the wider public.

  51. Robert S. Porter said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    As a teacher of mostly Mexican students, I sometimes hear my students referring each other in derogatory terms — "beaner," "mojado" (translation: "wetback"), etc. When I correct them, I always meet with resistance along the lines of, "But we're both Mexican, so it's okay."

    It isn't okay, I tell them.

    I'm interested how you know "it isn't okay". How does one determine what a person or group does is or is not "okay"? The concept when a group 'takes back' a term or idea is called reappropriation and I don't think there is any hard and fast rule on what is or is not appropriate.

    This attitude seems to contain an element of collectivism—that is ignoring an individuals place to determine what is acceptable for themselves. If you don't like a term, then don't use it. But to prevent someone from using that term for their accepted social group—and indeed themselves—seems to be problematic and patronizing.

    Obviously racism and racist terms should be avoided and fought against, but taking a prescriptive view of offensive language doesn't seem to solve the problem either.

  52. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 2:01 pm


    If I read your post correctly, it says that "we" the general public must care about anything and everything that goes around in private circles of friends. Choice morsel is how you think that if someone isn't being offended, then we should do the "being offended" on their behalf.

    It would be such a funny joke if people didn't actually think like this.

    Look, this is no slippery slope anymore, this already IS thought police.

    What people do in private is their own damn business as long as nobody gets hurt; and if nobody gets hurt, it's not for us to imagine who might be. At least, that's the kind of society I'd like to live in.

    More to these cases, what you suggest is no solution to the problem of discrimination. It just encourages people to be fake about it; it spreads offensiveness among the lexicon (do we have any special people here tonight?); it generates more resentment against the groups you would protect. It probably generates some from them too, seeing how patronising you are. And even closer to the three -gates of today, I think you are barking at the mostly wrong tree.


    I have a dream, of a day when Hillary Clinton could refer to President of USA Barack Obama as "our little nigger friend" and nobody would bat an eyebrow. Because do you know what it takes for that day to come to pass?

    On the other hand, ban all racial slurs in the world and you will still have racism.

  53. joedvg said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    "Well, there is a standard slur (spic) that's unequivocally derogatory, more or less equivalent to wop and kike."

    I wasn't sure if I would leave a comment, but reading the above quote reminded me of being 12 in middle school, when my closest friends and I, of Jewish, Argentinian, German, and Italian descent, called each other in an intimate, non-derogatory way, kike, spic, kraut, and wop. Now I am older and would not refer to a friend in these terms, but I know that it was then, amongst friends, anything but derogatory. We were very young (which can't be said of the above examples), but context and intent are absolutely important!

    Interestingly, I can recall a time when the German friend (born there) was referred to as a nazi, which clearly was offensive to him.

  54. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    Maybe this isn't quite like not having a word for snow, but it seems striking that American English doesn't have any common and well-understood abusive slang terms for South Asian immigrants and/or their descendents. I'm sure there must have been incidents of verbal abuse out there (although the social niches occupied by South Asian immigrants in the US are very different than they are in the UK), but I really can't think of a term whose meaning and pejorative connotations would be immediately understood by a national audience if there was a scandal concerning the use of it by a celebrity or politician. One of the bizarre things about "Macacagate" was that 99.99% of the U.S. population needed an explanation of the word, which was wholly new to them, and then needed to take on faith that it had been intended pejoratively (with the weird back-story that the politician in question might have learned it from a Tunisian Sephardic relative!). If any US public figure were to say "wog," I would think the comic inappropriateness of using so British-sounding a term would be more immediately noticeable than any pejorative undertow.

  55. Mark P said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    I'm afraid there is a derogatory American slang term for those of Asian descent: slope or slant. I think it was used by US troops in Vietnam, but I am pretty sure I have not heard it used in the US. There is not a large Vietnamese or Southeast Asian population in my area, and those who are there are generally well regarded, so such terms wouldn't gain much ground. It might be different in areas with larger, more diverse populations of SE Asians.

  56. HeyTeach said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    Mr. Porter, thanks for your response and your ideas.

    My comments to Mexican students in my classroom were to help them think about promoting attitudes of respect between themselves as members of a specific community, and between their community and those outside it; my comments were not necessarily prescriptivist in nature. Kids of their age many times demand respect without considering how to give it, as well.

    "They hate us because we're Mexican," or "They're racist against Mexicans" are common statements around campus. I merely point out to them that racist speech is racist speech no matter who's speaking, and if their goal is to be respected, then a good first step is to reflect that respect between themselves in the first and most obvious way they have — the language they use.

  57. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    I don't think Mark P.'s examples would be used in reference to immigrants from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Sri Lanka any more than "chink" or "Jap" or the Vietnam-War-era "gook" would be. There certainly are widely-known derogatory American slang terms for members of a variety of East Asian and Southeast Asian groups. It's the lack of such widely-known terms for the specifically South Asian groups that I find interesting. Perhaps the fact that the US has never fought a war against enemies of that regional/ethnic/racial background is part of the reason.

  58. Mark Liberman said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    J.W. Brewer: …it seems striking that American English doesn't have any common and well-understood abusive slang terms for South Asian immigrants and/or their descendents…

    There are some candidates, such as "dot head" and "curry", but they don't seem to be very widespread. (Though maybe I just don't hang out with the right racists these days.)

    Mark P: … I'm afraid there is a derogatory American slang term for those of Asian descent: slope or slant. I think it was used by US troops in Vietnam, but I am pretty sure I have not heard it used in the US….

    The commonest Vietnam-era American racist term for East Asians in general, and Vietnamese in particular, was "gook".

  59. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    @ JLR – "It turned out to be a golliwog doll. I was absolutely dumbfounded."

    A golliwog doll is part of the plot of an Extras episode (from a Ricky Gervais series specialising in social embarrassment). Maggie, who spends most of the time fretting that various things she does and says might appear racist to Samuel L Jackson, invites a black actor back to her flat and then realises her old golliwog is sitting in plain view.

    The Prince Harry episode was slightly overblown as a "news" story in that the events happened three years ago. However, I agree with others that "Paki" matches "nigger" in offensiveness, even though superficially it seems to be similar to bland terms like Brit or Aussie.

  60. mollymooly said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    "Channel 4 quickly issued a clarification to the effect that 'Jack referred to Shilpa as a 'cunt' not a 'Paki" with the definite implication that 'Paki' was the more offensive word."

    Talk about two nations separated by a common language!

    No and no. Suppose X hears Y call Z (a) a cunt / (b) a Paki. Z may well be more offended by (a) than (b); but X will think worse of Y in (b) than in (a), since in (b) Y is a racist, whereas in (a) they're just foul-mouthed.

    The abbreviation "Paki" was not used as abuse. It was just a shortened form of Pakistani (Ahmed is indeed from Pakistan), an ethnic/national nickname like Brit, Aussie, pom, frog, or kraut (the British have a whole United Nations of such abbreviatory epithets).

    The first sentence is presumably true, but the second sentence is highly misleading. I don't blame the first two commenters for interpreting it as an implication that "Paki" is no more offensive than "Brit, Aussie, pom, frog, or kraut". Since Prof Pullum has denied the implication, the sentence seems to me to be entirely redundant, and the post's argument would not suffer at all if it were expunged.

    British National Corpus matches for "Paki"

    Iggy Pop got in trouble for saying "Paki" in England; as an American he didn't appreciate its offensiveness.

  61. fiona hanington said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    @ HeyTeach
    It has always interested me that White Americans don't really have an insider slur to use with each other in the vein of "nigger" or "beaner." I'm going to say "honkie" doesn't count.

