Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Makes A Word Offensive?

Just yesterday, I had an email exchange with another fellow over whether the word Negro is offensive. Because it’s the technical anthropological term for one of the three major races of Man, I maintained (and maintain) that it isn’t. Here’s his reply:
Don't play dumb with me, Francis. "Negro" is an offensive term today and you know damn well, why: because it is an unusual word to hear today that invokes and reminds of an offensive time. The time when all black people in this country were referred to as negroes was a time when they were legally second class citizens in many states. By insisting on calling them negroes today you are implying by your choice of language (and you can deny it all you want) that you wish America was back to the age in which it was fine for them to be second class citizens.

As it was clear from the above that the exchange had turned acrimonious, I decided to cut it off. However, anyone who claims to be intellectually honest is required to entertain the possibility that he might be wrong. So I’d appreciate it if the Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch would ring in on the following two questions:

  • What makes a word offensive or insulting?
  • If a word remains in common use, does any opprobrium apply to it because some persons have deemed it offensive?

I’ll add your replies to the bottom of this post.


Here we go:

1. Rick Barcomb suggests:

George Carlin did an x rated rant on words in the 70s. It was called 7 words you can't say on television. If you can get past the vulgarity there is a good message on words there

2. Dan comments thus:

To determine that anyone that uses a word or phrase necessarily means it offensively (even unintentionally) itself as it implies that the listener knows more of the mind of the speaker than the speaker themselves.

It is the height of arrogance and condescension, a level of rudeness that would have rightly been deemed verboten before our culture was feminized to the point that we all must have our minds searching for deeper meanings in the trivial every minute of every day.

There are certain words that are offensive by nature, because they are insults. Negro isn't, broad/dame/chick aren't, and anyone who insists that a word or phrase is offensive because the receiver may take offense is exactly the type of fascist that has no good intentions behind their tantrums.

3. Ron Olson comments thus:

Words aren't offensive by themselves. It's the intent behind the word that is offensive. Time was you could challenge an intent to duel. A proffered insult hidden in innocent language but dripping with sarcasm would not be allowed to stand.

Now terms of grace can be turned to insult with impunity and done often enough by many, use of the word becomes proof of evil intent. Take "lady" as an example.

4. Hans in North Carolina comments thus:

Been thinking about your question in context of an old assertion that our founders never intended our laws to protected men from thought or speech deemed offensive by some.

Perhaps the question for discussion should be: "at what point does a man have legitimate recourse to legal or violent self-defense against the use of language perceived to be offensive or abusive?"

Tentative answer: at the threshold of offense, no; at the threshold of immanent threat, yes.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

5. Conan the Cimmerian, King of Aquilonia comments thus:

Jeff Goldstein at the Protein Wisdom blog has written extensively on this subject (intentionalism).

Words should be judged offensive based upoin the intent of the speaker (or writer) not upon what the observer/audience chooses to create (make up/invent) as an objective of the speaker/writer.

People of color = OK
Colored people = Not OK

Negro/Negroid = not OK
Caucasian/Caucasoid = not OK

Orient/Oriental (based upon a location on a map/cartography/geography) = not OK

East Asian (based upon a location on a map/cartography/geography)= OK.

It is all stupid semantic games.

It should simply be, Does the author/speaker wish to or is trying to insult or not?

6. Keith comments thus:

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” -- George Orwell, 1984

“It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” -- George Orwell, 1984

The Left ceaselessly moves the goalposts when it comes to language, as witness the corruption of many words, e.g., 'gay', 'liberal', 'equality', 'marriage', and, in this example, 'Negro'. Objectively, the word is no more offensive than 'Caucasion' or 'Mongolian'. But the Left seeks to control thought by the process of making certain innocuous words 'politically incorrect', in order to advance their agenda. In my lifetime the words 'Negro', 'colored', 'black', 'people of color', and 'African-American' have all had varying degrees of acceptance. There are probably other words I've missed. It's all about control; one must adhere to the Left's dictates and use whatever term is currently in vogue, or be banished from discourse.

7. Magnus comments thus:

"By insisting on calling them negroes today you are implying by your choice of language (and you can deny it all you want) that you wish America was back to the age in which it was fine for them to be second class citizens."

