Slurs inside idioms are still slurs

« previous post | next post »

Below is a guest post by Josef Fruehwald:

Earlier this week (August 29, 2018, for readers in the future), Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for the governor of Florida, said of the victorious candidate of the Democratic Party, Andrew Gillum, that voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” and elect the left leaning Gillum. This has caused some controversy, since Gillum is a black man while DeSantis is white, and the discursive association of Black people with non-human primates is a longstanding racist trope.

A prominent linguist (anonymized here just in case he wouldn’t like his politics publicized like this) expressed a conflicted feelings between his political joy that DeSantis has gotten into hot water, and his knowledge of the non-denotative properties of idioms. That is, “kicking the bucket” and “buying the farm” refer to dying, not to buckets nor farms. Some of the conversation that ensued was about the nuances of idioms, and how prosodically prominent the world “monkey” was in context. This is, in fact, reminiscent of a controversy from last summer surrounding a British MP who used an idiom to refer to “an overlooked problem” that includes an explosive racial epithet that I won’t retype here, for reasons to be clarified below.

Outside the world of formal linguistics, the explanation for why certain people shouldn’t say certain words is typically framed around history, trust, and relationships. The history of a word’s use, often in combination with threats of or actual violence, dispossession and denial of humanity weighs too heavily for it to be used in any context by members of the violent, dispossessing, dehumanizing class. Moreover, the words you use are always affected by the contours of relationships. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) call a coworker “sweetie pie”, and most people wouldn’t call their mother “Ms”. I find these kinds of explanations compelling.

However, I think there is also a case to be made from a formal linguistics perspective that DeSantis is being rightly, or at least understandably, raked over the coals, and he should apologize. Specifically, Chris Potts’ work on a class of words he calls “expressives” are relevant. Expressives are words that contribute to the meaning of an utterance, but not in the conventional or denotative way others do. For example, compare the following sentences:

(1) I stubbed my pinkie toe on the table again.

(2) I fucking stubbed my pinkie toe on the table again.

(3)  fucking stubbed my fucking pinkie toe on the fucking table fucking again.

All three sentences “mean” the same thing, but sentence (2) conveys an additional piece of information about my irritation. By repeating “fuck” multiple times in sentence (3), I’ve amplified the strength of the meaning from (2). Usually you can’t just repeat words in a sentence to amplify meaning in this way. See (4)

(4) *I stubbed stubbed my pinkie toe toe on the table table again again.

Expressives have a number of interesting properties, of greatest relevance to slurs (which are a kind of expressives (Croom 2011)) are their perspective dependence and immediacy.

Potts defines “perspective dependence” to mean that the meaning expressives convey is about the the perspective of the utterer. I think that should be updated to mean that they convey a meaning about a possible utterer, and if the actual utterer could plausibly belong to the category of possible utterers, then it is presumed to be so.

Immediacy means that simply uttering an expressive morpheme is sufficient to convey its expressive content.  That is, there is not a use/mention distinction in the usual sense for expressives. They are performatives. In fact, for the strongest expressives, simply their phonological presence is sufficient to convey their expressive content. A lighthearted example comes from a Twitter exchange I saw recently between people whose last names share a phonological shape with some expressives (e.g. Cox, Butts). Less lightheartedly, there is a whole Wikpedia page for controversies surrounding the word “niggardly”, which means “miserly” and has no etymological relationship to the racial epithet, but still sufficiently conveys its expressive content.

With these things in mind, it is no surprise that people are upset about a White politician uttering a word with a history of racial abuse when there is a Black politician prominent in the discourse. It doesn’t matter that it was embedded in an idiom, or even if he didn’t mean to use it as a racial slur. Given the perspective dependence and immediacy of expressives, he said it, it had its effect, and he should apologize. For example, even if you experienced a speech planning error, or a spoonerism, and say something like “pinch his tits” when you meant to say “pitch his tents”, you would probably apologize. That standard shouldn’t be lower in a case like this. In fact, we could all learn from David Howard, a political aide who was fired in 1999 for using the synonym for "miserly" mentioned above. He was eventually rehired, but insisted he didn't feel victimized by the situation. In fact, he told the Washington Post, "I used to think it would be great if we could all be colorblind. That's naive, especially for a white person, because a white person can't afford to be colorblind. They don't have to think about race every day. An African American does."

