Monday, January 9, 2012

linguistic meshugass

(A version of this article appeared recently in the legal magazine, Lexpert.)

Linguistic mishugass redux


Howard Richler

Recently the Journal of Animal Ethics advised us to refer to our pets as companion animals and to remember that as we are also members of the animal kingdom, we should call our animals “non-human” animals; ergo your pet should really be called a companion non-human animal. We are also advised that the term vermin and pest are politically-incorrect as is the expression “stubborn as a mule,” regardless of the recalcitrance level of the ass. This is reminiscent of some of the preposterous terms proposed by the quasi-oppressed in the late 80s, early 90s. For example, in Language, Gender and Politics, authors Francine Wattman Frank and Paula A. Treichler suggested the addition of the word “ovarimony” to our lexicon to reference statements that women give under oath, because of the supposed etymological link between testimony and testes. This neologism was topped by poet's Betsy Warland suggestion thar "dictionary" should be respelled as “dicktionary,” because DWEMs (Dead White European Males) such as lexicographers James Murray and Samuel Johnson exemplified patriarchal thinking that was controlled by the first four letters of the revised spelling.

I will admit, however, that there is a place for sensitivity in one's choice of words. For those people who find terms such as cerebrally-challenged too euphemistic, I remind them that it wasn’t that long ago that words like “cretin” and even “moron” were used in polite society without compunction. Given a choice, I’d rather be oversensitive than not sensitive enough. Increasingly, “ethnic” verbs such as “to welsh” (to avoid payment); “to gyp”(to cheat) and “to jew” (to bargain) are also avoided. Also, because for some people the suffix -ess denotes inferiority (it's difficult to think of a manageress running a Fortune 500 company), I understand why a female thespian would rather be called an actor than an actress.

But where does it end? Some years ago when I wrote A Bawdy Language: How a Second-Rate Language Slept Its Way to the Top, I included a section on word play where one of the chapters was titled “'Definitions depend on how you split 'em” Here, I featured a puzzle I called “Animal Split Definitives” where words were defined by their constituent parts. Hence, “aspire” was defined as “venom” by breaking up the word into “asp” and “ire”; similarly “heathen” was defined as “barbecued chicken” by dividing the word into “heat” and “hen.” One of the “animal” words I included was “hippocampus” that I defined as “'university for fat people” and my editors wanted me to exclude this definition as they felt is was insensitive to the horizontally-challenged. While normally I'm fairly open to editorial suggestions, in this instance I dug in my heels and after great hesitation the editorial board at my publisher caved into my intransigence and left my definition unedited. ( I'm not sure if my calling their objections “fatuous” helped sway them.)

Must we avoid the word niggardly that means stingy or miserly because someone might associate it with the dreaded N word notwithstanding it having no etymological connection to it? If I say that I find a “penal institution (and pronounce the first word “penile”’) to be barbaric,” I’m sure there’s somebody out there who thinks I have cast aspersions on the practice of circumcision. If I use the word “pithy” will someone feel I’m mocking lispers? Must I avoid the word “judicious” when among Jews, “dyspepsia” when among French-Canadians and “nervous titter” when in the company of women? Must everyone, except white Protestants, avoid “waspish comments?”

The mind boggles.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

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