    In Hawaii, there is haole (pronounced hau-lē). Strictly (according to m-w, anyway), this means "one who is not descended from the aboriginal Polynesian inhabitants of Hawaii"; however I have only ever heard it used to refer to a Caucasian person.

    I very occasionally hear this used used derogatively by non-white people. Far more often, however, I hear it used by both white people and non-white people in the following ways:

    1. Neutrally (purely descriptively): "The car was stolen by the haole guy."
    2. Affectionately: "You dress like such a haole – when are you going to stop wearing socks with your sandals?"

  62. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    Another example of a word that varies in offensiveness between the US and the UK is the word "spaz" or "spazz". I recall Tiger Woods got in a bit of hot water for saying it not too long ago. As a native speaker of North American English, to me the word doesn't have connotations of referring to people with physical disabilities, and rather just means somebody who's klutzy or bumbling or loses their cool.

  63. RP said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    I know there is malicious intent behind of racist terms, and as a brown person, I've been in situation where slurs have been said to my face in order to "put me in my place," as it were.

    In my experience, there are two types of racial slurs, and neither should (I feel) be offensive to those who hear it.

    1. An "accurate" racial slur that is directed at a person of that ethnicity. For example, calling a Pakistani person a "paki."

    2. An "inaccurate" racial slur that is misdirected, either willfully or ignorantly. For example, calling a Pakistani person a "beaner."

    In the first case, I've never been offended by someone calling me what I am. I don't mean to tell others how they should react, but if you are offended by your own ethnicity, you are probably just as biased as the racist.

    In the second case, I feel there is also a hidden prejudice at work. I'm not offended by being called a "beaner" or any other term because I don't look down Mexicans. They're hardworking and resourceful. If I remind someone of a Mexican, I'll say thanks and move on.

    I am offended by their racism, but not their choice of expression. As someone mentioned above, focusing on the content rather than the intent only exacerbates the problem. Just as in medicine, treating the superficial symptoms of a disease does little to cure it.

  64. Chandan Narayan said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    Mark Liberman: There are some candidates, such as "dot head" and "curry", but they don't seem to be very widespread. (Though maybe I just don't hang out with the right racists these days.)

    I never heard "curry," but I like it! "Dot-head" was obvious and a particular favorite for some kids (I grew up in the Bay Area mind you!). I always got "rag head" or "sand nigger," both of which apparently conflate South Asians (even those from tropical areas of the subcontinent) with fellow browns from Middle East I suppose. "Apu" and "Kumar" have been making their way into the vernacular as well. So we're either serving slushees or dealing weed. I don't know which is more offensive. Thank you, come again!

  65. David said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    if 'paki' and 'chinky' are always racist terms and to be used under no circumstances, what should we use for an affectionate term for pakistani and chinese? I often use 'chinky' to refer to refer to chinese takeaways (although I never have the ure to call a curryhouse anything other than 'an indian', even if it is bangladeshi or pakistani), and i sometimes feel a bit bad about doing so, but I'm struggly to find an alternative nickname.

  66. Sparadokos said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    When I was in the US Navy years ago, my shipmates routinely referred to each other as "wop/greasy Italian", "polack", "inbred" (of US Southerners), "mick/paddy", "beaner". Being of German descent, I was designated "kraut" or "nazi." Men of stereotypically gay demeanor had "sweet" prefixed to their name or nickname: e.g. "Sweet Nate."

    My point is that the military is unbelievably crass, at least as I remember it, and there are norms for behavior and speech which would shock those who have not served.

    It's worth noting, however, that blacks and Jews were never referred to by their respective racist epithets (at least not to their faces). This was apparently carrying it too far. Being American, I have insufficient experience to judge if "Paki" falls in this category, but based on the comments, it apparently does.

  67. Mark P said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    I had the probably mistaken impression that "gook" mainly referred to Koreans.

    There is a small population of Indians (S. Asians, that is) in my area. I am not aware of any derogatory term used to refer to them. They are typically fairly dark skinned with dark hair, but I have never heard anyone conflating their appearance with the appearance of, for example, African Americans.

  68. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    In the early 1970s the late Michael King went around the country doing interviews with Maoris to be shown on his television programme. He remembers that at Parihaka in Taranaki "Mohi Wharepouri provided us with the best unusable interview of the series. 'There's no prejudice at Parihaka,' he assured us. 'None at all. Everybody's welcome here. Chinks, niggers, wogs — the lot.'" (From Being Pakeha Now: Reflections and Recollections of a White Native, Auckland, Penguin, 1999, p. 120).

  69. J. Taliaferro said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    HeyTeach… what about "redneck" and "cracker"? I grew up in the (nominal) South and usually heard "honkie" (said by black kids about white kids).

    As to Prince Harry, I think it's the fact that not only he used "Paki" but in conjunction with "little friend". It's diminutive. So racist slur plus the diminution equals double-plus ungood. It may have been something that was said and never thought about amongst his friends until this episode. It's definitely complicated and I think it's a careless use of words in general.

    Also, being in the Bay Area (SF) and teaching at a mostly Chinese American school, I hear "Viet" as a pejorative term for Vietnamese kids as well as "FOB" for the new immigrants that try to look and act American. The new immigrants catch on pretty quickly to that.

    A good friend of mine of Arabic descent has a cousin in England. He told me that his cousin will often rail against the "f-ing Pakis"… kind of ignoring the fact he fits that description too (dark skin and all).

  70. J. Taliaferro said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Mark P… "gook" was originally used for Koreans. It sounds like the ending of "Han Gook" which meant Korea… it extended on to the Vietnamese during that conflict. Senator McCain (1999) made headlines for using it to refer to his Vietnamese captors.

  71. KYL said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    @Mihai Pomarlan

    None of the examples I gave or the situations we are discussing here involves a group of real friends speaking to each other in private. That is the whole point.

    I'm not sure how you can think racism is bad unless it it bad for everyone. Are you suggesting that whites who are present in public should not find the use of terms like "nigger" and "chink" and "gook" and so on unacceptable if the sole present target of the slur declares (for whatever reason), that he does not mind?

    You can't possibly be arguing that the feelings of the target is the only thing that matters. If a black person is offended that someone called him an "African American," why should that suddenly make the word unacceptable? The word is generally not found to be offensive, and the speaker intended no offense, and no other listener found it offensive. Just because this one person found it offensive, should we all then find it not acceptable?

    I don't see why the converse, which is what you suggest, should apply. If the word is generally offensive, and the speaker did intend (at least in part), a derogatory meaning, and other listeners found it offensive, just because one person said he was okay with it, why should that suddenly mean that the word is all good?

    You trollishly claim that I advocate "though policing." Actually, I advocate enforcing community standards of politeness to make it clear what is acceptable and what is not. Unless the community as a whole makes it clear that certain behaviors are not acceptable, no change will occur. Enforcing such community standards will not eliminate racism by itself, but it will make it clear that racism is not acceptable.

  72. KYL said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    @Mihai Pomarlan

    P.S., if people who are not black find the term "nigger" unacceptable it's not because they are offended "on behalf of" blacks in this country. They are offended by racism in itself, and it is on their own behalf and that of their community that the express that disapproval. It's quite ridiculous to suppose that the only victim of racism is the person targeted with the slur.

  73. CV said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    I'm hesitant to weigh in on such a contentious topic, but I wanted to point out that it's not uncommon for youngish people, in gatherings of intimate friends, to make racist comments in a highly ironic, almost meta-humorous way. That is, he will say something arguably — or perhaps even outrageously — racist, with the knowledge that he doesn't mean it, and none of the listeners thinks that he means it. The joke is something along of the lines of "How ridiculous would it be if I (or someone else) were to say this sincerely?" It's a bit like stepping into the character of an out-and-out racist (a character of derision) to deliver an absurd line.

