Springingtiger's Blog

The Trouble With Words

The trouble with words is that either they don’t mean what we thought they meant, they no longer mean what we thought they meant or they mean different things to different people.  As a child I lived in a world where the language we used was constrained not only by the dictionary and grammar , but also very much by convention and good manners.

When I was young, “Negro” was a perfectly acceptable word, Martin Luther King Jr. used it himself to refer to people of African origin, it was neither an insult nor intended to be insulting and then at some point activists decided that the previously unacceptable “Black” was appropriate. At one point “coloured” was an acceptable designation of non-white, but the activists replaced it with “Black” which in turn offended many South Asians, however in some cases the Asian rejection of “Black” (particularly by those who have come to Britain via East Africa) may in itself be racist. There was a time when Gypsy was an acceptable term for many travelling people, but now it seems to have been replaced by Roma, except when replaced by Sinta or Lom or Dom according to the self description of a particular group. Many of these designations are not intended to be insulting, but when used people are offended. Yet they are content in their turn to use derogatory terms like “British”, which at best is appropriate to some peoples of Wales, England and Northern France, and while happily used as a self designation by the English to include their subject neighbours, is offensive to many.

Gender is another minefield, or more particularly the female gender, and is complicated by the lack of agreement on what terms are appropriate. Just as American Blacks may call each other “Nigger” many women call each other “girls”, yet are insulted when a man calls them girls. When talking to a man one can always address him safely as, “Sir” whereas I was once subject to a torrent of abuse for addressing a female customer as  “Madam”, but chaps tend to be less sensitive. Some females dislike being referred to as, “ladies” whereas others prefer the term “ladies” to “women”. Some females can be quite forceful in correcting someone who fails, however inadvertently, to use their preferred term.

There is a horrible modern tendency to eschew good manners and address complete strangers by their first name; worse still some employers insist on compelling their staff to do this in contravention of good manners and good taste.

To some people perhaps these changes in the user of language may seen a minor issue, but to those who have difficulty navigating contemporary society they are a source of serious anxiety. Some of us have serious difficulty in processing other people’s emotions, particularly anger. If I ever notice a female who appears to need assistance I generally try to avoid making eye contact rather than risk causing accidental offence in my speech. I nowadays tend to avoid using people’s names, indeed as far as possible, except in contexts I know to be safe, I avoid speaking unless I am spoken to, and then I prefer strangers not to speak to me because of the initial panic it causes. One can’t help but feel that spoken language is a minefield best avoided, the written word is generally safer although occasionally the preservation of one’s words can be a cause for regret.


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