I think a lingering question here is whether this formalization of expressives contributes anything over and above explanations based on history, trust and relationships. What more does this formalizing and mathematizing language achieve than convincing old white linguists that DeSantis was in the wrong? I certainly don’t think the formalization approach can be substituted for the historical and social arguments. But I think it can complement or reenforce those kinds of arguments.

The formalization approach is simply a slightly different way of organizing our thinking, and can be helpful for identifying similar or analogous cases. The way people use terms of address is relevant and interesting, but so is the effect of the immediacy of expressives. Moreover, the original Potts paper was written to understand facts about words like “damn” and “bastard,” but because he went to the trouble to formalize it, it’s possible to easily expand the very same arguments to cases like “monkeying up”. It also defines the limits of this kind of argumentation. For example, in the same statement DeSantis called Gillum an “articulate spokesman” which is also a racist trope. But doesn’t exactly fall under the same umbrella as expressives, thus demands a different analysis.

There is also often an unfortunate deployment of formal linguistic notions sometimes, such as the use/mention distinction, that have the effect of tamping down outrage about these events. I think putting forward and popularizing formal accounts for why avoiding taboo words is not simply belief in word magic is an important one for the field to make.

Above is a guest post by Josef Fruehwald.


  1. ambisinistral said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

    The meaning of "monkeying around" or "monkeying up" is common and well understood. To go through such gyrations to obscure that plain meaning for political purposes is one of the reasons people increasingly consider the humanities to be a joke.

  2. Cervantes said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

    Monkeying around is an idiom but "monkey things up" is not. Nobody ever says that.

  3. Rube said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

    @Cervantes, Yeah, I wonder if this started as some bizarre misspeak for "throw a monkey wrench into things" by way of "mess things up".

  4. Scott P. said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

    I expect that DeSantis crossed the expressions "screwed up" and "monkeyed around with" in his utterance.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    I would consider "monkey" to be a verb meaning to fiddle with something. It's use as a verb does not make me think of an animal. And so my expectation is that someone using that word as a verb describing someone's actions isn't at all trying to compare that person to a monkey. And though I could sometimes be wrong in that, I would certainly prefer to assume the kinder meaning.

  6. Uly said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

    The thing is, if you've got a history of being anti-racist, then if you accidentally say something that could be read racially you can go "Whoops, I didn't know that would be read that way, I won't say it again, I'm really very sorry" and people will believe you.

    But this dude. His response was full-on, omg-you're-the-real-racists tripe. It really speaks for itself.

  7. Uly said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

    Why would you prefer to assume that, Ellen?

  8. GeorgeW said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 2:07 pm

    I have never before heard "monkey up," but I have heard "muck up." Could this have been a shot at 'muck up' and a miss? But then, why is "monkey" the hit?

  9. ambisinistral said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

    Monkey up means to rig up something — like a jury rig. DeSantis was referring to Gillium's economic proposals and what he thought they would do to Florida's economy.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 2:39 pm

    I had likewise thought of "muck up," but perhaps "monkey up" is an idiom in other varieties of English. I checked a slang dictionary (maybe Partridge) which didn't have that as a phrasal verb but did have "get ones monkey up" (meaning get irate) which is likewise not in my own lexicon. Whichever work I was looking at had a whole page full of monkey-idioms of which I was familiar with fewer than half (and even that includes "ones I've seen in books" in addition to ones I've heard said by living speakers).

    It seems potentially significant here that this is not a use of a monkey-idiom where the monkey-by-analogy is the Democratic candidate. Rather the implied subject of the imperative (the people being told not to monkey it up) is presumably the swing voters of the state. Don't use word X, even in a fixed idiom, to refer (even implicitly) to a member of group Y is a more easily-followed guideline than "don't use word X, even in a fixed idiom, when a member of group Y is not being referred to by that word but is otherwise 'prominent in the discourse.'"

