Belmont Club

It's Only Words

In this video clip Newt Gingrich argues that Chris Matthews does not have the unilateral power to define words. In particular, Gingrich does not believe that “food stamps” is a racist word. Chris Matthews, on the other hand, believes that the word self-evidently means what he thinks it means and that Gingrich is simply evil for not using words in the manner he prescribes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAMLAiYLDS0

But of course Matthews has the power to redefine language. He has a secret license to make any word he likes mean whatever he likes. In fact Fox News reports that the State Department employs a person do exactly that. It’s chief diversity officer — censor librorum — has issued a list of proscribed words. Can you recognize any words that you might have been tempted to use?

Chief Diversity Officer John Robinson penned a column in the department’s latest edition of “State Magazine” advising readers on some rather obscure Ps and Qs.

Robinson ticked off several common phrases and went on to explain why their roots are racially or culturally insensitive. The result was a list of no-nos that could easily result in some tongue-tied U.S. diplomats, particularly in an administration that swaps “war on terror” for “overseas contingency operation” and once shied away from using the word “terrorism.”

For instance, Robinson warned, “hold down the fort” is a potentially insulting reference to American Indian stereotypes. …

He singled out another phrase, “Going Dutch,” as a “negative stereotype portraying the Dutch as cheap.”

And “rule of thumb,” he wrote, can according to women’s activists refer “to an antiquated law, whereby the width of a husband’s thumb was the legal size of a switch or rod allowed to beat his wife.”

Robinson neglected to mention that such a connotation might bring to mind the rule under which Muslims are still allowed to beat their wives. Here for example, is the YouTube guide to wife-beating etiquette and you can  see for yourself. So the rule of thumb is to avoid using the words ‘rule of thumb’. And then one must guard against offending the Irish.

Robinson cited the cautionary tale of Nike rolling out a “Black and Tan” sneaker without realizing the phrase once referred to a group “that committed atrocities against Irish civilians.” Nike later apologized.

“Choose your words thoughtfully,” Robinson wrote. “Now that you know the possible historical context of the above phrases, perhaps you will understand why someone could be offended by their use. Let us agree that language will continue to evolve with continually improving consciousness and respect for others.”

Keep it up Mr. Robinson and soon there’ll be no words at all. What about the word flip-cam?  And boondocks? And gung-ho? What about frog-march? Take it all down, for your work is cut out for you.

George Orwell predicted that the effect of this linguistic wowserism would progressively shrink the dictionary until we could just barely ask someone to pass the salt. Of course that may no longer be necessary once every right minded city has followed the lead of Stockport, Britain where they are now treated as dangerous objects. “Customers will have to ask staff specifically to hand over the shakers if they want to add salt to their meals.”

Orwell described a language called  Newspeak in 1984, “In the novel, it refers to the deliberately impoverished language promoted by the state.” The whole idea behind Newspeak is to make it literally impossible to say anything which the party disapproves of because the word no longer exists.

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be.

The obsession with racism has consigned the word ‘niggardly’ to linguistic death. Any use of this word is now fraught with the greatest danger, no matter what it used to mean in the dictionary.

On January 15, 1999, David Howard, a white aide to Anthony A. Williams, the black mayor of Washington, D.C., used “niggardly” in reference to a budget. This apparently upset one of his black colleagues (identified by Howard as Marshall Brown), who interpreted it as a racial slur and lodged a complaint. As a result, on January 25 Howard tendered his resignation, and Williams accepted it …

Shortly after the Washington incident, another controversy erupted over the use of the word at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. At a February 1999 meeting of the Faculty Senate, Amelia Rideau, a junior English major and vice chairwoman of the Black Student Union told the group how a professor teaching Chaucer had used the word niggardly. She later said she was unaware of the related Washington, D.C. controversy that came to light just the week before. She said the professor continued to use the word even after she told him that she was offended. “I was in tears, shaking,” she told the faculty. “It’s not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid.” …

In late January or early February 2002, a white fourth-grade teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina was formally reprimanded for teaching the word and told to attend sensitivity training The teacher, Stephanie Bell, said she used “niggardly” during a discussion about literary characters. Parent Akwana Walker, who is black, protested the use of the word, saying it offended her because it sounds similar to a racial slur. …

Dennis Boaz, a history teacher, sued the administrators of the Mendocino County Office of Education for defamation. Mr. Boaz, who was bargaining for Ukiah schoolteachers, wrote a letter saying that the “tenor of the negotiation tactics of the district office has become increasingly negative and niggardly.” The response was a memo from one defendant of the lawsuit that implied that Boaz was racist, and a letter cosigned by the other defendant and nine other individuals in the Mendocino County school system stating that Boaz’s comments were “racially charged and show a complete lack of respect and integrity toward Dr. Nash, Ukiah Unified District Superintendent,” who is black.

I think the State Department will find other countries to be frankly astonished by these proscriptions. It has probably never occurred to foreigners in the first place to find offense in the places the State Department’s diversity program detects.

In 1995, years before the incidents in Washington, Wilmington and Madison, The Economist magazine used the word “niggardly” in an article about the impact of computers and productivity: “During the 1980s, when service industries consumed about 85% of the $1 trillion invested in I.T. in the United States, productivity growth averaged a niggardly 0.8% a year.” The Economist later pointed out with amusement that it received a letter from a reader in Boston who thought the word “niggardly” was inappropriate. “Why do we get such letters only from America?” the British magazine commented.

Now ‘niggardly’ will be joined in the linguistic coffin by ‘food stamps’ and ‘Chicago’. People like Chris Matthews really do have the power to redefine the English language. And there is apparently nothing anyone can do about it.


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