When does word sensitivity become word oversensitivity?
“Thou will O wall, O sweet and lovely wall
Show me the chink to blink through with mine eyne.” (Midsummer’s Night Dream)
“A city swallowed up by a wide chinke and opening of the earth.” (Philemon Holland’s Pliny’s History of the World, 1601)
My titled question has become a pressing issue even in word games. For example, the New York Times features a daily puzzle called Spelling Bee and one day in September it featured this puzzle format:
In this puzzle you have to thinks of words of four letters or more that contain the center letter which in this case was N. Letters can appear more than once and therefore the word “hiking” is acceptable as well as the word “chunk.” The problematic issue occurred because the word “chink” (that has meant a fissure or rift) for over 700 years was not accepted because it is also a racial slur.
I was curious what people felt about the word’s exclusion and posted this question on Facebook and not surprisingly opinions varied dramatically. Many people felt that the word is virulently racist and even though it also has another innocuos, that it was proper for the puzzle’s creator to have it excluded. On the other hand, many people felt that is was wrong not to include a genuine word and pointed out that it there are several words that could offend people such as “faggot” (it has a sense as a bundle of sticks), “frog” (a derogatory word for someone French), “spade” (a derogatory word for Blacks) and “cracker” (a racist epithet aimed at poor rural Whites. Should all these words be nixed? What about the word “oreo”? It often appears as the answer in crossword puzzles but it is also a term used mockingly to refer to black people who have adopted white middle class values. Should “oreo” therefore be expunged, notwithstanding that this cookie is beloved to many people?
A Chinese-American stated that he had been slandeed by the epithet in the past and found it highly offensive but someone else countered that when it is clearly being used in its original sense that no offense should be taken.
Another person averred that by pretending that a word that goes back to the Middle Ages doesn’t exist amounts to pandering to racists and granting them power they don’t deserve to wield.
This is not the first time that what is sometimes called politically-correct language has caused a furor in word games. For in the inaugural 2019 New York Times crossword puzzle of Jan 1st, the clue for 2 Down “Pitch to the head” ( 6 letters) elicited the answer “beaner.” The word “beaner,” albeit more commonly called “beanball” refers to a pitch where the intention of the pitcher it to hit the head (known colloquially as “bean”) of the hitter. However, the term “beaner” is used more often as a derogatory term for Mexicans or those of Mexican descent (supposedly because of their propensity for eating beans), and as a result crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz received many complaints that he had allowed a racist term to appear. As a result of the kerfuffle, Shortz quickly issued this apology on the newspaper’s website: “I’m very sorry for the distraction about BEANER (2D) in today’s fine puzzle by Gary Cee.” He added that neither he nor digital puzzle editor Joel Fagliano had ever heard the slur before. Shortz lives in New York and I believe that the slur is used more often in the southwest of the USA near the Mexican border.
Let me be clear. I am in favour of being sensitive when we speak. After all, 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 and rightfully so. And in the aforementioned word “chink” I am aware that the word is probably used around 99% in its pejorative sense as opposed to its meaning as a fissure but I’d like to believe that people who are playing this word game are aware that it also has the latter sense.
And where does it end? I would never use the word niggardly even though it means miserly and bears no etymological connection to the N-word. There are several other synonyms I could employ. However, if I disagree vehemently with someone’s opinion, should I avoid stating that I find their argument “fatuous,” if they happen to be even moderately overweight?
The mind boggles.