Through semantic change, normal words become pejoratives & slurs. The real problem is often a discomfort with the situation.
Local entrepreneur and civic leader Alfred Lamson died some years back, and I still miss him. He was a force of personality to be reckoned with. He was highly successful in both business and philanthropy, and was involved in the creation and expansion of numerous local fixtures.
For instance, he single-handedly got the moribund University foundation up and running in the 1980’s, even though he was not an alumnus. He went out and raised the money to grow the Foundation from a couple hundred thousand dollars, to over $10M. That drew attention from all of the state’s universities, public and private, and I suspect that some of the fragile, but growing focus on academics in Louisiana can be traced back to him.
Alfred was also quite the raconteur, and he was often the butt of his humorous stories. He once related to me how he was in Chicago in the 1970’s and needed a haircut. The hotel hosted a hair cutting service right in the lobby.
But it wasn’t a barber shop. It one of those brand new places that cut hair for both men and women. Alfred was old-school on many topics, and he wasn’t sure of what to make of it. But he was usually game for new experiences, so he thought he’d try it.
Then they gave him a woman to cut his hair.
A black woman, at that.
“I wasn’t always black.”
That doesn’t seem unusual today, but you have to imagine how new this all was in the 1970’s. Anyway, Alfred decides he’ll give that a try, too, and slips into the chair. As she begins working on his hair, his uneasiness finally gets the best of him and he says, “You know, I’ve never had a black person cut my hair hair before.”
She replies, “Don’t worry about that. I wasn’t always black.”
Alfred sits stunned for a moment. His curiousity finally gets the better of him, and he asks her what she meant. “Oh,” she says, “until just recently I was a negro.” After he stopped laughing, they got along famously.
Racial Slurs and Pejorativies
For those of us who lived through the ’60’s and ’70’s, we remember a lot of struggling over vernacular. ‘Negro’ was the polite term for much of the 20th century, and even though today it doesn’t exactly a slur, it is definitely passé. For a while, ‘Afro-American’ appeared, and then fell out of favor. I can remember ‘black’ was edging in with other slurs at one point, and ‘African American’ also lurched in and out of favor, sometimes counting among pejoratives, other times not. Both of these persisted, however, and not only do not count as slurs, but have become quite acceptable.
Of course, we also have the ‘N’ word, which is among the most objectionable slurs in American English. The F-bomb and the monosyllable1)I have a fascinating two-volume Dictionary of Slang, and one day I came across an overwhelming number of vulgar terms for the male genitalia, most of which I had never heard of, and I was a sailor in the US Navy. Curious, I tried to find a similar listing for the female pudenda, and couldn’t find anything. After much searching, I finally found that apparently the ‘c-word’ was so offensive that synonyms for it were listed under the unhelpful euphemism, ‘the monosyllable.’ are certainly rude, but they don’t attract the media attention, or the legal reaction, as does the ‘N’ word. Which is interesting, because that slur is simply a harsh Southern variation of ‘negro.’ Interestingly, today it is still allowed in one single instance, in the title of one of Joseph Conrad’s novels. I don’t know how English teachers announce that the class is going to read it. I would imagine that it is left off of a lot of syllabi for precisely that reason.
My point is that we struggle with certain words, and semantic change. We have gone through a series of terms for the differently-abled, as earlier terms such as crippled, handicapped, disabled, impaired and physically challenged have been tried, and some of which became pejoratives. We have also seen this in other areas. I noted that my father’s generation were Syrian, until Danny Thomas appeared and we all converted to Lebanese. Some Iranian immigrants call themselves Persian. There are examples of semantic change in medicine as well; we no longer speak of mongolism, but ‘Down’s syndrome,’ and leprosy is now called ‘Hansen’s disease.’
Another interesting example of semantic change involves an inanimate object, the bathroom or the commode. The change in terminologies here is dizzying: latrine, toilet, lavatory, water closet, restroom, outhouse (which was originally any shed), can, head, john, potty, privy, water closet/W.C., washroom, comfort station, gentlemen’s/ladies’ room, little boy’s/girl’s room, powder room. All of these are now pejoratives, or at least impolite. And of course, there is the pejorative derived from an early promoter of the modern appliance, Thomas Crapper, which became a complete no-no.
In these we see that rapid semantic change appears to reflect a discomfort with the situation. The words become pejoratives, and so they will continue to change until the discomfort is gone. Black and African American seem to be stable, perhaps permanent, doubtless due to the success of people such as Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Barrack Obama and Ben Carson, and no shortage of successful black businessmen and other celebrities. Hansen’s disease has almost disappeared from the advanced countries, and Down’s syndrome has become more acceptable to the general public, and so those may stabilize and avoid becoming pejoratives.
My point here is simply that when we see frequent semantic change, it often reflects a discomfort with the situation. Any words attributed to the situation will also take on the aspect of a pejorative or even a slur, until the discomfort is resolved. Think of it as blaming the messenger.
And his vocabulary.
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Outhouse courtesy of Charles Knowles via Flickr.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||I have a fascinating two-volume Dictionary of Slang, and one day I came across an overwhelming number of vulgar terms for the male genitalia, most of which I had never heard of, and I was a sailor in the US Navy. Curious, I tried to find a similar listing for the female pudenda, and couldn’t find anything. After much searching, I finally found that apparently the ‘c-word’ was so offensive that synonyms for it were listed under the unhelpful euphemism, ‘the monosyllable.’|