Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sensitive Words

It didn't take long for Tony Snow to make the news. Although his understandably emotional remarks related to his cancer got a lot of attention yesterday, his "tar baby" comment got less. But it didn't go unnoticed by the MSM.

Snow was clearly using the word to mean trying to avoid a sticky, no-win situation, a kind of quagmire. But "tar baby" is also a slur used by racists to refer to African-Americans and thus should be avoided.

The fight over the use of the word "niggardly" was an entirely different matter. People not familiar with the meaning of the word added their own interpretation and used it to cudgel a colleague. Over at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, Dick Prince quotes Tony Marcano: ""The n-word, which has been flung in my direction from some of our less evolved fellow citizens, cuts right to the bone. I still get a twinge in the pit of my stomach before I hear the 'dly' at the end of 'niggardly,' so I can understand the sensitivity to the word.
But there's a vast difference between sensitivity and hypersensitivity, just as there's a vast difference between niggardly and the slur..."

We have no shortage of words or phrases that are either intended or interpreted as slurs. But the interpretation ought to belong to the person most likely to be offended by the phrase, not by the majority who want to say, "But I didn't mean anything" or, as in the case of team mascots such as Chief , "It's meant as a compliment".
That said, we don't need to invent a definition and label a word a slur when the history of the word or phrase shows otherwise.

Some other phrases:

Dutch Treat

Indian giver/summer

None of these sites explain why street people are referred to as "balkies" in Connecticut.

Phil Milano has been working for several years at getting people to understand each other by asking and answering questions that are usually not considered acceptable topics in "polite" conversation. That doesn't mean the topics aren't discussed; they just tend to come up in more homogeneous circles.

Random House has developed "OQ," an "offensiveness quotient" designed as a guide to avoiding offense, and a short list of terms.

And then there's the classic SNL word association skit.

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