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became preferred, itself giving way (in one of those ironies of history) to “black” in the late ’60s, which was partly superseded by “African American”—current usage seems to be a mix of the last two.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).


  1. “the n word” may not have been anything but an insult, but “nigger” was non-insulting for 200 years before the insulting sense appeared, accordng to OED at least.

  2. Later on in that thread I take issue with the OED’s categorization. It seems to me they’re too cavalier about assigning “neutral” usage.

  3. Regarding “niggardly”, many people overlook the fact that it’s possible to use it in its dictionary sense while intentionally demeaning black people. For a less loaded example, compare: “Hey, Saul, what do you think of my JEWelry? What’s that song on the JUkebox? My, this orange is JUicy.” A decade or so ago there was a little controversy over a US politician’s use of “niggardly”, and my understanding is that what was really going on was similar. The guy intended to cause offense, or perhaps just wink at his supporters, but did it in such a way that he could hide behind the dictionary. I think this is all much more complex than allowing some words and forbidding others. Also compare the word “boy”. (I meant this as a general public service announcement. I don’t mean to imply that I think that you, LH, think otherwise.)

  4. Oh, sure, but I suspect that such “plausible deniability” usage arose after the initial dustup about the word; prior to that, I doubt many people were even aware of its existence. It’s a classic case of ill-considered protest making a situation worse.

  5. There’s a vicious, desperate cycle that builds as people strive to be well-treated by objecting to the terms being used … but of course all that happens is that the new term becomes as tainted as the old one.

  6. I may be misreading this, but is your argument that any word for a group that has been historically looked down upon becomes derisive? If that was the case, why aren’t the terms “woman” and “poor” considered offensive by now?
    I don’t quite accept that the fact that, because people use a certain word to refer to someone for whom they have contempt, the word itself becomes tainted. For example, I’m sure someone, somewhere in Red Sox nation, has used the term “Yankees fan” disparagingly. Does that mean that now, anyone who mentions “Yankees fans” is demeaning someone?

  7. Women are not simply a “minority” or “despised” group; gender relations are much more complicated than that, and woman is far too basic a word to be easily replaced. As for poor, it has indeed undergone similar processes: underprivileged and all manner of periphrases (“below median income” or whatever) have been employed to cloak the shivering, bare, repugnant monosyllable. Few people want to be thought of as poor.

  8. It seems just common courtesy to call people whatever they want to be called. Before I knew any Scots I used to call them Scotch — so far as I knew that was simply the English word for people from Scotland. Upon becoming friends with some Scots, I learned that they, or at least some of them, felt “Scotch” was disrespectful. So I call them “Scots” now. Whether “Scotch” is intrinsically disrespectful is a question that I don’t think makes any sense — words are signalling tools in communications between people, not objects with intrinsic meaning. Whether it’s disrespectful to go on calling people something once you know they don’t like being called that seems to me a dim question. Of course it is. It’s not hard to tell if words are derogatory. Just ask. How hard is that?

  9. It seems just common courtesy to call people whatever they want to be called.
    That’s my take on it as well.

  10. Living in the UK, I found (and find) the controversy over “niggardly” to be virtually incomprehensible. What appears to be a well-reasoned piece on the subject in Wikipedia
    makes it clear (to me) that the original fuss over the word was caused by the offended parties simply not knowing the correct meaning of the word. It was the publicity over the incidents which *then* transformed the word into something allegedly offensive.
    One commentator quoted in the Wikipedia piece jokingly (I presume from the text) suggests one can’t now use the word “sniggering” either.
    Of course one does not use words that are clearly offensive, but I submit there has to be a line drawn when the alleged offense is caused simply by lack of understanding – explanation, rather than self-censorship, should be the rule then.