    I don't mean to defend this particular form of banter, nor do I have any reason to think that this is what was going on in the three examples given above (though the Prince Harry example is a possibility). But I just wanted to point out that some comments that bare the outward characteristics of racism are not the result of sincere racism, or even of inconsiderateness or thoughtlessness.

  74. iolanthe said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    As an Australian I take the view that I'm very likely to get into trouble abbreviating the national name or using some other slang reference to anyone with darker skin than your average Englishman. Thus pommy, seppo, frog and hun etc I either assume to be non offsensive or take the view that the recipients should be thick skinned enough to ignore it. I have generally found this to be the case. However, I do not do the same for any other groups and thus avoid abo, eytie, paki etc.

    I was rather surprised therefore to find in India that "pak" appears almost universally used to refer to pakistanis. Presumably non racist but certainly not devoid of national scorn.

  75. q said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    "I hear "Viet" as a pejorative term for Vietnamese kids as well as "FOB" for the new immigrants that try to look and act American."

    "fob" (for fresh off the boat) is usually not pejorative, and when it is, only slightly ("LOL at your fobby english."). I would say "fob" usually refers to a certain Asian-American subculture, not specifically new immigrants trying to act American. If anything, fob culture refers to modern Asian culture (which has been heavily influenced by Western culture) and is often contrasted with the culture of Asians who are born (or have spent most of their lives) in the US, such culture being much more similar to American culture. For example, there is a distinctive hairstyle that Asian men find popular, and Asian-Americans will usually call that a "fobby" haircut.

  76. Emma said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    Moolymooly wrote:
    No and no. Suppose X hears Y call Z (a) a cunt / (b) a Paki. Z may well be more offended by (a) than (b); but X will think worse of Y in (b) than in (a), since in (b) Y is a racist, whereas in (a) they're just foul-mouthed.

    This is only because the misogyny of using 'cunt' as the worst insult available is more acceptable, especially among men, than racism is. This is not a pleasant fact to understand. The hierarchy of obscenity is rather good evidence of cultural homophobia and misogyny. And here context is crucial — if the word is not meant as an insult, it is not offensive, at least to me.

    Has anyone considered that in all these situations, the casual racism of the protagonists and their evident bewilderment at it being taken issue with, has a great deal to do with their *class* power in the UK?

  77. Garrett Wollman said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:18 pm

    Having been reading this blog for more than a year now, I find the vehement One-True-Wayism of the commenters on this post astonishing — clinging to their vocabulary taboos like a superannuated editor to his copy of Strunk & White. There is no One True Meaning of "Paki" any more than there is One True Spelling of "color". I hew to the principle that there is no such thing as a "racist word", only "racist speech acts". [I would note in passing that there is a vigorous debate in the biological community over whether the word "race" as they understand it can even be meaningfully applied to humans, and by the same token there is a considerable lack of agreement among those who consider it valid a to what the relevant "races" are. (Nor do they necessarily agree with the general public's largely nineteenth-century conception of same, although from a linguistic perspective that's not particularly relevant.)]

    As to my idiolect, I only know "Paki" as a supposed ethnic slur referring to South Asians because I've read so many Brits insisting loudly that it is; I've never heard or read it used in anger, as it were. "Gollywog" is entirely unknown to me, and "Sooty" I only know as British children's television character from having listened to the BBC's streaming audio services.

    [Garrett: Right on! The One-Term-To-Bind-Them-All people in the comments on this post are really an anomaly on the Language Log site. But you'll get a kick out of what Saif posted in his comment below — a link to a huge Pakistani community site ( with links to Paki this and Paki that and Paki everything. A total refutation of the view that Paki has to be racist abuse. —GKP]

  78. Lazar said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

    @JLR: My mother, whose English immigrant mother took her to live in Lancashire for a while when she was a child in the 1950s, told me that she acquired a golliwog over there and really loved it, but that her mother made her throw it away when they returned to the US.

  79. J. Taliaferro said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

    I was originally trying to be brief, but what you describe is only part of what I've seen and heard first hand. I've heard kids use the term as to describe an "other" (i.e. they don't belong because they don't fit in) as well as the "LOL at your fobby English" sense. Both cases by Asian Americans (the private school I teach in is almost exclusively Chinese American kids and teachers).

    Certainly not as pain-laden as the contested terms here, but pejorative still.

  80. Dave K said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

    This is all very interesting to me. As far as I know, the word "paki" is more or less unknown to the vast majority of native speakers of American English, and has no negative connotations (because it has no connotations at all). At least, that's true for me, a 42-year-old native speaker who grew up in the Chicago area and has a Ph.D. in linguistics; I don't think I ever even heard the word until a few years ago, and then only in the context of news stories like this. I have to take it on faith that it's a extremely offensive word, at least to speakers in Commonwealth countries (including Canada, apparently). Most of the participants in this thread appear to be such speakers. Are there any other native U.S. speakers (who have never lived in the UK or other Commonwealth countries) who can confirm or deny my impression about the absence of "paki" in American English? As one of the posters said, US English doesn't really have a standard derogatory term for South Asians.

  81. Dave K said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

    Oh, and it's also my impression that the vast majority of native speakers of American English aren't familiar with the term "golliwog", and certainly not "wog", which might be recognized as vaguely British slang if it's recognized at all. This was the case for me, since when I became consciously aware of the terms a few years ago, I had to look them up to find out what they meant. However, in the US the word "pickaninny" is a very offensive term for black children, with a meaning that's very similar to that of "golliwog", as far as I can tell.

  82. Sad to say said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    I find it slightly odd that the nature of Harry's relationship with Mr. Khan is not considered significant. Having grown up in a diverse community in London (including any number of South Asians), I would not think twice about calling one of my Indian friends as a "Paki," with my tongue deeply lodged in my cheek. And they would make similarly derogatory references to the fact that I am an American, even though no particularly forceful linguistic term exists to disparage us yanks. Everybody hates Americans these days, and they tell us so on a regular basis. But the absence of any specific linguistic taboo means that nobody cares very much, except for the poor Canadians who periodically have to endure the name-calling.

    Of course, using these terms in public would be a different matter altogether – those around us would be likely to misinterpret our language. But in private, and among people who understand the codes by which we communicate with one another, the offensive character of language can rapidly transform itself into new meanings.

    I would like to live in a world where racism was funny, because we could all recognize its fundamental absurdity, the fact that it makes no sense. We do not live in that world. And those who believe in the reification of language to such an extent that they imagine racism will disappear once we stop calling one another various names are sadly optimistic.

  83. Lazar said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

    @Dave K: As a Massachusetts native, I agree. I've been familiar with words like "wog" and "paki" because I come from a rather idiosyncratic anglophile family, but I've never encountered them at all in American English. I suppose it probably boils down to the fact that South Asians are a more prominent (i.e. relatively numerous) minority group in the UK than in the US, so American racists probably don't have so coherent a conception of them, with widely used, specified epithets, as UK racists do. For example, it seems like South Asians are often attacked in the US with Arab / Middle Eastern stereotypes and terms like "raghead"; I imagine that such cultural conflation is less common in the UK?

  84. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    Also, in everyday speech in the UK, the word "Asian" is often understood to refer to people of South Asian ancestry, whereas in North America that word would be understood to refer to people of East Asian ancestry.

  85. Dave K said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:08 am

    I think you're right, Lazar. While American English does not have any standard derogatory/racist term for South Asians, it has plenty for Hispanics, of which "spic", "beaner", and "wetback" are the most prominent. I'm curious, UK and other Commonwealth natives (especially those who have not lived in the United States) — how familiar are you with those terms, and what connotations, if any, do they have? They're all pretty offensive in American English.