    More broadly, while I find the notion of "expressives" useful in understanding some of the other situations and incidents alluded to, I'm not sold on the claim that "monkey" is an "expressive." "Fuck" and "tits" are taboo (which is at least part of what gives them their "expressive" oomph) in pretty much all contexts and registers in which a politician would be speaking on the record, whereas "monkey" only carries the specific negative baggage we are concerned about here in fairly specific contexts (in many other contexts it is frequently insulting or pejorative yet still not a "slur"), and if we're trying to figure out if this usage is such a context we can't assume the answer by just labeling the word-in-general as an expressive. This is not even one of those issues about "why certain people shouldn't say certain words," because if the same speaker had said the same thing about the same upcoming election if Gwen Graham had won the Democratic primary there would not be a controversy. But maybe there's an example of another word which is clearly an expressive in some contexts but not others which might help me evaluate the plausibility of the claim here?

  11. Josef Fruehwald said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

    Regarding “is monkey a slur in this context”? “Monkey” is decidedly used as a slur with respect to Black people, something I can attest to hearing first hand in my youth. And, given the immediacy or expressives, as I said in the post, the speaker’s intention is irrelevant to whether or not the expressive meaning is conveyed.

    Regarding whether this would be an expressive if said in a context with different entities in the discourse, I think is an interesting question. The way Potts defines expressives, they convey the attitudes of an utterer toward some other entity. In this case, the context does matter: there is both a salient utterer (a White speaker) and a salient, relevant person for them to be conveying an attitude about, a Black man. Given the uproar, which I would not say is totally artificial or AstroTurf, I would say we’ve learned that if there are salient entities that can stand in to the roles of an expressive slur, even if there are non-slur uses of the same word, it still functions as a slur.

  12. S Frankel said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

    In addition to "monkey up" not being a set phrase, De Santis apparently administered an explicitly racist Facebook page (see among many other sources), so there's no motivation to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

    @Uly: For reasons that don't have to do with language.

  14. Kyle said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

    Sorry, this is slightly off-topic, but is the following quote used in the post a misnegation? (or the reported speech by the Washington Post is incorrect)

    "I used to think it would be great if we could all be colorblind. That's naive, especially for a white person, because a white person can't afford to be colorblind. They don't have to think about race every day. An African American does."

    Shouldn't it be "That's naive, especially for a white person, because a white person can afford to be colorblind. They don't have to think about race every day."?

    "can't afford to be colorblind" means something along the lines of "must not be colorblind [or else bad things will happen]", as I understand it. So "a white person can't afford to be colorblind. They don't have to think about race every day" would translate to "a white person must not be colorblind [or else bad things will happen]. They don't have to think about race every day" which doesn't make sense to me.

  15. Laura Morland said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 4:03 pm

    A related story: in the mid-1980s, my cousin Debbie moved to San Francisco from Alabama and eventually married a Jewish man, Harry from Portland. Once, upon returning to San Francisco from a trip to visit Debbie's parents, Harry confessed to me that he was shocked and disappointed to discover that his father-in-law was "a racist."

    "My Uncle Archie a racist?" I exclaimed. "I can't believe it! What did he say?"

    "He was talking about how he had just negotiated a tough deal, and he said, 'I jewed him down'."

    "Oh!" I replied. "That's just an expression. It's *not* anti-Semitic."

    But Harry just shook his head. "I was so hurt," he explained. "I couldn't believe he said that, and right in front of me!"

    Having grown up in the South myself, I can vouch that in using the expression "to jew X down," one is not consciously thinking about Jews as a tribe. But if one unpacks the phrase, I would argue that it is a PRO-Semitic expression. In using it, the speaker is congratulating himself for being "as clever as a Jew" with his negotiating skills.