  11. While this explanation makes a lot of sense, I think there’s a bit more to the story. One pattern I see is “leaders” of various oppressed groups insisting on the use of new terms so that their constituencies will feel aggrieved when they hear people using the (formerly standard) terms. “African-American” seems to be an example of this, and it’s kind of silly in a way, as it can’t sensibly be used to describe people who aren’t Americans (or who are white Africans who have immigrated to America). I’ve been told that the majority of American Indians prefer the term “Indian” to “native American,” but referring to “Indians” on some college campuses will get you nasty looks. “Calling people what they want to be called” is fine, in principle, but sometimes it turns into an excuse for accusing perfectly innocent people of improper motives, and insisting that people stop using perfectly innocent words can be a form of bullying.
    Some of the insistence on PC speech is downright ignorant. I’ve been told, for instance, that it’s insulting to women to say “rule of thumb” because this phrase comes from an ancient British law allowing men to beat their wives with a stick no larger than their thumbs. There was never any such law–the phrase comes from the fact that most people’s thumbs measure about an inch from the tip to the knuckle.

  12. Yes, that last is an example of a particularly silly kind of faux outrage which I agree should be resisted.

  13. the quidnunc kid says

    Languagehat, it’s obvious that these horrible convolutions of nomenclature will persist as long as people have tongues to wag at the downtrodden ears of those with lower, umm … troddens. Or whatever.
    Perhaps you might be interested in my own solution to this problem: I never refer to people at all, thus avoiding any hint that I consider my own troddens to be higher-up than theirs.
    Actually I have pretty tall troddens – it just runs in the family, I guess – but I don’t let anyone think that I judge people on the size of their troddens. No trodden-sizist, me! No, I’m pretty accepting of anyone’s troddens, and if you have small troddens, or really wide troddens, or bumpy troddens or whatever I honestly don’t give a shit. Just keep your goddam troddens out of my face and we’ll be fine – that’s my motto.
    In fact, if there’s one thing I hate it’s people who are intolerent of other people’s troddens. I mean – I didn’t ask for these freakishly long troddens, did I? It’s not like I chose my own trodden-length while I was gestating in the womb – “Oh, yeah Mom, actually I’d like really long troddens so I can make fun of all the goddamn small-trods out there, ha ha ha, thanks for asking. Yeah, I can’t wait to get squeezed out of ol’ uterus and start disrespecting the ol’ microtroddies, the lousy short-troddened bastards.” That didn’t happen. And if you tiny-trodites had a single trod to stand on, you’d see that.

  14. I’m sorry, but I don’t allow comments by people with long troddens. Some things are simply beyond the pale. Everyone, please ignore the long-troddite whose comment somehow made it past the trodfilter.

  15. Sometimes, the politically correct terminology is actually objectively worse than the “offensive” terminology. For example, “handicapped” was once the accepted term for what is now called “disabled”, even though “disabled” usually refers to something that does not function at all (as in when you disable a feature on your computer), whereas “handicapped” means it still functions, just not at the same standard.

  16. michael farris says

    First you allow vicious attacks on the knobs of goatshit community and then you give space for a depraved long troddenite to spout his filth …. I just don’t know what’s going on anymore.

  17. 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.
    I don’t. Even leaving aside the fact that the people in question are themselves [ab]using the paronym in question with ecstatic abandon, impoverishment of language (even such a seemingly insignificant one) is not the price I’m willing to pay to prevent such phantom “offenses”. (Besides, I do love taking a sledgehammer to fragile self-esteems and overripe hymens.)
    But of course, PC has never been a noble-but-misguided effort to protect hothouse-flower sensibilities. It was never intended to be anything other than an orwellian rape of the mind. And that’s precisely what it is.