  86. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:32 am

    I didn't know until just now that "wetback" refers to Hispanics. I guess I assumed it was a general term for recent immigrants.

  87. Sravana said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 1:36 am

    "FOB" is used by South Asians within themselves in the US too, in much the same way that q describes. I think there's a general debate as to how offensive it is.

  88. dan said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 1:54 am

    While "paki" is generally understood to be a racist slur over here in the UK, I think it's fair to say there are widely differing attitudes to the word among different groups of people, depending on their age, class, ethnicity etc.

    "Paki shop" is a collocation that is still used around many parts of the UK and in my experience among an older generation, but "paki" is also used among Asians themselves in a similar way to "nigger" among some young black people. Here's a link to an article about being "paki and proud" from 2004: and here's what we covered on our blog about the Celebrity Big Brother p-word debate:

    I think the point about "cunt" being more offensive than "paki" is a bit askew, as it's not that the word "paki" is more offensive but just that in the present political climate in Britain (where TV broadcasters like Channel 4 and the BBC are coming under fire from conventional print media for reasons beyond moral outrage and more to do with a sales war and vested political interests) "paki" is seen as a more sensitive term, and racism as a more hideous sin than just being a potty-mouthed prole (as Jade Goody was widely portrayed in the p-word scandal).

  89. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 4:50 am


    Don't wiggle out of it- at least explain what you meant, in your first post in this thread, by "except in the most personal circumstances". Because you go on to say that polite standards should be enforced no matter what the context. There is no caveat nor qualification anywhere(*), and seeing as how you make a straw man of what I said, I really think you cannot honestly see a distinction between public and private.

    (*: you give that "most personal circumstances" thing in the beginning, but it is forgotten by the time you discuss the example of an army officer talking about his African American friend; from what your post says, I imply that irrespective of the degree of closeness between the two, we should be offended on the African American's part).

    What I am saying is that in a private context, loaded, derogatory, "bad" words may and will be used without offensive intent; what I am saying is that it should not be up to the community to enforce politeness standards in a circle of friends. In such situations, you really look like you are getting offended on behalf on someone else, and for nothing. When people use racist slurs in anger in public (and there are examples) they are fair game regardless of whether the targeted individual shrugs it off or not. These are two very different situations.

    And by the way, TWO of the situations we are discussing here, the first and the second, are plausibly about people speaking among or about friends. You need to prove otherwise. So yes, I think "thought policing" is apt to describe your approach.

  90. mollymooly said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 5:11 am


    This is only because the misogyny of using 'cunt' as the worst insult available is more acceptable, especially among men, than racism is.

    In British English 'cunt' is equally applicable to men,* so I don't think it's misogynistic. One might argue about how the insulting power of the word has its origin in its femaleness; but the discussion has been about public perception of taboo words, and I don't believe British people perceive "cunt" as anti-women in the way that "Paki" is perceived as anti-Pakistani.

    *which may require me to rescind my previous rejection of Language Hat's "separated by a common language" quip.

  91. Harry said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 5:12 am

    'I'm curious, UK and other Commonwealth natives (especially those who have not lived in the United States) — how familiar are you with those terms… ?'

    'Spic' is familiar and probably has some currency in the UK, although there isn't enough of a visible Hispanic population in the UK for it to be used much; 'wetback' I vaguely know via US media but wouldn't have known how offensive it was or wasn't, and 'beaner' I've never heard before.

    On the 'cunt' issue, I think there's a genuine difference in usage between the UK and US, because in the UK it's a word which is primarily used to insult men. Not exclusively, as the Shilpa example demonstrates, but I would say overwhelmingly more often. Certainly personally, it wouldn't occur to me to use it about a woman, not because I think of it as shockingly taboo nature to do so, but just because that's not the way I expect the word to be used.

    And while there is perhaps something inherently misogynistic about using an exclusively female part of the anatomy as a swear word, there is certainly a different dynamic if you use it to insult men instead of women. So whereas in the US, I gather, it has the genuine flavour of hate-speech against women, and therefore has something of the same incendiary quality as 'nigger' (or in the UK, 'Paki'), it's not quite the same in Britain.

    I mean, if I say that Piers Morgan is a stupid crypto-fascist cunt, it's not entirely obvious to me that it's more misogynistic than calling him a crypto-fascist arsehole or a crypto-fascist cock. It's still a very strong swear word in the UK, but not *quite* the same, somehow.

  92. Fran said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    @ DavidK, you asked how well known "spic", "beaner", and "wetback" were in the UK. I've lived here all my life and never been aware of coming across any of them till today.

    @ Harry, I don't think cunt is used more for men than women in the UK, at least not in my experience. It's equally insulting to either sex and, as you say, certainly worse than using male genital terms, such as cock, which have rather more of a fun/joshing slant to them.

  93. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 7:06 am

    I'm a Brit. 'Spic' I must have absorbed from US crime TV series and was aware it referred to Hispanics, but it is not a term you hear in the streets; well, not the streets I go about in. (Is 'spic and span' for clean and brand new used in the US?). Hispanic anyway is not a term in that much use here, except in reference to the Americas – Spaniards and Portuguese aren't, as far as I am aware, much referred to that way.

    'Beaner' I have just barely heard of as a slur – maybe around when The Milagro Beanfield War film came out. If I do hear it I think of something to do with being hit in the head. (We do have a children's comic called The Beano but that's something else. Would that be offensive in the US?)

    'Wetback' I remember from Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff, though when I first read it (in 1980) I didn't know what he was alluding to apart from his literal meaning. During training for his pioneering Mercury flight he used to mimic a TV comedian playing a reluctant Mexican astronaut called, I think, Jose*; then while waiting in his capsule on his back for four hours without toilet facilities (it was only going to be a 15-minute flight) he had to relieve himself in the suit and quipped "I guess I'm a real wetback now". Only much later I gathered it referred to Mexican immigrants crossing into the US by river.

    *In the spirit of reporting what I already know of these terms, I haven't looked anything up except the Milagro bit of the Beanfield film.

  94. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 7:38 am

    As for calling someone a 'cunt', I agree it is as or even more likely to be used against men as women, and used by women too. Far more forceful and taboo than prick, arsehole, tit or pillock, it is of largely the same family and not much more misogynistic than calling someone a prick is particularly misandric (though no doubt some groups feel it is specifically misogynistic).

    Some uses of the word are clearly misogynistic, of course – though usually not when simply calling someone 'a cunt'. In this Guardian article a female stand-up deals with a misogynistic heckler with an obviously non-misogynistic riposte:""Get your cunt out," a (male) punter once shouted at Donna McPhail. "I don't bring my cunt to work", she replied. "I usually find there's at least one cunt in the audience already"."

  95. Mark P said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 8:25 am

    I think there is an American equivalent to the British usage of a part of the female anatomy as a derogatory term, but I don't think it carries quite the same intensity of meaning. In the US, it's common to call a man a "pussy" if he is thought to be too weak in some way, but it's really a term of ridicule. A woman would not be called a pussy.

  96. dan said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    Several different British newspapers have covered the gollygate debate today. I've pulled them together here if anyone's interested:

  97. Ken Brown said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    Dave K said "I think you're right, Lazar. While American English does not have any standard derogatory/racist term for South Asians, it has plenty for Hispanics, of which "spic", "beaner", and "wetback" are the most prominent. I'm curious, UK and other Commonwealth natives (especially those who have not lived in the United States) — how familiar are you with those terms, and what connotations, if any, do they have? They're all pretty offensive in American English."