Simply amazing how he knows your mind better than you do. And you can deny it it all you want! you racist, you.

To answer your questions:

  1. The hearer's insecurity in himself or his group, or the hearers desire to feel or be perceived as morally superior by being offended on behalf of others (whites do this).
  2. No. America has become a nation of whiners and pu**ies, quick to blame their dysfunction on outside influences. My people (white Southerners) are one of the only groups left in America that may be maligned with impunity, but do we hang our heads and whine about not being able to make it in life? No, we were brought up to not play the victim. This constant victim mentality needs to stop. Men don't whine about the word "negro."

8. Walking Horse comments as follows:

Words are just words. Offense is in the complete control of the recipient. There are fighting words, sentences crafted to incite or serve as a precursor to a physical attack. In my book, people are within their rights to respond in kind to fighting words.

9. Adrienne comments as follows:

I think the word offensive is offensive. I was raised with the old saying about sticks and stones.

People need to "man up" and quit all this "I'm offended" crapola.

10. Dystopic comments as follows:

1. There are two answers to this. To the reasonable man, a term which is descriptive is not insulting or offensive. Black, White, Negro, Caucasian are descriptive terms. Insults go beyond the descriptive. Nigger is an insult because it is unnecessary. The unoffensive individual would use a descriptive term, not a shorthand designed to offend.

2. To the unreasonable man, anything that is clear and unambiguous about a protected class is offensive. This is where problems occur. Instead of Black or Negro, they will use African-American. But, eventually, African-America BECOMES unambiguous (i.e. everyone knows what it means). So that term becomes offensive and a new one must be developed. People of Color is the currently favored term. Soon that will be unambiguous and will have to be replaced. The cycle continues.

Clarity of meaning, to unreasonable people, is offensive on its own. Reasonable people, on the other hand, specifically desire clarity of meaning. So conflict is inevitable.

11. Dr. D. Puts it thus:

Count me in with Dan.

The Left is constantly trying to limit our vocabulary, to render us unable to express ourselves. We must resit this; we must fight back.

I insist that any words that were acceptable when I was a child (over 70 years ago) are still acceptable today. I will continue to use any works I would have spoken to my Mother or grandmother, and avoid the rest.

I get called all sorts of names, but that reflects much more on the speaker than it does on me.

12. A fascinating observation from an anonymous commenter:

For whatever light (if any) this sheds on the matter:

The words "Shit", "Piss" and "Fuck" are Germanic Anglo-Saxon words. They were perfectly acceptable for use in the Court of the King. Until that king became William of Normandy, ... from France. Then, the latinate forms "Defecate", "Urinate", and "Fornicate"/"Copulate" were the only polite words for those actions, as they were the words preferred by the Norman nobility. The Germanic-English words were deemed obscene as they were only used by the vulgar Anglo-Saxon lower classes.

The point being that obscenity or offensiveness seems based on two things:

  1. Aversion to or disgust with the actual thing or action that the word refers to, and;
  2. The relative social and political power of those who commonly use the word, versus those who choose to find it offensive or obscene.

In post-Norman-Invasion England, the powerful were the French speaking Norman nobility. In post-America America, the powerful have been in Academia and the Media. Those first shamed into preferring polite "defecate" to vulgar "shit", and into using polite "African-American" as opposed to vulgar "Negro" were, of necessity, those in or aspiring to National Politics, followed by anyone educated by Academia (read everybody who's anybody), and anyone whose opinions were shaped by the media (read everybody).

One thing is different, however. The English language USED TO evolve, with dramatic changes like the Norman Conquest being relatively few and far between. NOW, English no longer evolves. Those in a position to do so breed it, manage it, and forcibly modify it ... for their own purposes.

Those purposes were perfectly explained by Orwell in his novel 1984.

FINALLY: From the comments I've received, the consensus is that a word (or phrase) becomes offensive only if propelled by an intent to insult or wound. That's my own position...but the gentleman with whom I had the exchange I mentioned above -- who deems himself a conservative, by the way -- clearly believes otherwise. Food for thought.