  18. Throbert McGee says

    This seems like a good occasion to recall Tsvetaeva’s observation “You pronounce the word Jew as though you were translating it from k¡ke” — or, as I am apt to paraphrase it, “Some people manage to pronounce the word gay as though they were translating it from faggot.”
    And incidentally, speaking as a man who prefers corndogs to tacos, I actually favor homosexual over gay. (Some people complain that homosexual sounds “too clinical”; I say “it’s not clinical, it’s neo-classical.” It also has the great virtue of not meaning anything else.) But at the same time, I would never browbeat anyone who calls me “gay,” because I understand that this is widely understood to be the more courteous term, and I see no point in confusing well-intended people by demanding that they ought to know my idiosyncratic preferences via telepathy.

  19. michael farris says

    solus rex, do you know anything at all about in-groups and out-groups?

  20. If you’re referring to the notion that black people are entitled to use the word “nigger” in ways that non-black people are not, I’m not actually disputing it (much).
    Even though — my earlier comment about sledgehammers and hymens notwithstanding — I’m not taking any joy in the spectacle of human (of any group) self-abasement.

  21. When this makes the top of Google searches on “bad language”, an awful lot of people are going to be deeply disappointed that they can’t find anything better than “knobs of goatshit”, “troddens”, “handicapped”, or “niggardly”. For the sake of the wider cyberspace community, can’t we spice it up a bit?

  22. Certainly, Bathrobe:
    as per
    on a daily basis
    I concur
    Smeg™ kitchen appliances
    if I had’ve knowen
    Them’s the baddest language I know. Anybody else, now?

  23. Accapareurs! Coloquintes! Ophicléides! Patapoufs! Cloportes! Anthropophages! Catachrèses! Moujiks! Rhizomes! Ectoplasmes! Anthropopithèques! Analphabètes! Cornichons! Va-nu-pieds! Saltimbanques! Moules à gaufres! Protozoaires!

  24. marie-lucie says

    Vous voilà enfin, Capitaine Haddock! Merci!

  25. Pithecanthropus! Visigoth! Anacolouthon! Bashi-bazouk! Ectoplasm! Troglodyte!
    …and see here.

  26. Throbert, I’ve often wondered about the problem of clinical depression in the gay community. Do self-contradictory clinically-depressed gays just disappear in a puff of smoke?

  27. *tries to imagine what would characterise a poof of smoke*

  28. Interesting post.
    My question is, when someone says that a word is offensive to a whole group of people, of whom they are only one member, or not a member at all, what value is an outsider meant to assign to that statement?
    And when you have been hearing a word for years in all sorts of contexts and never thought of it as offensive, eg “homosexual”, and then suddenly someone tells you that it’s only used by homophobics, what value am I meant to assign to that statement?
    Humanity includes a lot of people with bees in their bonnets about particular topics. Just because a person who belongs to a group says that a word has become offensive, does that mean it has become offensive? How many people need to be offended by a word before others should stop using it? If the answer is 1, we are not going to have much of a language left.
    And how about differences across countries? If an American thinks that a word in English has become offensive, does that mean it is so for a non-American English-speaker? Words often have very different connotations – the movie “Free Willy” was associated with a lot of joking in NZ. My favourite was “it’s a movie about boxer shorts”.

  29. michael farris says

    Tracy W, please don’t mention boxer shorts. The subject is deeply hurtful to a number of readers here …

  30. Humanity includes a lot of people with bees in their bonnets about particular topics. Just because a person who belongs to a group says that a word has become offensive, does that mean it has become offensive? How many people need to be offended by a word before others should stop using it?
    Those are good questions, and there are no clear answers. Each of us has to decide for ourself about the gravity of the alleged offense and the validity of the complaint. A lone crackpot can be ignored; a trustworthy acquaintance should be attended to. The vast regions in between need to be navigated with care.

  31. cerebral_but_dull says

    I too run sort of a blog. Today a Niger student posted an entry there and labeled himself “Niger student”. Am I supposed to edit it to say “A student from the African country that lies north of Nigeria? Or can I not use Nigeria either, and must say “African country lying East of Chad but north of another country that sounds like it but ends in ‘ia’. Once you say that ‘niggardly’ is unacceptable all communication is unacceptable.

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