    "Spic" used to be current in British English, but probably meant specifically Italian.

    "Wetback" is familiar to people who watch documentaries about immigration in the USA. I think most of us would associate it with Mexican illegal immigrants on the Mexican border rather than Hispanics in general

    "Beaner" I never heard of before this thread. (Also as far as Brits are concerned "cracker" is a dry biscuit you eat with cheese – I know its supposed to be an insulting term to describe some group or other in the USA but I honestly can't remember which group it refers to & I suspect most of my countryfolk would be even more ignorant than me)

    In the UK we don't really have a social category corresponding to your "Hispanic" (just as you don't have one that exactly corresponds to our "Asian" – in the last UK census "Chinese" didn't count as "Asian" in the ethnic question!) Over here Spanish people and Latin Americans of mainly European descent are read as white Europeans. Latin Americans who don't look European would be categorised as just "South Americans" (no real distinction made between Brazilians and Spanish speakers) or perhaps as native American (or "Indian") or black or mixed race, or whatever depending on what they looked like. Which means we can often misread US ethnic references. For example there was some fuss a few years ago about a Hispanic character being played by an Italian American actor in a TV series. The producers were accused of racism. From a British point of view that looks as odd as if a Swede complained that a Scandinavian character was played by a German actor.

    There are some rather dated British derogatory terms for Mediterranean-looking people. A "dago" is specifically a Spaniard (though it probably stretches to Latin America) but the word is more likely to be seen in a historical novel than heard on the streets. "Wop" is more general – it might have once been particularly meant for Italians though. Again, not in very common use.

    There are no insulting ethnic terms for white British people. Or at least none that white British people are actually insulted by. We don't really mind either "Pom" or "Limey" (another old-fashioned term I guess?) . "Brit" is totally neutral. Which is kind of obvious really because these things are about power relationships. And the British sort of won.

    Also we construct being British, or even more so being English, as the default nationality. It is – to us – an entirely unmarked category. White English people hardly ever think of themselves as being white or English. Its just normal. Its not being British that is marked, that needs some explanation, that attracts attention. So Britishness needs no words to describe it. You just assume it. OK, that's a gross oversimplification, though there is some truth in it. I suspect that being Han Chinese is, to a Han Chinese person, also utterly unmarked. Whereas it seems sometimes that being American or French is, to an American or French person, something special and distinctive. Americans (and French people) sometimes seem not to understand why anyone else would not want to be American (or French) .

  98. KYL said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    @Mihai Pomarlan,

    I think we are actually having a good discussion, though I do think you could engage in less name-calling :) This is a valuable exchange.

    I note again that you still seem to think that if the specific target of the slur is not offended, then anybody else who is offended is being offended "on their behalf." That is simply not my position. To go back to my example of the recent Chinese immigrant who is not offended that a bunch of American teenagers are taunting him by calling him "Mr. Chink" because he does not know the word's meaning, if a non-Chinese-American passing by could speak up and tell the kids that that is not acceptable, that person is not being offended on behalf of anyone but himself. That person is "offended," if that's the right word, because the kids are behaving as indecent human beings and as bad members of the community. That person is enforcing community standards in public. In circumstances where it is clear that the speaker is using the term as a racist speech-act rather than a friendly speech-act, then, yes, everyone around could and should be outraged, regardless of whether the specific target says he's offended (whether this is because the target doesn't know the word, doesn't care, doesn't dare to speak up, or is racist himself is irrelevant).

    Your other point is the public/private distinction. This is not a controversial position, but perhaps we are using the terms differently. I think community standards can be enforced in public or private, depending on the context.

    Suppose Harry and his friends kept this conversation entirely private and everyone involved knew very well that Harry did not intend the term as an aggressive taunt, then none of this friends could/should be offended. But if Harry did intend it as an aggressive put-down, then it would have been entirely appropriate for any one of his friends to speak up and tell him that it's wrong and not acceptable. We don't know what Harry really meant, but my point is that even in a private situation, there's nothing wrong with a friend standing up and telling a speaker who did intend harm to stop it. This is not thought policing, it is in fact how community standards are upheld. Since friends know best what the speaker really meant, it's up to them to react accordingly. I do not think you are advocating that if a group of friends are together, and one friend really did commit a racist speech act and intended to assert his supposed racial superiority, that other friends cannot tell him him he is wrong, correct?

    Situations where we are among real friends and know exactly what the speaker meant are what I would call "the most personal of situations." It's tautological that no outsider would have any say in situations like that.

    Prince Harry's conversation in this case, however, is no longer private. When he recorded it and the recording was made public, it was no longer a private speech act, both due to the broadcast and due to the fact that he's a public figure. In such cases we, not being his friends, cannot judge accurately what his speech act really meant. Given such ambiguity, I think public figures like Harry should err on the side of being cautious. [That's really all I take Prof. Pullum's point to be.] The caution is not out of any silly word taboo-ism, but because there is a great chance of any private conversation being taken public and being stripped of all context. Moreover, when words like "nigger" and "paki" are used by public figures, unless it's absolutely clear that the use is not meant as a racist gesture, there is a risk of creating the perception that intentional, racist uses of the word would acceptable. Thus, I err on the side of not tolerating it.

    To the point that eliminating racist speech will not eliminate racism, I think that's taking the issue too simply. An office where everybody referred to a woman as a "cunt" and a black person as a "nigger" all day may be just as racist as another office in which these words are not used out of a sense of politeness only. But it does feel different for everybody. Having worked in less extreme forms of both environments, I do think that being polite is itself valuable.

  99. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    I would agree with Mark P. that the American mildly insulting usage of "pussy" applied to a male can't really be applied to a female. I think it's parallel to "sissy," i.e. it's just not really very insulting (from the insulter's POV) to accuse a woman of behaving in a stereotypically womanish way, even if a given woman might find the stereotypes themselves insulting. The widespread use of "pussywhipped" (an Americanism?) as a perhaps more vulgar synonym for "henpecked" may also influence the insulting usage of "pussy" as applied to a male. However, I think the insulting usage has drifted far enough from any female-anatomy connotation that the word can thus probably be used on certain tv shows etc. in the former sense but not the latter, i.e. the different senses are now associated with materially different degrees of vulgarity/inappropriateness.

    An American usage that might be more parallel to the British usage of the c-word (an American-only euphemism?) is "twat" used as an insult directed to a male. I can't say I've heard this used in the wild with any frequency since I was in high school, so perhaps it's become obsolete. Unlike "pussy," however, I think it certainly could be used as an insult directed to a woman and would have a fairly seriously insulting and misogynistic connotation if so used (much more than using either the same word or any slang term for male genitalia as an insult directed to a male). This would suggest to me that the c-word ought to be more insulting in English usage when directed to a woman than to a man, but I would need to defer to native-speaker intuitions on whether that's actually the case.

  100. JimG said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    I wasn't going to get into decoding the ethnophaulisms, but some of the names come from dietary preferences, customs or available resources: beaners, mackerel-snappers, limeys, papas-fritas, ros-bifs, etc. Some come from geographic references, shortened: anglos, spicks, frogs, brits, pakis, japs, chinks, newfies, aussies, etc. Some come from stereotypes: Ivans, Fritzes, square-heads, rag-heads, camel jockeys, carpet-baggers or copperheads. Some come from language crossovers: a mister, a milord, a gringo, etc.
    When the term is adopted out of ignorance or malice, there MIGHT be grounds for criticism or complaint. When it's simple description, perhaps in a convenient quick form, maybe the Nellies could get a life.