17 comments:

  1. Francis
    George Carlin did an x rated rant on words in the 70s. It was called 7 words you can't say on television. If you can get past the vulgarity there is a good message on words there
    Unluckydog

    ReplyDelete
  2. Francis
    Please refer to the George Carlin routine done in the 70s on words. Its called 7 words you can't say on television. If you can get past the vulgarity its worth a look.

    ReplyDelete
  3. To determine that anyone that uses a word or phrase necessarily means it offensively (even unintentionally) itself as it implies that the listener knows more of the mind of the speaker than the speaker themselves.

    It is the height of arrogance and condescension, a level of rudeness that would have rightly been deemed verboten before our culture was feminized to the point that we all must have our minds searching for deeper meanings in the trivial every minute of every day.

    There are certain words that are offensive by nature, because they are insults. Negro isn't, broad/dame/chick aren't, and anyone who insists that a word or phrase is offensive because the receiver may take offense is exactly the type of fascist that has no good intentions behind their tantrums.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Words aren't offensive by themselves. It's the intent behind the word that is offensive. Time was you could challenge an intent to duel.A proffered insult hidden in innocent language but dripping with sarcasm would not be allowed to stand.
    Now terms of grace can be turned to insult with impunity and done often enough by many, use of the word becomes proof of evil intent. Take "lady"as an example.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Been thinking about your question in context of an old assertion that our founders never intended our laws to protected men from thought or speech deemed offensive by some.

    Perhaps the question for discussion should be: "at what point does a man have legitimate recourse to legal or violent self-defense against the use of language perceived to be offensive or abusive?"

    Tentative answer: at the threshold of offense, no; at the threshold of immanent threat, yes.

    Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

    Hans ... in the NC woods

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jeff Goldstein at the Protein Wisdom blog has written extensively on this subject (intentionalism).

    Words should be judged offensive based upoin the intent of the speaker (or writer) not upon what the observer/audience chooses to create (make up/invent) as an objective of the speaker/writer.

    People of color = OK
    Colored people = Not OK

    Negro/Negroid = not OK
    Caucasian/Caucasoid = not OK

    Orient/Oriental (based upon a location on a map/cartography/geography) = not OK

    East Asian (based upon a location on a map/cartography/geography)= OK.

    It is all stupid semantic games.

    It should simply be, Does the author/speaker wish to or is trying to insult or not?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Not sure if my comment went through.

    If it did, ignore this repost:

    Jeff Goldstein at the Protein Wisdom blog has written extensively on this subject (intentionalism).

    Words should be judged offensive based upoin the intent of the speaker (or writer) not upon what the observer/audience chooses to create (make up/invent) as an objective of the speaker/writer.

    People of color = OK
    Colored people = Not OK

    Negro/Negroid = not OK
    Caucasian/Caucasoid = not OK

    Orient/Oriental (based upon a location on a map/cartography/geography) = not OK

    East Asian (based upon a location on a map/cartography/geography)= OK.

    It is all stupid semantic games.

    It should simply be, Does the author/speaker wish to or is trying to insult or not?

    ReplyDelete
  8. “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
    -- George Orwell, 1984

    “It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
    -- George Orwell, 1984

    The Left ceaselessly moves the goalposts when it comes to language, as witness the corruption of many words, e.g., 'gay', 'liberal', 'equality', 'marriage', and, in this example, 'Negro'. Objectively, the word is no more offensive than 'Caucasion' or 'Mongolian'. But the Left seeks to control thought by the process of making certain innocuous words 'politically incorrect', in order to advance their agenda. In my lifetime the words 'Negro', 'colored', 'black', 'people of color', and 'African-American' have all had varying degrees of acceptance. There are probably other words I've missed. It's all about control; one must adhere to the Left's dictates and use whatever term is currently in vogue, or be banished from discourse.

    -- Keith

    ReplyDelete
  9. "By insisting on calling them negroes today you are implying by your choice of language (and you can deny it all you want) that you wish America was back to the age in which it was fine for them to be second class citizens."

    Simply amazing how he knows your mind better than you do. And you can deny it it all you want! you racist, you.

