Please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either.
By Jacque White Kochak
I’ve been thinking about pejoration lately.
I’m glad I haven’t used the word “Oriental” in years, because when I wasn’t looking this innocent word morphed into an offensive term for Asians. I was unaware of this inexorable shift, as I tend to think of Oriental as meaning Eastern.
Occidental has not undergone such a shift, so I was taken by surprise. Fortunately, my consciousness was raised one afternoon as I listened to NPR and an earnest young woman talked about her father’s Chinese restaurant. She made a good case, so I’ll be on my best behavior.
‘But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing.’
Thank heavens, I have long been aware that “wetback” is a totally unacceptable name for Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande without benefit of papers, although in the 1950s, when I was a very young girl, President Dwight David Eisenhower made the inexcusable mistake of including this insulting term in the name of a quasi-military search-and-seizure operation aimed at illegal immigrants (remember “Operation Wetback”?). Umm, make that undocumented aliens. No wait, I forgot, “aliens” is not nice. Undocumented immigrants, that’s it—for now, at least. Apparently Ike missed the memo.
I have to keep up with these things, because as a journalist I’m supposed to know AP style. For the uninitiated, that’s the style preferred by the Associated Press. Knowing AP style is a way to ensure consistency, so the reader isn’t subjected to the annoyance of things like the period that ends a sentence being isolated outside the closing quotation marks. I’m enough of a true believer that I cringe at such an abomination, and AP style says undocumented immigrant is acceptable.
Back to the subject at hand: Missing the memo these days, in the time of Twitter and Facebook, can be a very serious thing. One slip of the tongue, and yours can be a household name in every 50 states. Your mother may be exposed for failing to raise you correctly, and you may lose your reputation, your job, and I suppose even your family.
But see, here’s the thing. Illegal alien and undocumented immigrant mean exactly the same thing. The difference, as you’ll remember from English class, is that “illegal alien” has a negative connotation, or the “idea or feeling that a word evokes,” quite beyond the literal meaning.
The problem is that the connotations of some categories of words tend to pejorate. Pejoration is a linguistics term describing the way some words take on negative or disparaging connotations over time. This isn’t really a random process; certain categories of words tend to pejorate more than others, which to me raises some interesting questions.
‘You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.’
For example, words having to do with women often pejorate. Hussy started life as the perfectly respectable “huswif,” or housewife—but please don’t call me a hussy or I will be very angry. Don’t call me a courtesan, either, although a courtesan once meant nothing more insulting than a lady of the court. You know, like a courtier—but words having to do with men do not have the dismaying habit of slumming around with the riffraff.
A few centuries ago, a wench was a female baby or a young unmarried woman. I don’t think I need to explain “mistress” and “madame,” but you might not realize that a spinster was once a woman who spins. And a tart, in the sense of a prostitute? Tart was probably just a contraction of the innocuous “sweetheart.”
Are you angry yet? Our attitudes are indelibly imprinted upon our language. You can insist that sexism exists only in the perfervid imaginings of a bunch of old feminists, but our language tells a different story.
Words having to do with smells also tend to pejorate, as do words having to do with the bathroom. So that brings me to what I really want to talk about, which is words having to do with ethnic groups and words referring to people with disabilities.
This is perilous territory, and I risk a misstep that will send me into Twitter purgatory. I did my homework, however, and I believe—unless the terminology has already changed—that black and African American are still acceptable. “Negro” not so much, apparently—the Army actually apologized in 2014 for saying the term was tolerable.
I guess Martin Luther King didn’t get the memo when he used the word “Negro” in his moving “I Have a Dream” speech: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free,” he wrote. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Let’s not even talk about the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP). What were they thinking?
Most people are aware of the care needed in referring to different ethnicities, but they’re shaky on words referring to people with disabilities. A “disabled person” or “the disabled” are definite no-nos. You should probably stay away from “mentally ill” (“person with mental-health issues” is better).
‘Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable?’
I’ve kept up well enough to know that “retarded” is no longer acceptable, never mind the fact that The Arc, an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, started out in 1953 as the National Association for Retarded Children. The association’s history of name changes allows us to date with some precision the period when “retarded” pejorated to the point of becoming completely verboten. That would have been the early 1990s, when the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States euphemized into The Arc.
And don’t forget, “handicapped” is really bad.
I could go on with examples all night, but I bet you get my point. In fact, my point is, “What’s the point?” Why keep changing words when the problem is really societal attitudes? I realize I’m on treacherous ground here, but can’t the word police ease up just a little on us old fogies who grew up using terms that are now totally unacceptable? It’s just hard to keep up, you know.
Does changing a word to something less “offensive” really solve anything? Doesn’t it make more sense to work on the entrenched attitudes themselves? If I ever end up in a wheelchair, please—just call me a cripple. I promise I won’t get angry (but stay away from hussy or courtesan).
Even worse, aren’t the sensitive, empathetic, socially conscious ones among us—the people who point out that “Oriental” is really not nice—the ones who are perpetuating this pejoration?
I realize I’m an outlier, but my philosophy has always been that I won’t take offense unless offense is meant. In this era of political correctness and “microaggression,” can’t we all all just lighten up a little bit?