    Having grown up with the US military and having served, having lived overseas in a couple of languages, and taking an interest in how people speak of or to others, I have heard all of the words bandied above and lots more. Slurs may hurt and be socially incorrect, but abbreviations of simple adjectives aren't slurs, especially when they're just accurate recognitions of someone's origins. I've been called yankee, gringo, white-guy, Ami, jew and other things, by people who didn't like me, and the only hurt comes from people who insist that the terms must be hurtful. When Prince Harry's brother-in-arms probably refers to himself as a Paki, it's not wrong by Harry for a friend to use the same term.

    I'm with Mihai Pomarlan above. Honi soit qui mal y pense, and that applies to the speaker AND the hearer.

  101. Saif said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    See here

    [Saif has provided a linked to a huge site full of links to sites and services of interest to Pakistanis: Paki auctions, Paki soulfood, Paki games… a devastating response to the people above who assert that "Paki" cannot possibly be anything but a racial taunt. Those people are clearly wrong. Saif has shown us that much. —GKP]

  102. Ken Brown said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    David said: "if 'paki' and 'chinky' are always racist terms and to be used under no circumstances, what should we use for an affectionate term for pakistani and chinese?"

    Oh, you poor soul. I can just imagine the acute social embarrassment that you must be feeling for the lack of an affectionate ethnic name to use for your dear Pakistani and Chinese friends. If you must use one, why don't you ask them what they would like to be called? Affectionately of course

    mollymooly said: "In British English 'cunt' is equally applicable to men,* so I don't think it's misogynistic."

    Yes it is, because it insults men by comparing them with women. And because it is worse than the words for male genitals. Insulting a woman by calling her a cunt says, more or less, you are vile because you are a woman. Insulting a man by calling him a cunt says you are vile because you are a like woman.

  103. Linda said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    I think using cunt to a man is misogynistic, it's putting him down by implying he's on a level with a woman. A milder version is decribing him as a "big girl's blouse"

    And Brit may not be quite as totally neutral as Ken said above. On another blog I read a comment where someone self identified as a Brit as many of us do. This was followed by another commenter insisting that they should not use the identity Brit because it caused disquiet in parts of Ireland.

  104. Timothy Martin said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    It seems like people are falling into the etymological fallacy again with these expletives and their meanings. While I'm sure there were misogynistic reasons for originally coining the likes of "pussy" and "cunt" as insulting words, that doesn't mean those connotations must be promenant today – at least not in *every* utterance of the word. Not to say that I use the above words with any frequency, but to me they are primarily insults, with reference to actual female body parts quite secondary in mind. It's just like any other idiom. When I say "let me get this straight", the idea of making something physically straight does not enter my mind, nor when I say "knock it off" am I thinking of any objects knocking into each other. The meanings of these phrases stand on their own completely without the help of whatever circumstances led to their coining, and I would argue the same for common expletives as well. Sometimes, a pussy is just a person that you really don't like.

  105. Catanea said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    I asked my husband, because I really didn't know, what (for surely there is one?) might be the insulting epithet used by Spaniards in referring to Catalans. He knew. It's "Polak". I have no idea how to deal with this knowledge. But there might be some others that he doesn't know.

  106. Catanea said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Timothy Martin –
    How funny. Because I am always primarily aware of the etymological meaning before any superficial modern application. Of almost anything.

  107. Dave Kathman said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    In American usage, "cunt" would never be used to refer to a man; the first time I heard this usage from Brits, it seemed utterly bizarre. It's only used to refer to women in American English, and it's extremely offensive and insulting, much more so than in Britain, from what I can tell.

  108. Catanea said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    c.) Sooty was a white bear, surely? Sounds just a bit smudged. His ears got a bit sooty. I wish I were nicknamed Sooty.
    d.) I have had neighbours, and more recently a friendly shopkeeper called Paqui, a standard nickname for Francesca/Francisca. Only since reading this post, have I identified the strange disquiet I have had in using their names. I am one of those synaesthesiacs (or something else?) who "see" all spoken words in some sort of mentally typeset form. The spelling "Paqui" never let me abstract the homophone. NOW I know why I thought it was disturbing to address them.

  109. Mossy said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    @Dave Kathman
    I'm an American and have never heard "cunt" used in reference to a man, but may be out of it.

    @ others
    I've heard honkie and whitey used to describe white people. Also "white girl" and "white boy" in reference to people of any age.

    I'd never heard "Paki" until I came across it in British fiction.

    I'd never heard of the Gollywog dolls until reading this. Can anyone who remembers them in childhood provide more information? Did anyone have one? Why were they so beloved?

  110. Peter Howard said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Following on from what Garrett Wollman said, it's socially rather important to realise that what you find offensive, others may not, and vice versa. A possible explanation for Thatcher refusing to apologise is that she thought of "golliwog" purely in the doll/cartoon sense, and couldn't understand that anyone could take offence at that. (I can partly sympathise with that, because it's only relatively recently that I realised that "golliwog" was regarded by some as a racial slur. OK, so I've led a sheltered life.) I'm not saying this is the explanation; as GKP said in his original post, we can't possibly know this.

  111. J. Taliaferro said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    "Cracker" refers to uneducated (and usually racist) white people. It's in popular culture: Chef on South Park referred to the kids as "my little crackers"… (one of my students tried to call me that once… he thought it would have some kind of magic effect. It just earned him a roll of the eyes and a rebuke.)

    I've been called "whitey" and "honkie". My dad has a great gusto for redneck jokes, some of which can be pretty off-color.

    and I just found this link going over the history of the term "cracker":

  112. Bob Zuruncle said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Oh, never mind. I had myself all worked up to comment, but as I read more and more of these posts, I just can't be bothered. Prof. Pullum's point is so far lost at this juncture that I could only add to the silliness. Why is this such a fascinating topic? I ask this sincerely, as I am obviously fascinated as well.

    [I'm not sure it is a fascinating topic, Bob. It just gets people's blood flowing hot. And not necessarily through their brains. Most of the comments are wildly off-topic, many are somewhat impolite, and many reveal that they have not read the post all through, or not read it at all. One commenter above showed that she hadn't even read her own previous comment. If I had the time to implement Language Log's comments policy strictly, not much of the above would survive. But there are other things to do. —GKP]

  113. Mark F. said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

    J. Taliaferro:

    Mark P… "gook" was originally used for Koreans. It sounds like the ending of "Han Gook" which meant Korea… it extended on to the Vietnamese during that conflict. Senator McCain (1999) made headlines for using it to refer to his Vietnamese captors.

    A lot of people think this, but apparently it isn't so. This is the earliest reference to the word cited in the OED:

    1935 Amer. Speech X. 79/1 Gook, anyone who speaks Spanish, particularly a Filipino.

  114. Stephen Jones said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    A few things. First Prince Harry is in the British army, and racism is as common as boot polish.

    A namesake of mine taught at a summer camp where nearly all the ancillary staff were ex-army. One of their colleagues was a Lankan Tamil, universally referred to as 'monkey', until one day they went on a hunting trip and he showed them he could assemble and disassemble a rifle with his eyes shut three times as quickly as they could with them open.

    Pakis a derogatory term, though one the advantages of being a member of the royal family and going to Eton is that you don't have to mix with the Paki-bashers. Prince Harry's term is pukingly patronizing; but why anybody is surprised that the British Royal Family, or British army officers, can be patronizing is another matter.

  115. Stephen Jones said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    Similarly, "golliwog" is rooted in, and only acceptable within, a value-set where black people are grouped either as amusing or dangerous savage

    An absurd statement. A golliwog is a brooch or a doll. Millions of people don't even associate it with black people, any more than they associate Barbie or Cabbage Patch kids with whites.