    And yet… I've never let this expression cross my lips since that day.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 4:03 pm

    I am perhaps more cynical than Dr. Fruehwald about how much evidentiary value to attribute to outrage or uproar generated in the context of a political campaign, which is why it would be useful to have good data about reactions to, and interpretations of, maybe-expressive-maybe-not utterances made in a less-contentious and lower-stakes social context. I do recall an incident some decades ago in which a fellow I knew used (without malign intent) the set phrase "call a spade a spade," which gave rise to some agita. I think part of the problem there was that different participants in the situation had different perceptions of whether there was or wasn't a salient racial subtext in the discourse. In that regard, I am intrigued to learn that Dr. Fruehwald is working on a project called Speech Across Dialects of English (SPADE), and caution him to be careful in using "spade" in any context in which someone else may perceive a salient racial subtext.

  17. Tom S. Fox said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

    If you associate the word monkey with black people, then you’re the racist.

  18. Bill Burns said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

    Perhaps this will help establish whether DeSantis used "monkey up" as a racist term:

    "Florida’s Republican nominee for governor, Rep. Ron DeSantis, quit his role as an administrator for a racist, Islamophobic, and conspiratorial Facebook group Wednesday, shortly after media outlets reported his affiliation with the group."

  19. Mark P said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 4:48 pm

    Did some of the commenters not read the post? I think part of the point is that use of words associated with how the powerful treat or mistreat the weak can be offensive,even if used innocently. A person who belongs to the powerful group but who cares about how they are perceived will be careful not to use such language. A person who does not care won’t care how they are perceived or who they hurt or offend.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 5:08 pm

    Given the peculiar use of articulate in the same statement, I think Gillum's interpretation of the statement is exactly right: "Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump… in the handbook of Donald Trump they no longer do dog whistles, they're now using full bullhorns."

    If you associate the word monkey with black people, then you’re the racist.

    I trust you've read the 6th comment?

    No. Knowing a racist stereotype doesn't make one racist. That's obvious enough that I have to wonder if you're trolling.

  21. Nick Hopkins said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

    DeSantis also used two other subtle slurs, as recognized by an African-American commentator of MSNBC last night: he said Gillum "performed" well, and was an "articulate" speaker, both of which are considered to be racial slurs (maybe not to you, but to the targets). Nobody notes that he also called Gillum a "socialist" and a "failed mayor", the latter of which is a favorite phrase of Trump's. And "monkey wrench" is a wrench, but "monkey" is a racial slur.

  22. ambisinistral said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 5:46 pm

    Mark P — yes we read the post. Some of us commenters also know sophistry when we see it, and associating use of the word 'monkey' within shouting distance of a black as being racist is sophistry at its baldest.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 5:47 pm

    The linguistic claim made in the original post here is that the inherent nature of "expressives" plus the presence of a black rival candidate as "prominent in the discourse" was enough to predictably and understandably lead to a certain reaction to the utterance regardless of the subjective intent of the speaker. Bringing up other bits of evidence or alleged evidence tending to suggest that the subjective intent of the speaker was malign would seem to undercut that theory.

  24. ambisinistral said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 6:13 pm

    By the way — if you look at his actual quote instead of just yanking the words 'monkey' and 'up' out of it perhaps it will be clearer what he meant. Here is the quote:

    “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state,”

    As I said above — his statement was about messing up Florida's economy, not a racist slur.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 6:14 pm

    FWIW I took a look in COCA and COHA for instances of "monkey up" as a phrasal verb, and the only use I could find meant in context "climb in a monkey-like fashion,"* not "mess up" or "jury-rig, perhaps in a slipshod fashion." That definitely doesn't mean it's not an extant idiom or fixed phrase in some variety of English, but it makes the whole thing odder and (absent better evidence that it is a standard idiom in some variety of English, which I am totally open to) makes it more likely that it was a production error of some kind, as suggested by some earlier commenters.

    It seems ironically possible that a subconscious sense that monkey-idioms might get him into trouble given the race of his opponent could actually have created such an error, by leading the speaker to instinctively shy away from e.g. "monkey around with" at the very last second and end up with a mish-mosh as the switch over to e.g. "muck up" got started too late.

