The new obscenities
Posted: 20 December 2013 08:56 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I found this piece by Joseph Bottum in the Weekly Standard Book Review both interesting and amusing, especially in its comments on British reviewers, which I thought bang on target. It’s a review of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr published by OUP.

Here are the introductory paragraphs:

The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them. The real swear words of our time, she notes, are race- and gender-based epithets, which polite society has banned—words that, indeed, almost define polite society by their absence.

And sure enough, the reviewers (especially the British ones) have gleefully put into print all the once-prohibited words they know for fornication and excrement. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, gerunds, even adverbs—all-purpose bits of grammar that seem intended mostly to prove, among the writing classes, that their users want us to admire them for having broken free from the stultifying strictures of the linguistic past. Then, when they reach Mohr’s discussion of racial and sex-preference terms, they suddenly turn into prissy Victorian matrons, clicking their tongues in disapproval. A little euphemism, a lot of typographical gesturing, some elaborate circumlocution—it takes work to review a book about these modern unspeakables and not actually quote them.

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Posted: 21 December 2013 07:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Heh.  That’s great.

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Posted: 22 December 2013 03:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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FWIW, a judge in the UK ruled in the last week that merely to say the word golliwog in the presence of a black person - even in the context of a discussion about commercial packaging - constitutes racial harassment.

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Posted: 08 January 2014 05:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Which must create problems with Claude Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk.
“I will now play a piece by Debussy but I cannot tell you what it is because there is a dark-skinned person sitting in the audience”

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Posted: 10 January 2014 01:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I think that the harm caused by racist epithets becoming taboo is so insignificant compared to the harm caused by them being used in earnest that the former is not worth making a fuss over.

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Posted: 10 January 2014 03:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Fair comment, but it can be puzzling to know what’s currently taboo and what isn’t. A couple of months ago there was a stir in the UK over Sainsbury’s supermarket banning a disabled 73-year-old woman from using their home delivery service allegedly because she described the delivery drive as ‘a coloured gentleman’. Of course Sainsbury’s claimed there was more to the story than that, and no doubt there was, but the fact remains that coloured, which many old people learnt to use as a polite word, is now considered an insulting word. I worry occasionally about my 82-year-old mother-in-law, who, like the lady in the Sainsbury’s incident, uses coloured as a matter of course and isn’t likely to learn to change - I don’t think she could bring herself to call anyone black.

I was perplexed myself the other day in an online discussion of the silly claim that ‘the British Royal Family are black’ which is based on the fact that George III’s Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had a 13th century Moorish ancestress. I wanted to point out that just because that lady was a Moor didn’t necessarily mean that she was black, but because black is so often used in the loose sense ‘not white’, I wasn’t sure how to make my point precisely. I wasn’t confident that everybody in that discussion would have understood what ‘sub-Saharan African’ meant, but equally I wasn’t confident that to say “North Africans aren’t ‘black’ in the sense of ‘negro black’” wouldn’t be howlingly offensive. I was so perplexed that in the end I didn’t post at all. What would have been an appropriate word to use?

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Posted: 10 January 2014 03:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Syntinen Laulu - 10 January 2014 03:10 AM

. What would have been an appropriate word to use?

Troll, probably.

EDIT:

But your story did mind me of a Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch from over 30 years ago, where the senior officer uses the term “coloured gentleman”, apparently as a careful, polite term.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BO8EpfyCG2Y

[ Edited: 10 January 2014 03:31 AM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 10 January 2014 04:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Of course Sainsbury’s claimed there was more to the story than that, and no doubt there was…

In my experience, such omitted elements are the core of the issue. As a practical matter, people make allowances for age. They may be offended and not like it, but they know enough to chalk it up to a speaker having grown up in another era, and if it is nothing more than the use of a now deprecated term, the incident is allowed to pass. (But as a rule, no such passes are given to somewhat younger people, like Paula Deen or Phil Robertson, who came to adulthood in the civil rights era.) I’d bet anything that in the Sainsbury incident the use of coloured is just the soundbite used to characterize a much more overt and aggressive racism on the part of the woman.

What would have been an appropriate word to use?

British? German?

I wouldn’t attempt to replace the one word with another. I’d discuss how such labels are social constructions with no basis in genetic reality. Whatever ethnic conditions prevailed in the thirteenth century are utterly unlike any that prevail today, and to try and apply conditions from eight hundred years ago onto today is a meaningless exercise (not only socially, but also genetically, as after the passage of centuries there is no meaningful genetic contribution from a single ancestor). I’d also point out that calling Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz black raises, perhaps inadvertently, the spectre of the old racist “one drop of blood” rule that was used to classify ethnicity and exclude the other.

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Posted: 10 January 2014 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I can’t help thinking of an episode of the old Incredible Hulk tv series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.  David Banner (in the series, Banner’s first name was David, not Bruce), as part of his on-the-lam incognito wanderings, has taken up residence in a tough neighborhood and is working in a car wash (as I recall, it combines both automatic movement of the cars on a conveyor and manual spot cleaning and detailing as the cars move through).  A local drug dealer wants to eliminate Banner, who has been causing trouble for him, and the dealer or his goons assault Banner in the wash and cause him to get caught in the transport mechanism, where he gets pulled under the drug dealers fancy car and is slowly being crushed to death.  Naturally, he Hulks out, and as I recall it, we see the Hulk burst up through the engine compartment of the car, holding the engine block, which he throws through the wall of the car wash; he then runs off through the hole.

Two black employees of the car wash have watched all this in amazement, and as the green-skinned giant disappears down the street one turns to the other and says, “Now that’s what I call a colored man.”

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Posted: 10 January 2014 12:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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What would have been an appropriate word to use?

I think you did the exact right thing by not engaging. All humans have black ancestors. Discussions of “so and so is really black” are just ignorant.

“The Royal Family is really black.” OK, so what?

[ Edited: 10 January 2014 12:17 PM by happydog ]
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