  116. tanyasingsdido said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    I can't be the only person who remembers President George W Bush using the word 'Paki' a few years ago. It was regarded in Britain at the time as a monumental gaffe, unusual even for Bush because it was offensive rather than just stupid. The explanation given at the time, I recall, was that it was meant as a neutral abbreviation, because the word doesn't have racist connotations in the States. Even then it made me, and I'd suspect many other Britons, wince with embarassment. Can any Americans recall what the reaction (if any) was in the States?

    My brother recently attended a wedding in London, where the bride was British Asian of Bangladeshi (I think) heritage, and the groom was white British. The father of the bride commenced his speech by making a crack along the lines of 'I'm what most of you people would refer to as a Paki'. Apparently he got a few embarrassed laughs, but only after a rather stunned silence. The context made it clear his intent was humourous rather than rancorous, but I'd suggest it was even more unexpected than use of the word 'nigger' would be in a comparable situation. 'Paki' just doesn't have any common currency as a 'reclaimed' word. My own opinion is that it is impossible to use the word in Britain in 2009 without being aware of its racist connotations, even if your intent in using it isn't racist. I've never heard it used as a neutral abbreviation – except by the erstwhile President.

    From a cursory glance, it looks as though the website has an American rather than British slant, though I'm willing to be corrected.

  117. Zora said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    Isn't "desi" the OK word for someone of South Asian descent? Or can that word only be used by South Asians? (It means something like "homie" — someone from the homeland, the desh).

  118. Dave K said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    I can't be the only person who remembers President George W Bush using the word 'Paki' a few years ago. It was regarded in Britain at the time as a monumental gaffe, unusual even for Bush because it was offensive rather than just stupid. The explanation given at the time, I recall, was that it was meant as a neutral abbreviation, because the word doesn't have racist connotations in the States. Even then it made me, and I'd suspect many other Britons, wince with embarassment. Can any Americans recall what the reaction (if any) was in the States?

    This sounds only vaguely familiar. If the story did get any attention here in the States, it was very fleeting, and to the extent that any Americans did hear about it, I'm sure that 99.99% of them were confused as to what the big deal was. This is because, as I mentioned above, the word "paki" basically does not exist in American English, and the overwhelming majority of Americans, if they did hear the word used by somebody from the UK, would probably assume that it was some sort of neutral abbreviation, and would have no idea that it was meant in any kind of racist way.

    I'm not exactly a fan of George W. Bush, but I'm sure that was the case with him. In my very vague recollection, this was treated as a case of Bush not being sufficiently familiar with the cultural norms of another country, kind of as though he had bowed the wrong way in Japan or something; it had to be explained to Americans that "paki" is an offensive word in Britain, since the vast majority of them had never heard it before. In fact, that incident may have been when I first heard the word and learned that it's considered offensive.

  119. Mark F. said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    Re Dave K's comments: Like him, I only learned of the term "Paki" from the Bush incident. It really is believable that he wouldn't know it was an offensive term. But he should have realized it was risky at best.

  120. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    I too remember the Bush "Paki" incident. I'm in Canada, and as I mentioned before, I grew up considering it a pretty bad swear word in B.C., but at the same time, I interpreted the Bush incident as essentially just "getting a word wrong", like referring to modern Greeks as "Grecians".

  121. Stephen Jones said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 1:55 am

    Isn't "desi" the OK word for someone of South Asian descent

    It's the word diaspora Indians use for each other. And I'd be very surprised if it was used by Pakistanis, Nepalis, Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans.

  122. Stephen Jones said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 1:58 am

    The father of the bride commenced his speech by making a crack along the lines of 'I'm what most of you people would refer to as a Paki'. Apparently he got a few embarrassed laughs, but only after a rather stunned silence.

    At a Bangladeshi wedding it would do. In plenty of London boroughs there is a de facto ethnic cleansing of schools; you don't see a Pakistani at a school with Bangladeshis and vice-versa. In Hackney and other areas gang warfare between Bangladeshi and Pakistani gangs makes West Side Story seem like a Hollywood movie.

  123. Peter Erwin said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    Re "desi":
    It's the word diaspora Indians use for each other. And I'd be very surprised if it was used by Pakistanis, Nepalis, Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans.

    The Wikipedia article implies that it can (at least sometimes) be used generally for all of the South Asian diaspora, including Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans. The discussion page for that article does, however, suggest that this is somewhat controversial (i.e., one can find people who argue that it only applies to Indians and not to Pakistanis, etc.).

  124. Tom Streetman said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    As a young male in my early twenties, albeit an American which means I'm quite removed from the language across the pond, I wouldn't say the prince's comments were vicious. As pointed out earlier:

    "… that it's not uncommon for youngish people, in gatherings of intimate friends, to make racist comments in a highly ironic, almost meta-humorous way. That is, he will say something arguably — or perhaps even outrageously — racist, with the knowledge that he doesn't mean it, and none of the listeners thinks that he means it."

    While in America,it is generally taboo to use the "N-word" as a Caucasian. However, in social groups where whites and blacks are very close, it's not uncommon to see it used as a term of endearment across the racial bounds. In white culture, I can't think of any racial terms we would use in a similar manner.

    I think what it boils down to is the intent of the speaker and the reception of the one it was directed to. Did the Prince's friend get offended? Most likely not. Taken out of context anything can become offensive to the right person.

    And to chime in on the "cunt" conversation, from those I've discussed the word with, "cunt" is by far the most offensive word you could call a woman. (I've never heard it used in a non-joking manner against a male, although I do call my friends "cunts" every now and again.)

  125. mollymooly said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    a devastating response to the people above who assert that "Paki" cannot possibly be anything but a racial taunt. Those people are clearly wrong.

    It's not clear how much of the site's traffic comes from the UK. The link names suggest it's aimed at people in the USA. "Paki" may well be inoffensive among expatriate communities in North America, the Gulf, etc.

    In the UK, I continue to assert, "Paki" cannot be said without an awareness of its being a racial taunt; although, as with all taunts, the context may override that connotation.

  126. Joanna said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    @ Dave K
    Well, for what it's worth on the question of whether any Americans at all use "Paki" as an epithet, I once knew a high school dropout from eastern North Carolina who regularly referred to South Asians as "Pakis". I don't think he would have picked it up from the British, he had never traveled out of the U.S.

  127. SOS said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    I guess I am coming at this from a different perspective. I am a (white) American, who has lived with a Pakistani family and was not convinced, after the context of the situation was explained, that he used it in a racist manner. Yes, I am lazy and refer to Pakistani people from PAKISTAN as Paki, not ever meaning to use it offensively or to describe anyone from the general region of India, etc, but to refer to people who have noted themselves or their family as being from Pakistan, as there are a great many of them living in my area. My friends (some pakistani, persian, afghan, indian, kurd) who used the word paki to mean pakistani person and had no other meaning for it and I used it this way thinking it was a perfectly reasonable description. So I don't understand how so many users are 100% convinced that any use of paki is racist. I have never heard it used in a racist way myself, but know that some people mangle the word the same way they use chinese to refer to all-and-any asian.

  128. Adrian said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    "Adrian seems completely blind to this distinction between the term and the intent of using it on a certain occasion." I fundamentally disagree. When ever a non-South Asian British person calls a person of South Asian origin "Paki" it is a an example of racism. Period.