    *From a 2012 National Geographic article: "We monkey up two more bands of slimy rock via slick vines before I insist we use a rope."

  26. Geoff Nunberg said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 6:57 pm

    I think there's no question that DeSantis conveyed a racist message with his utterance and that he bears responsibility for it. On the question of whether slurs occurring as idiom components retain their force, I agree with Fruehwald's point, as I argued at some length in a LanguageLog post here—this in response to the post Fruehwald alludes to but doesn't cite in his second paragraph.

    For the rest, though, I don't see why Potts' claims about expressives should have any relevance here. For one thing, to the best of my knowledge, Potts has never explicitly claimed that perspective dependence is a property of slurs, and in fact people routinely produce sentences in which the attitudes implicit in a slur are attributed to someone other than the speaker. The playwright Harvey Fierstein produced a crisp example on MSNBC, “Everybody loves to hate a homo.” I provided other occurrent examples in a LanguageLog post last year, and still more in a just-published paper "The Social Life of Slurs," Daniel Fogal, Daniel W. Harris & Matt Moss, eds. New Work on Speech Acts (OUP). (also available here)

    At any rate, even if slurs were invariably perspective dependent and "monkey up" were considered a slur like the N-word, it isn't clear to me why the point about perspective dependence would be necessary here, since phrasal idioms, unlike explicit or implicit quotative contexts, don't create the occasion for expressing any point of view other than the speaker's. The same would hold for the attitudes implicit in any idiom component, expressive or not.

  27. Michael W said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

    @Kyle (regarding Howard's statement about being colorblind) – I had the same question too, but if it's reported correctly I think it can be read as him saying what's proper behavior, not what is possible behavior. In other words, a white person [in order to be sensitive] "can't afford to be colorblind". His additional explanation suggests they should/need to be aware of race, even if they aren't forced to in the same way an African American is.

    Though I do think it's entirely possible it was reported wrong or is his mistake, as it reads better as "can afford to be".

  28. Viseguy said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 7:13 pm

    A charitable reading of DeSantis's comment is that it was an unintended double entendre. (Although a Freudian might question whether it was really unintended.) But if that's the case and his intended meaning was free of any racially derogatory connotation, why wouldn't he immediately apologize? Since he hasn't, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he's being willfully tone-deaf (cf. the comments above by Tom S. Fox and ambisinistral), and thus actually intended to sound the dog whistle that many (non-racist) people heard. (Racists, unlike dogs, usually don't react overtly to high-pitched whistles.)

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

    Professor Nunberg's lengthy and (as he warns) "philologically thick" book chapter on slurs looks fascinating. I hope to read it rather than skim it at some point when I have the time.

  30. Andrew Usher said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 8:50 pm

    Although it may not be a fixed idiom I would immediately understand 'monkey up' to mean 'mess up', presumably connected with 'monkey around' as monkeying around with things is likely to mess them up. The full sentence makes it clear that this usage could hardly have been a slur (if it was intended as one, it fails at that).

    The repeated pattern of the anti-racist types of making mountains of molehills, combined with the usual venom of a political campaign (which I have no stake in), makes me seriously doubt that anyone was spontaneously offended by this use.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  31. Anne Cutler said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

    There is an extensive psycholinguistic literature on the production and perception of idioms and fixed phrases, which shows both that they are accessed as wholes (so repressing the semantics of one of the words in a phrase will not work to block your use of that phrase) and that their internal elements do activate the non-idiomatic meanings of the component words (so saying "kick the bucket" will make "pail" momentarily easier for listeners to process, and likewise with the component meanings of the phrases at issue in this thread). Thus we absolutely must inhibit use of those phrases if we know them. (Out here in Australia we are currently dealing with an objectionable radio host with a recurrent track record of using an idiom involving woodpiles; that station was passed long ago in the US, I think).
    What is not known in psycholinguistics is exactly how this inhibition can be applied most effectively, given that one presumably wants to be able to make use of inoffensive equivalent phrases (so the meaning shouldn't be inhibited) and the idioms are whole (so you can't actually access their component parts in production). Inhibiting via the monitor that sometimes stops us making speech errors just before they're uttered (but sometimes doesn't) is asking for trouble. I hope that there is a socio-psycholinguist out there whose lab could do the research needed to find this out. How useful would that be.

