Friday, February 12, 2010

HOW DOES A WORD BECOME OFFENSIVE?

I've already told you about how I upset someone by using words I didn't know some people found offensive.

I learned my lesson, but it made me start wondering about something. Here's my thought process.

People that look like Tim (actually, those who looked like Tim's dad) used to be called "Negroes". That was considered a non-offensive term. Then the acceptable word changed to "blacks". Now the acceptable term is "African American".

Yesterday I was watching a baby who is half .... oh gosh, I can never remember ... Japanese, I think. The acceptable term to use in describing him, assuming you didn't know the specific country his family came from, would be "Asian". It used to be "Oriental".

There's a thread on the Sonlight forums right now about the word "retard(ed)". While the point of that thread is about using that word as an insult to people without any mental/medical issues, it's another example of a word that has become offensive. Now we have to say "cognitively delayed" or some other phrase deemed non-offensive.

While I do think it's important to be sensitive to the feelings of particular groups of people and that we should strive to be non-offensive in our language, I think the heart behind the words is significantly more important than the actual words being used. That's why I (a mom who requires her kids to call adults Mr/Mrs Last Name) would much rather hang out with a pleasant kid who sweetly calls me Bethany than a punk who calls me Mrs. Weathersby.

So, when does a previously acceptable word become offensive? What happens there? Why does a word become offensive and need to be replaced? Who determines that? When will the word currently deemed appropriate to describe a set of people suddenly become offensive? How are we supposed to keep track of the changes in acceptable terms?

I'm only referring to words that have been considered polite, professional and/or appropriate at some point and then were deemed offensive.

I'd love to hear your thoughts or knowledge about that process!

Clarification: I'm not particularly interested in whether or not certain words or phrases are offensive or not. My questions are more about changes in language than they are about sensitivities.

10 comments:

Mama in Uganda said...

I find it quite ironic that real Africans find it offensive that black Americans (which is the correct term) call themselves African Americans.

TheBoehme3 said...

Wow, there is SO much that could be discussed on this topic! Referencing the previous comment, do you remember the big mess a couple years back in a U.S. university when a caucasian student, who was also a born-citizen of South Africa, called himself African? I think they actually booted him out of a class because of it! Crazy.

The taboo-ness you're talking about goes not only for words, but for phrases and sayings as well. And there is SO much that could be offensive, that we might have no clue about. I remember learning in college that the phrase "call a spade a spade" is actually rooted in a very offensive slur towards African Americans. Ever since then, I've totally cringed when I hear it.

I totally agree with you, that the heart behind the words is more important than the words themselves. I will even go as far as applying that to swear words. I know, it sounds totally wacko, but I actually do have family from a region of the country that uses swear words in a totally non-offensive-intent sort of way. It's not something I do, or endorse, or would like to hear all the time, but I understand that it's part of their culture and they really mean no harm.

I think you would really love to connect with a friend and mentor of mine, Carol Brazo (she's a FB friend of mine if you ever want to chat). She is a doctor of education, and has a pretty amazing understanding of language as it relates to culture.

Side note - I chuckled at one point reading your post - my mom still says "Oriental" even though she's been to China three times, and lived there for two months...it cracks me up sometimes how un-PC the most cultured, informed, and thoughtful person can be! :) Not that I ever really consider myself PC, ha!

BETHANY said...

Summer - I posted this same stuff on the Sonlight forums tonight and am really enjoying the discussion. I'll have to post the highlights over here later this weekend. In that thread I shared why we say "black" instead of AA,, so I'll be sure to copy that part too. :)

Monique - About the heart behind the words, I think it's hugely important! I think our culture is overly-sensitive and easily offended. Not to say that we shouldn't be discerning in the words we use or accept that some people find certain words, questions, etc offensive, but just that we all can choose to be offended or to let stuff go.

Jessica Rae said...

So my three year old daughter said frick the other day...I'm trying to decide if that's okay. I'm still trying to decide if it offended me or not...though I know exactly where she heard it from. (Gulp) But when I say it, I feel that I'm actually using a "clean" word. When she says it, though it was in the correct context, it sounds wrong.

Jami Sutter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

I think the words become offensive once they are used in a offensive way that becomes a trend, slang or the norm. For example, we all know the word gay is supposed to mean happy, but when it became a slang and a derogatory word used for homosexuals is when it became more offensive. I believe negro became offensive when nigger was used as an insult and now retarded because it is used in a mean and condescending matter. I think my opinion on pc is split right down the middle because on one hand I hate how pc we have to be about EVERYTHING but I also think it is important to not be ignorant as to how words can and do hurt people. I have never liked the word retard because it just sounds mean to me. I have always used mentally handicapped or special. In the end it is usually better to ask the person in question. My friend who is half black and half white refers to herself as mixed. There will always be a chance of offending someone and the offensive word will always evolve so I would hope the heart behind the matter is taken into consideration as well.

Ashley said...

This reminds me of what my inclusions teacher has told our class. She basically said that we shouldn't ever say that a kid "is autistic" or even "is diabetic" but rather "has autism" or "has diabetes". The logic behind it is that by saying a kid IS something, we're labeling them, when in fact that aren't exclusively that thing--they're also American, a boy, a good reader, someone who enjoys movies, etc. Also, we're not supposed to say that someone "has a disability" (and never say he "is handicapped") but rather he "has an exceptionality". (Yet they don't have mental issues, but an "intellectual disability"...) I understand what she's saying, and I certainly don't want to offend anyone or label someone a certain way, but I think it begins to get a little crazy when we have to continually watch what we say so carefully when our hearts are right in the matter, and when it used to be acceptable (or still is, but some people are trying to change it). Also, like you, I too wonder who determines when a word is no longer acceptable. Is it people who have the disabilies (exceptionalities), or is it professors and professionals, or someone else altogether..?

BETHANY said...

Lisa - I agree that the understanding needs to go both ways. Those of us who don't belong to a particular group of people need to be aware of things that they consider offensive. Those who do belong to those groups need to consider the source, not just the words, before getting angry.

Ashley - I get the logic, but I'm betting they don't carry the application through to other parts of life. I mean, I doubt those profs refer to people as "having American citizenship", but just say "he/she's an American". I doubt they say "he/she has strong reading skills", but opt for "he/she's a good reader". It seems to me that attempts to move a pendulum from one extreme have just taken it to another, rather than just finding a middle ground. It's tricky, for sure.

Tamara Thorpe said...

I'm a little late to the party. I stumbled upon your blog while doing some research on curly hair, which I have. Like your family, I am mixed, bi-racial, half black-half white, etc. I am also an intercultural trainer by profession something I'm extremely passionate culture and communication.
So I thought I'd offer my point of view to your question about when acceptable words become offensive.I don't think it is a matter of "when a word becomes offensive" but a matter of when those who are being made reference to gain enough power or voice to inform others that is not what they want to be called. Calling people "negroes" or "orientals" was acceptable within the dominant culture, however, when those groups gained more power they asked to be called something else which they believe more correctly and respectfully identified them. So I think its important to accept a correction with humility and acknowledge or our power and privilege when someone informs us we have offended them.

Thanks for letting me participate.
Tamara Thorpe
www.tntdevelopment.org

BETHANY said...

Tamara - Good point about those being referred to having enough influence to control what they're called. It would be interesting to look at various groups to see who originated the use of the word used to identify them, the group being referred to or another group.