    To answer your questions:

    1) The hearer's insecurity in himself or his group, or the hearers desire to feel or be perceived as morally superior by being offended on behalf of others (whites do this).

    2) No. America has become a nation of whiners and pu**ies, quick to blame their dysfunction on outside influences. My people (white Southerners) are one of the only groups left in America that may be maligned with impunity, but do we hang our heads and whine about not being able to make it in life? No, we were brought up to not play the victim. This constant victim mentality needs to stop. Men don't whine about the word "negro."

    ReplyDelete
  10. 1. There are two answers to this. To the reasonable man, a term which is descriptive is not insulting or offensive. Black, White, Negro, Caucasian are descriptive terms. Insults go beyond the descriptive. Nigger is an insult because it is unnecessary. The unoffensive individual would use a descriptive term, not a shorthand designed to offend.

    2. To the unreasonable man, anything that is clear and unambiguous about a protected class is offensive. This is where problems occur. Instead of Black or Negro, they will use African-American. But, eventually, African-America BECOMES unambiguous (i.e. everyone knows what it means). So that term becomes offensive and a new one must be developed. People of Color is the currently favored term. Soon that will be unambiguous and will have to be replaced. The cycle continues.

    Clarity of meaning, to unreasonable people, is offensive on its own. Reasonable people, on the other hand, specifically desire clarity of meaning. So conflict is inevitable.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I think the word offensive is offensive. I was raised with the old saying about sticks and stones.

    People need to "man up" and quit all this "I'm offended" crapola.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Words are just words. Offense is in the complete control of the recipient. There are fighting words, sentences crafted to incite or serve as a precursor to a physical attack. In my book, people are within their rights to respond in kind to fighting words.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Words. Those are fresh when spoken, even name the creation. Also condemn and justify. The rest is just recycled waste, yes? Or no.

    Swords, plowshares. Innocent intent. Still shows up somewhere, before and after the fact.

    Sometimes that is just other sounds. Not lawful to broadcast.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Count me in with Dan.

    The Left is constantly trying to limit our vocabulary, to render us unable to express ourselves. We must resit this; we must fight back.

    I insist that any words that were acceptable when I was a child (over 70 years ago) are still acceptable today. I will continue to use any works I would have spoken to my Mother or grandmother, and avoid the rest.

    I get called all sorts of names, but that reflects much more on the speaker than it does on me.

    ReplyDelete
  15. For whatever light (if any) this sheds on the matter:

    The words "Shit", "Piss" and "Fuck" are Germanic Anglo-Saxon words. They were perfectly acceptable for use in the Court of the King. Until that king became William of Normandy, ... from France. Then, the latinate forms "Defecate", "Urinate", and
    "Fornicate"/"Copulate" were the only polite words for those actions, as they were the words preferred by the Norman nobility. The Germanic-English words were deemed obscene as they were only used by the vulgar Anglo-Saxon lower classes.

    The point being that obscenity or offensiveness seems based on two things:
    1. Aversion to or disgust with the actual thing or action that the word refers to, and;
    2. The relative social and political power of those who
    commonly use the word, versus those who choose to find it offensive or obscene.

    In post-Norman-Invasion England, the powerful were the French speaking Norman nobility. In post-America America, the powerful have been in Academia and the Media. Those first shamed into preferring polite
    "defecate" to vulgar "shit", and into using polite "African-American" as opposed to vulgar "Negro" were, of necessity, those in or aspiring to National Politics, followed by anyone educated by Academia (read everybody who's anybody), and anyone whose opinions were shaped by the media (read everybody).

    One thing is different, however. The English language USED TO evolve, with dramatic changes like the Norman Conquest being relatively few and far between. NOW, English no longer evolves. Those in a position to do so breed it, manage it, and forcibly modify it ... for their own purposes.

    Those purposes were perfectly explained by Orwell in his novel 1984.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Well, my friend ...

    What do you conclude from the discussion you generated ?

    Hans ... in the NC woods

    ReplyDelete
  17. Easy, a word becomes offensive when the comms/socs/libs/progs/ comms who control the various forms of the media and education systems decide that it will benefit their agenda for the word to become offensive.

    ReplyDelete

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