  32. tangent said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 10:08 pm

    The communicative question is what effect is produced on the communicator's listeners — do they become incrementally more negative towards black people. Based on the type of work Anne Cutler cites I have a guess. But racial dogwhistles specifically have been studied, I presume?

  33. tangent said,

    August 30, 2018 @ 10:15 pm

    It's interesting that some people will focus so hard on "offended", which is the effect on an unsympathetic but essentially detached hearer.

    Not everybody gets to be detached. Some people are nudged to be incrementally worse humans by feeling others are a little more beneath them. And other people are on the sharp end of that.

  34. Josef Fruehwald said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 6:44 am

    @Geoff, with respect to perspective dependence, I was trying to clunkily make the same point you are, that aspects of DeSantis' identity are relevant to understanding this case, and why "monkey up" may not operate as a slur in all contexts. Some commenters have made an argument that we wouldn't treat "monkey" as a slur if there were different people in the discourse, therefore we can't conclude it was a slur in this case, which was the argument I was trying to head off talking about perspective dependence.

    I've just re-read Pott's description of perspective dependence, and he says the "judge," or the attitude holder, is assumed to be the speaker by a pragmatic default for expressives. In this case, because DeSantis is White, and he's talking about a Black person, all default pragmatic assumptions check out, and it operates as a slur.

  35. Grover Jones said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 7:11 am

    Is the author really afraid even to type the word "niggardly" in his above article? We can't even discuss perfectly innocent words explicitly? Yet we can type the F-word again and again?

    What's wrong with this picture?

  36. Andrew Usher said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 7:18 am

    tangent: I speak of 'offended' because it's the only thing that's anywhere near objective that can be used as a standard here. Otherwise we're just into "I don't like this guy, so I'll find fault with everything he does" category, which may unfortunately be the default in politics, but doesn't get anywhere.

    I think it's stretching things way too far to say that making a non-racial comment that happens to include the word monkey contributes to some people 'feeling others are a little more beneath them'. (I am assuming ambisinistral's transcription of what was said is correct – no one has disputed it, and no one has given a link to a source.)

  37. Rodger C said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 7:45 am

    his statement was about messing up Florida's economy, not a racist slur.

    That's a total non sequitur. His subject and the way he expressed it operate independently. I now seriously doubt you know enough about linguistics to be posting here. Dawn take you, and be stone to you!

  38. Mya said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 9:14 am

    My husband and I (mid-40's, some mix of Great Lakes / Midwest / New England between our collective youth) immediately recognized "monkey [it] up" as an idiom from our youth and a euphemism for "fuck [it] up". Possibly relevant: both of us had very religious families who never would have said fuck, especially in the presence of children.

  39. Francois Lang said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 9:15 am

    Re "articulate": Senator Joe Biden referred to then-Senator Barack Obama as "articulate" in 2007, and was chastised for it.

    In fact, that's when I first heard "articulate" in that context, meaning, presumably, non-AAVE-speaking.

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 10:06 am

    I appreciate Mya's datapoint re prior familiarity with "monkey [it] up" as an idiom." I thought Anne Cutler's comment was interesting (I'm not familiar with the research the references), but am having trouble figuring out how it applies here. If "kick the bucket" makes "pail" "momentarily easier to process," what's the word that "monkey this up" would be expected to make momentarily easier to process? Because "black person" is really not the core/default/non-idiomatic meaning of "monkey," the way "physical object that could also be called a pail" is of "bucket " Now, if you had experimental data showing that "kick the bucket" made it momentarily easier to process other bucket-related idioms or extended senses (like "bucket list"), that might be different.

