Sunday, January 11, 2009

What, Exactly, Does the Word Mean?

NPR Commentator Judy Miller has written an intriguing piece on language evolution for the Huffington Post that caught many of us off guard. She's talking about the use of the word "thug" as racist. It ia a term that has been appropriated by hip-hop artists, among others, to describe their lifestyles and any mention of people engaging in traditional forms of thuggery is apparently off limits for all but those who don't mind being called "racist."

This type of word appropriation is hardly new and, in fact, there are some quarters where the "evolution of the language" is heartily applauded.

The gay community, for example, saw the word "homosexual" used as a pejorative for years before it adopted a more cheerful noun. Our African-American brethren have run through a litany of descriptives: colord, Negro, black, of color and more that I'm not so sure are even appropriate to recall. None of those, of course, included the racist terms some white people preferred.

What is a native American these days? Some like "Indian," others not so much. Some even talk about "indigenous peoples," which is nice, but wrong, "indigenous" meaning "origniating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment." The Cherokees, Iroquois, Seminoles, Arapaho, Apache and the line didn't start here; they were born of Asia and are, thus no more indigenous to this country than my shiny white ass is.

The word "feminist" is one I recently used to describe myself in defending an image we're planning to use on the cover of our magazine, Valley Business FRONT. The image was being criticized because it involved a woman and a bathrobe and, therefore, had to be sexist (because, I think, our art director and I are men). "Feminist has to be so thoroughly demonized by the right that its meaning has been all but lost. How many women have you heard say, "I'm no feminist, but ..." then explain how all the feminist ideals are theirs?

I once asked a new acquaintance (who has since become a friend) if she was a Jew. She said the very word was offensive. She is, she says, "Jewish." I took that one to my surrogate mother, who is "Jewish" and she said, "We are Jews and that is a perfectly acceptable word." Here, here.

Republicans have changed the name of the Democratic Party to "Democrat Party" as much to annoy as to inform. "Liberal" has morphed into "progressive" to the degree that the other day I had to inform a young man that "progressives are weenies without the balls to call themselves liberals. No wonder they're so discredited."

We've not even addressed words like "poor," "retarded," "autistic," "crippled," "problem" and the like, words that we've shielded and barred with euphemisms, which are protective, but hardly descriptive ("special needs," "economically challenged," "intellectually gifted," etc.)

So, yes, it's all about perception, about use, about evolution. And it won't stop soon. So crank up your growler and get ready to complain.

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