The Words They Are A-Changin'
I remember my ninety-year-old grandfather sitting at
the round oak table in his house on North Normandie Street, muttering, "I've lived too
long." He would do this after reading a singularly distressing article in the newspaper.
What I suspect he meant was that he had lived the number of years sufficient to clearly
separate in his mind the world he knew in his youth from the one he was presently
I have a few years to go before I reach that point, but
I have grown old enough to begin noticing the first signs of what my grandfather
experienced. For me it has been the gradual changes in the language the media uses to
describe people and events. This became particularly evident during recent news stories
about the women murdered by Spokane's serial killer. Who were these women? Prostitutes,
we were told. Not actual whores, of course, but local women who "worked as prostitutes,"
plying a trade that in the eyes of the law constitutes a crime.
The underlying message in these stories was clear: to
call a woman a "whore" is to demean and insult her, much as calling the child of
unmarried parents a "bastard" is an affront to that individual's self-esteem. (Of course,
calling the serial killer himself a bastard could no doubt be excused.)
Ah! Here was something to ponder. I decided to
momentarily scrutinize the newspeak that insinuates itself daily into my consciousness
from every media conduit I'm attached to. Once I completed this short exercise, I took
paper and pencil to tally what turned up. Here's what I learned:
Whores no longer taint the character of our community
with their strolling commerce. They have been replaced by working women involved in a
"high risk lifestyle."
Vagrants and bums have quietly disappeared, having
morphed a few years back into street people, the homeless, and the "economically
disenfranchised." Former juvenile delinquents are now simply candidates for "special
education" and even the ugly among us appear more acceptable and sympathetic when
viewed as "cosmetically challenged."
In the old days Spokanites used to hang out in
saloons, toss back shots of Red Eye, and gamble. Today we go to the neighborhood lounge,
order a toddy or two, then afterwards enjoy an evening of gaming.
But then I soon brushed up against the mother of all
philological minefields: the choice of words to describe groups in our population that
are less in number than other groups. I hesitate to use the dreaded M-word (minorities)
because that in itself typically signals the cultural baggage handlers to back up the
truck and deliver an extra large load. Having let it slip out, though, I'll add it to
the other chestnuts I'm roasting.
Let's see if I can walk a yard or two into the M-word
lethal maze without losing an arm or leg. We can identify "blacks" in our neighborhood
but not "browns" or "yellows." (I recall President Bush being pilloried for referring
to his grandkids of mixed ancestry as "the little brown ones.")
Blacks are African-Americans but not all blacks,
it seems, enjoy being hyphenated. And while "people of color" will currently pass muster,
"colored people" is definitely out. As for "mulatto" and "pickaninny" these
antiquated words have now become as rare as teddy bear bones.
"Orientals" only appear in old black and white movies
where they portray cunning villains out to destroy the world or rule it. "Asian" is
usually okay, but offensive to some if you refer to a co-worker as "the Asian at work."
Americans of Mexican descent don't seem hung up on
either "Chicano" or Mexican-American, which goes to their credit. (I often wonder if I
took my former Hong Kong boss into a Mexican bar if they would call him a "gringo.")
The whole point to these changes in the language, I am
told, is to avoid words that offend various members of our society and diminish their
self-esteem. If this indeed produces the desired result, who can fault it? However, in
our rush to safeguard the self-esteem of everyone on the planet, we may be abandoning a
few old-fashioned concepts that it would do us well to retain.
Take "shame" for example. Have you ever seen a reporter
hold a microphone up to the mouth of a man or woman found guilty of a heinous crime and
ask, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" No, you probably won't hear that question asked.
Why? Because attaching shame to people's behavior will undoubtedly lower their
self-esteem. And in all likelihood it was low self-esteem that led them to commit a
heinous crime in the first place.
So the times and the words they are
a-changin'. For the better, let's hope. Free from shame and labels that keep any biped
anywhere from having a nice day, we should all lead long and productive lives. As for
me I guess I'll just have to find another soapbox to jump on. Like for instance,
those bugwits among us who insist on saying "rilly" for "really," "twenny" for "twenty"
and "hunnard" for "hundred."
Am I ashamed of myself for wanting to pound this
benighted group of dipwads? No, I don't feel shame anymore. Not for anything I do.
My self-esteem is red-blooded and bulletproof. Rilly. Go figger.
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