  41. Sally Thomason said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 10:11 am

    There's no etymological connection between "niggardly" and the totally-taboo n-word (I just checked the OED to make sure my belief about that is accurate). That guy who got fired from his job for using the word "niggardly" may not feel that he was mistreated, but I still think he was. Admittedly, reading about his firing did ensure that I wouldn't use the word again myself, given the widespread but mistaken view that the two words are connected.

  42. Robert Coren said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 11:13 am

    @Laura Morland: I'm trying to decide if you're serious about regarding "jew someone down" as a compliment. I'm pretty certain it was not intended as such when it was first formulated, and I can't imagine any Jewish person taking it as such. The root idea is not "clever as a Jew" (which is condescending at best anyway), but "miserly as a Jew".

    [(myl) This expression is a specialization of a definitely uncomplimentary sense of jew as a verb, meaning (according to the OED) "To cheat or overreach, in the way attributed to Jewish traders or usurers. Also, to drive a hard bargain, and intr., to haggle". The implication of bad faith or even dishonesty is clearer in the expression "jew out of ", but I think it's there in "jew down" as well.]

  43. Ursa Major said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

    Robert Coren: "The root idea is not "clever as a Jew" (which is condescending at best anyway), but "miserly as a Jew"."

    I was also going to make a comment about this along the same lines. The fact that it was used in the context of a financial transaction makes it particularly obvious as part of one of the oldest racist tropes still around.

    Also, saying "if one unpacks the phrase, I would argue that it is a PRO-Semitic expression" is the same as arguing that "black people are good at sport" or "Asians are good at maths" aren't racist (the stock phrase ubiquitous on the internet is "It's a COMPLIMENT"). They are racist because they view the group as monolithic and not a group of individuals exhibiting a diversity of capabilities.

  44. Paul Kay said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

    Tom S. Fox, in writing, "If you associate the word monkey with black people, then you’re the racist," you seem to be suggesting that since (a) there is no conventional, pejorative association of the word monkey with black people, (b) someone who mentions such an association is ipso facto a racist. Statement (a) is false. As someone who grew up in the South, I can attest from personal experience that the word "monkey" can be and is used as a vicious, racist slur. In particular I remember an experience of shock and anger at hearing a fellow student in the 1950s express his antipathy to Martin Luther King by referring to King as "that Monkey!"

    Has anyone mentioned that the interviewer for Fox news found it necessary, shorty after the De Santis interviewer, to caution, "We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he [De Santis] has since clarified his statement…"
    ? The powers at Fox News clearly thought that De Santis's remarks were something they needed to distance themselves from. That's strong evidence that your statement that there doesn't already exist a known slur "monkey" is wrong. And it raises the question of what might have motivated you to make such a clearly erroneous claim.

  45. philip said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 6:44 pm

    Here is a monkey idiom: I want to talk to the organ grinder, not the monkey.

    Now say I was offered an audience with the Vice-President during Obama's presidency, but actually insisted that it was The President I wanted to speak to, and used the idiom above to express my wishes, how many convolutions would hearers of my phrase have to go through in order to choose to be offended by it on racist grounds?

  46. D.O. said,

    August 31, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

    I am not sure what I think about this particular case, but "someone is offended" is a wrong standard. Even if no one was offended, it is inevitable that many people tuned into the Florida governor's race would consider any attack on Mr. Gillum to be racially tinged ("you think he was a bad mayor? why, 'cause a black person cannot be a good mayor?", "you say he's socialist, is it because you think black people like to live on handouts?"). This is unfortunate, but inevitable. Which makes me think that Mr. DeSantis and speakers on his side should weigh their words more carefully. Either to avoid creating even stronger impression of the subtext or because they do want to create such a subtext. Playing dumb and (color)blind won't convince nobody.

  47. ===Dan said,

    September 1, 2018 @ 12:07 am

    I think "then you're the racist" is a racist trope.

    Am I right that Ann Cutler alluded to the British MP's hateful turn of phrase that Josef Fruehwald described?

