Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Forbidden Words

Unspeakable: a slur for every letter in the alphabet.

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 at 10:13 AM

In case you missed it, an ESPN editor was fired last weekend for using an ethnic slur in a headline about Jeremy Lin, the point guard for the New York Knicks whose parents are from Taiwan.

The offending headline about Lin's subpar game included the phrase "chink in the armor." Both ESPN and the editor apologized, and Lin said he was moving on.

"I don't think it was on purpose or whatever, but they have apologized and so from my end I don't care anymore," he said.

But like all things Lin, the story had legs.

At lunch on Monday, John Malmo predicted that the "c" word would take its place alongside the "n" word. Outside the realm of hate speech and anonymous rants, such words are considered acceptable only by special dispensation to artists, actors, authors of fiction, and members of the ethnic group in question.

Malmo was not defending the words. As co-founder of the Archer-Malmo advertising agency, he has made a nice living helping clients choose the right words and avoid the wrong ones. He was making a prediction that there would soon be a slew of unspeakable words for every group and practically every letter of the alphabet — a "d" word for Italians, a "k" word for Jews, an "h" word or "r" word for white rural Southerners, and so on. And he noted that this was odd given the anything-goes state of prime-time television and PG-rated movies.

Bearing him out, later that day this news was reported:

"The use of that term is appalling and offensive," Congresswoman Judy Chu said on MSNBC. "The 'c' word is for Asian-Americans like the 'n' word is for African-Americans."

Such controversies are nothing new.

In 1937, in his study The American Language, H.L. Mencken addressed the origins of euphemisms, forbidden words, and ethnic slurs in America.

"The English have relatively few aliens in their midst, and in consequence they have developed nothing comparable to our huge repertory of opprobrious names for them," he wrote.

His list includes several shockers as well as words that have long lost their sting such as canuck (the nickname of the Vancouver professional hockey team), yellow-belly, bootchkey, lime-juicer, squarehead, pretzel, hunk, harp, skibby, goose, buffalo, scowoogian, and herring choker.

"The effects of race antagonism upon language are still to be investigated," he wrote.

Some groups offered guidance to editors.

"If a Jew is convicted of a crime, he should not be called 'a Jewish criminal'; and on the other hand, if a Jew makes a great scientific discovery he should not be called an eminent 'Jewish scientist.'

"The Jews are not the only indignant visitors to American editorial offices. In Chicago in the heyday of Al Capone, the local Italians made such vociferous objection to the use of 'Italian' in identifying gunmen that the newspapers began to use 'Sicilian' instead."

Why Sicilians did not object is not known.

In 1930, The New York Times announced that it would capitalize Negro thereafter, yielding to pleas from what was then called the Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Negro and colored were replaced, in our time, by black and African-American. The latter established a beachhead several years ago and it is now the description of choice for, among others, the state of Tennessee and the U.S. Census Bureau, along with Hispanic as opposed to Latino or Mexican.

Language, like morals, evolves. Mencken gives several humorous examples of 19th-century naughty words such as nerts, pregnant, bitch, stallion, castrate, nipple, prostitute, virgin, syphilis, and even leg. Writers, whatever their station, must be wary of both recklessness and political correctness. In Memphis and Shelby County, we are already in the realm of such awkward characterizations as "majority minority."

Many a reporter has been a click away from sending a story with an offensive word or characterization and not while churning out headlines on the graveyard shift like the unfortunate ESPN editor. Aggregators of the work of others can, with clean hands, make an isolated instance or careless comment go viral.

In a highly entertaining performance of Million Dollar Quartet at the Orpheum last week, the actor portraying Jerry Lee Lewis used the phrase "mother-humpin" or maybe it was "mother-jumpin." Anyway, the intent, if not the enunciation, was clear. But I'm not sure it matters.

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