Saturday, December 08, 2007

words

I swear to y'all, I am not being snarky in this post. I know it's going to sound like it, because generally sarcasm oozes from my pores, but I'm NOT, I swear.

My grandma uses the n-word till she catches herself. She was telling a story once, and to describe the woman she was talking about, she said "And she was a nig... a black person." She doesn't mean it offensively, it's just what they called persons of color (POC) in Alabama in the 40's. That's what she learned. Of course, now it's the ultimate in awful things to call POCs, unless one is, of course, black.

POCs founded the United Negro College Fund. Now calling someone a "negro" is offensive.

POCs founded The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Now to call someone colored is offensive.

I think the most recent acceptable term is "person of color." That's why I'm using it. I find the term "African American" to be intellectually dishonest. It's like calling a Native American an Indian. Why, though, is it acceptable to say "person of color" and not "colored person?" Will "person of color" be unacceptable in the future?

The word "retarded" was once used, in a denotatively correct fashion, to describe mentally challenged people. Their mental ability was retarded, so they were called mentally retarded. Now that word is considered offensive, and is generally used as a pejorative term. Although, I suppose, their mental ability isn't retarded as much as it is limited in certain capacities. In any event, that's one term that makes me bristle when used as an insult.

Why is this? Do y'all think it's because words that were once unassuming started being used as insults, making the word itself offensive? Why is it that terms that were once universally accepted are now universally offensive?

8 comments:

Watercolor said...

You may be right. A word gets tagged on a group. The word gets a negative associated meaning from the era. Eventually the group doesn't want a word with a negative meaning used to describe them.

We tend to want to describe people first by their ethnicity. Why is that?

angie. said...

I always believed that they became offensive in the growth of the word being used in a deliberate offensive manner. Look at the word is bitch. A simple word that still means "a female dog" dog, but also means, well, y'all know. It became that way because of the way it was used. It actually had a life from being extremely offensive, to now being in the same league as asshole. Bad word, just not as bad. ya know?

One word I've always been intrigued about is the word "fag". Have you ever looked up that in a dictionary. Us Americans immediately think of it's offensive use, but it has sooo many other meanings that are not offensive.

I'm curious if we will see in our lifetime the evolution of a word going good to bad. Or is there a word that I am totally overlooking? :)

Melinda Barton said...

Well, gay is not considered offensive now, but I think the propensity for people using it derogatively as in "That's so gay." could lead to it being offensive in the future. Only time will tell.

Melinda Barton said...

Oh, Stacey. You must remember that some of the words you mentioned, while universally accepted by the group that created the word were never accepted by the group to whom they referred. I don't know if black people were ever fond of the N-word. Some of these words have become universally offensive because we've come to recognize that words that are offensive to those to whom they refer should be offensive to us all.

Stacey said...

Oh, Melinda. I'm sure black people were never fond of the "n-word." However, my grandma doesn't use it with any venom - in fact, she hardly uses it at all considering she knows it's offensive. It's just what she called them in the 40's, because that's what they were called, and 80 year olds don't drop habits easily.

"Negro" and "colored person," however, were once not offensive, clearly. Now "black" is considered offensive to some, although I don't hear that used in a derogatory fashion, only as a descriptor. I just find the evolution of certain words interesting.

Melinda Barton said...

I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Some words do obviously go from one's that aren't offensive to being offensive b/c (as you pointed out) they're used as insults. That's why I brought up the use of "gay" these days. Then I thought about it (b/c it's an interesting question) and thought a SECOND possible explanation was that the original group didn't like it and we've come to be more respectful of minorities.

I don't think your grandmother's a horrible person. We use words we were taught to use and then later have to unlearn them. Even some other gay people get mad when I use the word dyke. Others love the word.

"Indian" was inaccurate for Native Americans but never really an insult except that people insisted on using an inaccurate word rather than the correct one. (Of course, most Native Americans prefer the name of their tribe rather than N.A. or American Indian or even First Nations.) It seems disrespectful to use a word other than the one people use for themselves, I guess. I personally don't care much.

From the Doghouse said...

It is amazing to stop and watch how words and phrases change over the years. What I said as a kid is nothing like what kids say today, even when the same words are being used.

mayberry said...

I'm just trying to keep up!