    My memory is too faint regarding the outrage over the use of "cotton-picking" by a New York politician in the 1960s– but apparently it has been seen since then.

  48. Anne Cutler said,

    September 1, 2018 @ 8:41 am

    @J.W. Brewer:

    The point of the idiom decomposition research is that it shows that the component parts of an idiom ARE available. "Kick the bucket" means "die" and only that meaning is relevant to the conversation it occurs in. In principle, only that meaning was what the speaker meant to convey. But it is not the case that only that meaning is made available in the listener's head – also "kick' and "bucket" are actually activated even though they are not at all related to the intended meaning "die". The idiom meaning does not prevail to the extent that it prevents the component words' meanings from being perceived. In the "monkey up" case, the phrase means "alter in some unwanted fashion" (or whatever it means exactly), but the meaning of "monkey" is ALSO active – including whatever connotations the listener might have for that word, of course.
    This is pertinent to the defences that have been offered for speakers using such idioms. Yes, it is only the idiom's meaning they wish to convey. But you only need to have experienced a shocked reaction to such a use once, in order to know that the idiom meaning does not mask the meaning of its component words, and thus to know never to use that idiom again.

  49. Ellen K. said,

    September 1, 2018 @ 9:15 am

    @Anne Cutler.

    But the word "monkey" is a verb, not a noun, in the phrase "monkey up". So I don't think it's true that it would conjure up the idea of a monkey in someone's brain when they say or hear the word "monkey" in "monkey" up the same way the words in "kick the bucket" bring up their literal meaning. The literal meaning of "monkey" there is an action, not an animal.

    Even when the band the Monkees sing "Hey Hey we're the Monkees, people say we monkey around" the pun does not bring up images of monkeys for me.

  50. ambisinistral said,

    September 1, 2018 @ 11:35 am

    The phrase wasn't "monkey up" it was "monkey this up". What "this" referred to is what matters. It did not refer to Gillium, it referred to the state if Florida's economy.

    No slur, just a lot of blithering and double-talk for crass political purposes

  51. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 1, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

    I found one! "However, I see my levergun as a short, light, rugged and quick shouldering deer rifle. I wouldn't want to monkey that up with a scope." From The Firing Line, May 2002. However, the expression seems to be very rare.

    Laura Morland: In my not entirely disinterested opinion, your decision to avoid "jew someone down" was a good one.

    Ellen K.: The verb "monkey", as in "monkey around", certainly brings an image of a monkey to my mind. That's the point—it means to do something playfully and maybe dexterously but not very intelligently, like a monkey.

  52. Ellen K. said,

    September 1, 2018 @ 3:56 pm

    My point isn't simply that we can't assume that someone who uses the verb "monkey" is thinking about the animal. They may or may not. It's not the same as "kick the bucket". Still true even if some people do think of a monkey when they hear or read the word as a verb.

  53. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 3, 2018 @ 8:35 pm

    Ellen K.: You're right that we can't assume that someone who says "monkey around" or "monkey up" is thinking about the animal (though the possibility is strange to me). However, in your first comment you said your expectation was that they wouldn't be thinking about the animal, which I think is going too far.

    Maybe there are people who don't think about buckets when they say "kick the bucket" either.

  54. Annie said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 7:23 am

    I'm trying to think of a prominent enough racist to coin the racist equivalent of "Freudian slip." In my opinion, if it wasn't a deliberate dog whistle, it was a gas bubble belched up from the id.

  55. BZ said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 4:26 pm

    Re "If you associate the word monkey with black people, then you’re the racist", this is definitely overboard. What I might say is that if you hear the word "monkey" and immediately jump to the conclusion that it is a racist reference to a black person, it is at least as plausible that you are used to using "monkey" that way yourself as it is that the speaker (an abstract speaker we know nothing about for the sake of argument) is doing that. It is true that a white person can't afford to be color blind, but if someone uses the word "monkey" in such a context and doesn't even stop to consider that it could be taken as a slur (as one would in order to apologize immediately) that is a positive thing for society in general.

RSS feed for comments on this post