In the course of this contentious MetaTalk thread, I was asked “languagehat, I would love to hear your take on how certain words such as ‘cripple’ or ‘midget’ (that were, at one time, acceptable) become offensive.” I wrote a longish answer which I will quote the bulk of here in the hope that LH readers will find it interesting and have their own points of view on the topic:
People “on top” in whatever way (ruling class, bigger and stronger, of a preferred race or religion, etc.) tend to treat the people “beneath” them badly. This can include everything from denial of privileges to physical violence, but it always includes verbal contempt. Since language is very important to people—it’s how we understand the world—the latter weighs far more heavily on its recipients than you might think if you don’t have to deal with it yourself. (Amusingly, the people on top always counter complains with variants on “Hey, I get called an asshole every day, and it doesn’t bother me,” as if that were remotely comparable.) One of the first and most insistent demands of the soldiers who made the February Revolution in 1917 was that their officers not be allowed to curse at them.
Now, obvious insults are an obvious problem. Where it gets interesting is the use of words intended as objective names or descriptions. Because the general attitude of those on top is one of contempt, the language they use becomes tainted with that contempt, and is eventually rejected by those it’s directed at (when and if they are able to protest effectively). Thus (to simplify a complicated story, and ignoring “the n word,” which was never anything but an insult) the people forcibly brought from Africa and their descendants were called “black” in the nineteenth century; they resented this and many preferred “colored,” which was used by well-meaning white folks in the early twentieth century until it too became tainted and “Negro” became preferred, itself giving way (in one of those ironies of history) to “black” in the late ’60s, which was partly superseded by “African American”—current usage seems to be a mix of the last two. Whites who enjoy their privileged status and have no conception of what it’s like to be treated as an Untermensch also enjoy mocking the parade of “political correctness” and ask “What are we going to have to call them next?” as though it were a clever and incisive point. But in fact using PC language is a cheap substitute for actually treating people equally, so they usually go ahead and do it.
The same principle applies to “cripple” and “midget.” There’s nothing inherently offensive about these terms, but the contempt that goes with them taints them and makes the people so described insist on replacements, imagining (because we ascribe such importance to language) that “better” words will mean better treatment. But the new words get tainted too. The only permanent solution is to treat everyone as decently as we would like to be treated ourselves. Sadly, this in unlikely to occur in the foreseeable feature, so as long as we have a society in which equal treatment is an ideal and the people treated badly have the right to make their feelings known, the cycle of nomenclature will continue.
True fact: in the 19th century “secretary” was an honored term, because secretaries were men. In the latter part of the century, as such positions became the province of women, the term itself took on a patronizing feel, and with the later rise of feminism it was replaced by “administrative assistant.” Does anyone think this actually produces more respect for the jobs and the people who hold them? But the desire for at least formal respect is deep-rooted and should be acknowledged even if, realistically, a change in nomenclature won’t change anything that actually makes a difference. (For similar reasons, although I roll my eyes at the misunderstanding that underlies the attacks on the word “niggardly,” I accept the necessity of not using the word, because the minor value of having an extra term for “stingy” is far outweighed by the value of not giving offense to people who have to take far more shit than I do on a daily basis.)
All that said, words are only words, and the best attitude remains “sticks and stones can break my bones,” if you can manage it. I resolutely oppose hate-speech legislation and think that if people could get themselves to not let “bad language” distract them from the fight for better treatment in general, the world would be a better place.
I emphasize again that while I don’t think it makes sense from a rational/logical point of view to attack words rather than the social facts that underlie their perceived offensiveness, I completely understand the fact that people do take offense at them and support their right to object to them (if not their desire to have such words banned outright).