I’m worried about the future of language. I need all of the words I can get my hands on. I need them to write stories. I need them to discuss issues and ideas with friends and colleagues. I need them for my own brain’s sake so I can think through all of the things with which I am bombarded and obsessed and intrigued on a daily basis.
But I’m getting nervous about how many words are being quarantined because of how they affect other people. I mean, I certainly don’t see any use for the n-word. I don’t think that word or any other slanderous expression serves any purpose. But how far should we go in cleaning up our linguistic act?
People working for the city of Seattle have been told that the words “citizen” and “brown bag” (as in brown bag lunch) are now off the table because the first leaves out noncitizen legal residents, and the second calls to mind a time when the reference was used to determine whether an African-American person’s skin was light enough to allow the person to be “allowed” into one event or another. I had never even heard of that until now.
And in March 2012, it was reported that the Department of Education in New York would be keeping words like “dinosaur,” “birthday,” and “Halloween” off city issued tests because they could evoke “unpleasant” emotions for people who think that evolution is something you can “choose” to “believe” in, that one’s birth is not something to be celebrated, or that dressing like strawberry shortcake and collecting candy is the devil’s work.
Christmas has become the “winter holidays.” People whose bodies have failed them are now “differently abled.” And people whose brains have failed them are “mentally challenged.”
And what about expressions like “rule of thumb” and “hold down the fort”? Those are being challenged too, as the first refers to spousal and child abuse and the second to protection from who we now correctly refer to as Native Americans. And it’s a good thing that we’re letting those go, right?
Years ago, my dad has asked to me to stop saying "gadzooks." I naively thought it was a cartoony, safe, non-swear word but it instead refers to the nails by which Jesus was crucified. I don’t say "gadzooks" anymore. Ever.
Some of this seems so obvious. Of course, you don’t call someone “colored.” Naturally, “Hook Nose Jew” should be banned. “Retard,” “coon,” “gook,” “halfbreed,” and "wetback" all clearly have to go. (My MacBook is shuddering as I type them, in fact.) They serve no purpose other than to offend.
But what about the words that refer to things or events or phenoms that peripherally and/or contextually offend some but not others, and only based on one’s point of view?
I think it’s sad that there are people who think science is something that can be ignored. Should we really be compounding the issue by not using the language of science? Saying "evolution" is not a means to slandering someone. It’s a means of describing how we came to be.
And if one person doesn’t celebrate a holiday, does that mean no one else can celebrate? That's problematic for me.
What about when it’s governmental? We’re not a Christian country, although many people who live in this country are Christian. I’m a non-practicing Jew, and I love to see a beautiful Christmas tree. I am delighted to be wished a merry Christmas. With all of the tinsel and the snow and the ho ho ho, it feels like a much more secular event or a joyous season of consumerism than a religious holiday.
But there is a separation of church and state, which I am elated about. So does that mean it’s all or nothing? We represent all of the holidays or none of them. It’s an impossible situation. We can’t represent them all. So we have to represent none. Or we have to combine them all. Hence, “winter holidays.”
I think that’s what concerns me the most about all of this. If we lose our language, we lose our ability to differentiate. We lose our ability to discuss. We lose our ability to think about one thing in reference to another.
The question is how to we strike a balance between ridiculousness and kindness. How do we intelligently choose our words without creating an impossible linguistic situation? How do we treat ourselves and one another kindly without eviscerating language to the point of uselessness?