October 7th, 2009

Vocabulary Rant: PC edition

I keep wondering if I’ve put some or all of this material on the blog before–certainly, these are some of my pet issues. I should probably point out here that I do *not* think that there are words one cannot or should not say. There is a quotation I heard ages ago that I attribute to Twain though I can’t really find a source, which is about how all words are necessary, because they each express an invaluable shade of meaning, and indeed there are none I’m willing to give up. Definitely, there are shades of meaning I feel I don’t need in my personal conversations (blind rage; misogyny; racial hatred) but would use without hesitation in fiction if that’s who the characters were or what they were feeling.

But at the same time, to get all those shades, I try really hard to know what the word is and where it comes from. There’s stuff floating in the English language that are relics of a less gentle time, when it was more ok to slur the group of your choosing. Now the words are here, somewhat divorced from their histories, and it is up to every speaker to determine what listeners/readers will understand of that history when the words are used. For example:

Welshed/welched means to dishonestly renege on a bet or deal; it is also a way of mocking the people or Wales. Historically, word means exactly what it sounds like: that Welsh people are characteristically untrustworthy and that to refuse to pay up on money owed is to be like the Welsh.

Gypped out of money (or anything else) means cheated or swindled. It also is a slur against people of Romani (Gypsy) origins. Again, the verb probably derives from the ethnic group (it can’t be proven, but I’m not taking the chance), with the understanding that Romani people are dishonest and untrustworthy.

The argument I usually get in favour of using these words is that they are so much a part of English that no one intends, or even thinks, the historical meanings. Which is very well possible, but without the go-ahead vote from each individual Welsh or Romani person who might hear my talking, I am going to leave these words out of my conversational vocabulary. Because another supposedly “de-historicized” slang expression is to jew down the price, ie., to haggle aggressively or unfairly. Which makes me flinch every time I hear it.

To say someone is hysterical means they are paralyzed with an agitated nervous reaction that is out of all proportion to the problem at hand. The word also implies that a negative reaction that is either disproportionate to the matter at hand, or in reaction to something totally imaginary is somehow uniquely a female or feminine, indeed sexually so, as it derives from the Greek word for uterus, hustera.

This is a hard word for me to let go of, though I have a been trying since January. I do both overreact to things and invent problems, so hysteria would see to me my natural state. But in fact, I firmly believe that my being a bit bats is not a sexual problem (nor a gendered one, for those who cut a fine dice). I have seen men overreact like champions.

However, if I am writing fiction, I think I can say whatever I like, incorrect or offensive or blasphemous or whatever, as long is reflects the reality as characters experience it. Plenty of people don’t know these word histories, and would say them without a care, and plenty of people think all sorts of hateful things and would use these words *with* malice–but if I want those people in my stories (I do) then I have to be able to stomach all the words that I imagine they would say. It’s a weird line in the sand to draw, but I feel the only artistically sane one.

Also, I know there other words in this “historically suspect” category, so feel free to share–I bet there are ones I don’t know about.

We be chillin

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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