Years ago when I first moved to a duplex in Uccle, Belgium, my French landlady, who spoke no English, ordered her dog around. It returned to the house or followed her or got into her car on cue. I was embarrassed that the dog understood commands I didn’t.
In the four years I lived there, my French never improved enough to understand slang or contemporary idiom. As a consequence, I wasn’t perturbed by the incomprehensible curses of a driver who thought I had taken his parking spot. Sounds are innocent until attached to meaning. Therein lies their potential for power.
Recent news reports belie the adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Donald Sterling had the misfortune of being secretly recorded saying something as hurtful as it was politically incorrect. (Whether or not the recording was an invasion of his privacy hasn’t been an issue.) His quote raged in the media for days and got him fined and banned by the NBA.
Juan Williams lost his PBS job for saying he became nervous “if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.”
Towson University art professor Allen Zaruba was fired for saying in class that he was “a nigger on the corporate plantation." His unfortunate word choice landed him out of the job he was bemoaning, a part-time faculty member without tenure.
Colorado congressman Doug Lamborn made media headlines and apologized for saying “…I don’t even want to have to be associated with him [the President]. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem…”
Simple words aren’t so simple. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is campaigning to ban the word bossy. The word purportedly is a put-down to young girls and discourages them from taking on leadership roles.
MSNBC’s Morning Joe panel recently discussed slut slamming. The word slut never had so much attention. As an aside, our thesaurus is decidedly sexist. It has a host of terms for a female sensualist, most of them derogatory, while the male synonyms are not only fewer in number but less disparaging (if at all disparaging).
The government is getting involved in cleaning up the English language. The terms citizen and brown bag are no longer used in official documents or discussions by Seattle city workers. They are to use the terms lunch-and-learn or sack lunch instead of brown bag. The word citizen is avoided because many people who live in Seattle are residents, not citizens.
The New York Post reported in March 2012 that the city’s Department of Education avoids references to words like dinosaur, birthday, and Halloween on city-issued tests. Dinosaur suggests evolution, possibly offensive to fundamentalists. Birthdays are not celebrated by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Halloween intimates paganism.
The internet is rife with warnings about politically incorrect words. Lists include Swine flu, oriental, founding fathers, black sheep, and senior citizen. There are even dictionaries to tell you which words will get you into trouble.
I can think of nothing so fragile and powerful as words. Our culture, delineated by the media and government, is exerting its control by banning the use of controversial words. Whether this is a step forward or back is a debate that is ongoing. Few people will deny that some words are demeaning. Unfortunately, when politics enters the picture, the choice of unacceptable words becomes subject to influence by strident organizations. I personally find the politically correct policemen as threatening as offensive language.