    [You can see why some of us at Language Log keep comments switched off all the time. This is tedious, and unedifying. I carefully note a distinction between a word and the intent of its use in a certain way on a certain occasion. Nobody who understands what I just said could deny that such a distinction must be recognized. So it is surely at least a logical possibility that, within the confines of a tight social group like a small army unit, someone might use the word Paki jokingly or affectionately or abbreviatorily or whatever. One can admit that without making a decision about what the situation was when Prince Harry was taking his video. But what is Adrian's response? He simply re-asserts his belief that all uses of Paki are racist abuse, and says "Period" after it, as if that will make it true. This isn't careful discussion of the serious issue at hand. It isn't discussion at all. Let me remind readers that the Language Log comments policy (see our front page) does not require us to keep open a space where people can plonk down their fixed opinions without supporting argument. Comments that are not in keeping with our policy may be deleted, and repeat offenders may be barred from commenting altogether. If you have a firm and unalterable view about something you can put it on a blog of your own. But in these pages, however lightly we may sometimes take ourselves and our topics, we are ultimately interested in developing reasoned conclusions about language and its use. We aren't here to provide a wall on which you can spray-paint dogmatic statements of your opinions. —GKP]

  129. Herman said,

    February 8, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    I note that Prof Pullum has responded in a dismissive manner to the first comment in this thread and to several others. His complaint seems to be that the writers of these comments have not read his original post carefully, but I wonder whether Prof Pullum has read their comments carefully.
    The first comment says:

    "Paki" is a racist slur. To say that it's not because it derives from "Pakistani" is very naive, like saying "nigger" isn't racist because it derives from "negro".

    Prof Pullum's response is:

    I didn't say that it isn't a racist slur; nor did I say that its origin as a clipping shows that, Rachael. You're being extraordinarily careless.

    Note that Rachel did not say that Prof Pullum claimed Paki isn't a racist term, so the description "extraordinarily careless" really does not seem to be fair. What her sentence does reflect is the fact that anyone in the UK who argues that "Paki" has no connotations of racism in present-day British English simply is being naive. Rachel did not specifically mention Prof Pullum and so his reaction seems a little surprising.
    Indeed, if we do read Prof Pullum's original post, there seems to be an unfortunate phrasing in his own writing, which really could be deemed "careless":

    The abbreviation "Paki" was not used as abuse. It was just a shortened form of Pakistani (Ahmed is indeed from Pakistan), an ethnic/national nickname like Brit, Aussie, pom, frog, or kraut (the British have a whole United Nations of such abbreviatory epithets).

    It is the use of the word "just" here that has raised questions from UK based readers. Lets be clear about this: in the UK, the word "Paki" simply is not "just" an abbreviation. The comments show that this is different in the US: fine. But Prof Pullum is writing in the UK about a British news item. The history of the use of "Paki" by racist groups in the UK means that any use of it always has a dual signification: yes, of course the term came into existence as a clipping, but now it is really not possible in the UK to ignore the association of the clipped form with racist behaviour and attitudes. If one has an ideological agenda about "dim-witted word taboo" that's fine: no-one is saying that the word always has derogatory connotations anywhere English is spoken. Manifestly, in the US it does not. The website shows that clearly. Incidentally, the existence of such a website is hardly a "devastating" response to the idea that, in the UK Paki now always has a connotation of racism. Note that has not been registered, for obvious reasons.

    I would suggest that Prof Pullum's sentence might have been less controversial had he written something like:

    The abbreviation "Paki" was not intended as abuse. It was a use of a taboo term amongst a peer group of young male soldiers.

    One more point that may be of interest: there was an attempt in the UK to claim the term "Paki" as a positive marker of group identity:
    Note here though, that the t-shirts used a novel spelling "Pak1" rather than "Paki", and note the controversy stirred by this t-shirt design.

    [This comment is not at all favorable to me, but I do not dismiss it; I commend it — it is well argued and textually supported. And I agree, it might have been better for me to write that the particular use of Paki "was a use of a taboo term amongst a peer group of young male soldiers" and we do not know much about the intent or the cultural context (except perhaps that we know Ahmed did not object or become angry or complain to his commanding officer). However, the defense offered here for Rachael's first comment does not take account of her second comment, where she does not take the line that "to say…" was about arbitrary individuals and not intended to be about me; instead she denies — falsely, and quite bafflingly — that she used the verb say at all, and claims that she used the verb imply. I'm still puzzled by that. —GKP]

  130. Peter Howard said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    "I'm still puzzled by that. —GKP"

    Part of the puzzlement (but not all) may disappear if you consider that the last sentence of Rachael's first comment contains the verb imply.

  131. Ken Grabach said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    Merri said: "My feeling is that a word is derogatory when the person using it means it as derogatory, and only then."

    There is at least one other definer of its derogatory meaning. That is the person or persons to whom it is uttered. There is also the person or persons who were the objects of the speech. As Dr. Pullum has indicated, whether or not a speaker 'meant' an epithet to be derogatory, it also depends on what the target of the utterance thought or felt it to be. So, no, someone may claim they meant no harm, but the target might feel harm, shame, or anger, anyway.

  132. Steve said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    I haven't looked at this thread since making my earlier comment, and it has certainly been generating at least as much heat as light. Though there has been some light too: I, at least, find the distinction between 'racist words' and 'racist speech-acts' a useful one, and very relevant to the point that was being made in the original post.

    Anyway, I am naturally grateful to Professor Pullum for his reference to me as 'young Steve', (though if he has really 'spent more time living in Britain than (I) have been alive', he must be much older than his photograph would suggest,) and I hope he will forgive me if my comment seemed to imply any criticism of his familiarity with British English, which is obviously very considerable, and much greater than, say, my knowledge of US English. He is clearly ideally placed and equipped to talk about the differences between UK and US usage, and I appreciate that many of his comments are directed at a predominantly American or international audience.

    But I hope he will also forgive me for pointing out that even a short stay in the United States may cause the occasional blind spot about British usage – I was one of several British commenters who was surprised at his surprise at the use of 'little' as a singular noun in the expression 'Every little helps', and I thought that his reference to 'Paki' being 'just' an abbreviation might be another example, because the defence 'It's just an abbreviation, like "Brit"' is so routinely trotted out by people who definitely do use the term as a racist slur that Professor Pullum's point that it also has innocent uses in other contexts could easily be misunderstood. 'Paki' has certainly become more offensive in recent years – I suspect that I might once have referred quite innocently to a 'Paki shop' myself, but I would not do so now. But I entirely agree with the main point that was being made: that any speech-act needs to be understood in its context and that mere words are not guilty of racism, only the people who use them.

    As to my references to swastikas and 'slitty-eyed' Chinese: that was an attempt to refer to the larger context – which was probably responsible for the virulence of the press coverage (Professor Pullum is certainly right to have reservations about the motives and indeed accuracy of the British popular press in 'holier than thou' mode) – namely, the reputation the British royal family has acquired for insensitivity in matters of ethnicity (the 'slitty-eyed' comments came from the Duke of Edinburgh a few years back.)

    Personally, I don't take Prince Harry's remark very seriously – I think he was right to apologise when it was made public, but I'm not sure I'd even go as far as Professor Pullum in calling him an 'asshole'. But then that opens yet another can of 'across the pond' worms, because I'd have used the word 'arsehole', and that is much stronger and more insulting in at least my dialect of British English than 'asshole' seems to be for most Americans. (Sorry, that's going even further off-topic, though it is perhaps not entirely irrelevant to a thread which has thrown up a number of other differences of strength between British, US and Austalian taboo vocabulary.)

  133. Rafael França said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    I agree with you completly, because the most important point is that they are colleagues, and he wouldn't offend the other "for free" Portuguese have much racists words, but that in a different context are offense-free words; like crioulo (the nearest in english would be nigger) in brazilian portuguese is heavy to be used between strangers, but is a word even used by songwriters (black, white and mixed) as an identitie builder

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