- Books, Literature, and Writing»
- The English Language
Words That Offend
Leonso Canales Jr. is a good God-fearing Christian. He owns a flea market in the town of Kingsville, the county seat of Kleberg County, southern Texas. He doesn’t like greeting people by saying “Hello.” It’s the first four letters of the word that gets his ire cranked up.
In 1997, Canales successfully lobbied the Kleberg County commissioners to designate “heaveno” as the county’s official greeting. Interviews from all around the globe followed. Some supported Mr. Canales; for others he became the butt of jokes.
The etymology does not support the notion that “Hello” has any connection to the inferno of damnation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word comes from Old High German roots such as halon, holon “to fetch,” “used especially in hailing a ferryman.” (Of course, the fabled Charon is the ferryman of Hades but that’s a pretty tenuous connection.)
Advice for Mr. Canales; why not spell it “Hullo” in your head when you say it? Or, this being Texas, what’s wrong with “Howdy, Y’all?” Hope there aren’t any ladies called Helen in Kingsville, and I bet the local Red Lobster doesn’t dare list shellfish in its menu. “Waiter! There’s some eggsheaven in my omelette.”
Thou Shall not Use Fancy Words
David Howard’s rich vocabulary cost him his job. In 1999, Mr. Howard was an aide to Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. He said he would be “niggardly” in managing a tight budget.
Gasps of horror spread through city hall, smelling salts were dispensed to those needed reviving. The torches and pitchforks were being readied and Mr. Howard was almost accused of being a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. Life became so hot for the man using a synonym for tight-fisted or stingy that he was forced to resign.
Eventually, it was pointed out that “niggardly” is not a racial epithet and Mr. Howard was hired back.
But, the innocent word has continued to take its toll on those who use it. A month after the Washington furor a professor at the University of Wisconsin used the dread word in a lecture on Chaucer.
Amelia Rideau, a junior English major and vice chairwoman of the Black Student Union blew a gasket. You’d think an English major would have a secure grasp of the language. You’d be wrong to think that. When she heard the terrible utterance she said “I was in tears, shaking.”
Ms. Rideau was so aggrieved that she demanded the university institute a speech code than would banish “n-ardly” from discourse. The university looked into the matter with due solemnity and then thanked Ms. Rideau “for clarifying precisely why the UW - Madison does not need an academic speech code.” Such a code would have a chilling effect on the sacrosanct business of academic freedom.
But, the word keeps on claiming victims. In 2002, a fourth grade teacher in Wilmington, South Carolina got her knuckles rapped for teaching the correct meaning of the word to her class. Stephanie Bell was sent for sensitivity training.
Casualties of War
When the French refused to join George Bush’s ill-conceived attack on Iraq words had to be changed.
Remember Dominique de Villepin? He was the aristocratic French Foreign Minister who, in 2003, gently lectured Washington about the inadvisability of going to war over non-existent weapons of mass destruction. In speaking to the UN Security Council on February 14, 2003 he was remarkably prescient about what invading Iraq might lead to: “let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace. Let us not delude ourselves; this will be long and difficult because it will be necessary to preserve Iraq’s unity and restore stability in a lasting way in a country and region harshly affected by the intrusion of force.”
His eloquence did not go down well in Congress and obviously a strong statement in response was needed; so the cafeterias in the seat of government were ordered to rename French fries as Freedom fries. French toast became Freedom Toast. Patriotic restaurateurs followed the lead. That’ll show them snooty continentals we mean business.
(“Point of information Mr. Speaker; ‘French fries’ probably originated in Belgium where they are called frites.”)
Democrat Barney Frank opposed this bit of nonsense on the grounds it made “Congress look even sillier than it sometimes looks …”
Collateral damage hit the company that makes French’s Mustard. It put out a news release announcing that “For the record, French’s would like to say there is nothing more American than French’s Mustard” referring to its debut at the New York World’s Fair of 1907.
This all harkens back to an earlier time. During World War I the U.S. Committee on Public Information changed sauerkraut to “victory cabbage,” bratwurst was renamed “hotdogs,” and “Salisbury steak” replaced hamburgers.
To Ban or Not to Ban? That is the Question
Hyper-sensitivity to loaded text is threatening some of the greatest works of literature.
Poor old Will Shakespeare frequently comes in for a public pummelling when his Merchant of Venice is performed. Why not change Shylock’s religion? Better still ban the play altogether. And, that’s been done in several school districts.
A group of students at the Jewish Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in east London went further. They refused to sit an examination on the Bard’s works even though they were actually studying The Tempest. The rationale seems to be that if The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic then all Shakespeare’s work is tainted. But, he’s an equal-opportunity bigot; he doesn’t exactly treat Othello, a black Muslim, kindly.
By the reasoning that writers who hold, or held, politically incorrect racist views, then we’d have to toss Roald Dahl, T.S. Eliot, Winston Churchill, Edith Wharton, Dr. Seuss, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, V.S. Naipaul, G.K. Chesterton, Amis’s Martin and Kingsley, and Ezra Pound among others into the shredder. Mostly, their racism has to be fitted into the context of their time.
And, what about Mark Twain? The n word (no, not the niggardly one, the other one) appears 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The work-around here is an expurgated version that replaces the horrifying word with Indian and slave. That seems a bit sacrilegious to the book about which Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
On February 12, 2006, a character on the television series Grey’s Anatomy had gone into labour. Through the contractions she tells a male intern observing the birth canal to “Stop looking at my vajayjay.” The word was picked up by Oprah giving it about as prestigious a seal of approval as possible.
“D.C. Mayor Acted ‘Hastily,’ Will Rehire Aide.” Yolanda Woodlee, Washington Post, February 4, 1999.
“Big Brother Is Listening.” Ethan Bronner, New York Times, April 4, 1999.
“Teacher Reprimanded for Word Choice.” Sherry Jones, Wilmington Star-News, September 4, 2002.
“French Fries to ‘Freedom’ Fries.” Alexandra Silver, Time, March 28, 2011.
“ ‘Freedom Fries’ and the Republican Right’s Faux Solidarity with France.” Joseph A. Palermo, Huffington Post, November 15, 2015.
“French’s Mustard Denies French Connection.” CBC News, March 27, 2003.
“What Did You Call It?” Stephanie Rosenbloom, New York Times, October 28, 2007.
“Robert Fisk: Offended by Shakespeare? Let’s Ban him.” Robert Fisk, The Independent, March 7, 2008.