Newspeak Lexicon

PC cartoon brancoPersonally, I do not much care for the prospect of changing the way I refer to things or people when word comes down from the home office of Political Correctness that it’s time for a vocabulary change. I once tried to fall in line, rejecting the generic use of “men,” “man,” and mankind.” I tried my best to find gender-neutral equivalents.

The easiest trick was using “one” instead of “he” when I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind. (“One will find that one nearly always agrees with Price.”) And it’s not too hard to use plurals instead of singulars that are going to entail a singular pronoun later on. (“Readers will find that they love this column.” Instead of “The reader will find that he loves this column.”) I didn’t mind alternating “she” with “he” when I did use a generalizing singular. (“The reader will find that she loves this column.”)

But after a while I decided I’d had enough. The lords of PC made such a big deal out of it, especially in the academic and publishing circles in which I move, that I figured I’d buck the party line and go back to the more classical sounding “the reader… he” and “man-made” usages. When PC fascists try to enforce Newspeak, I have to react. It becomes my duty to defy them. I won’t say their passwords. It reminds me of a favorite Jesus saying from Sufi sources. Satan appears to Jesus and proposes, “Say, ‘God is one.’” Jesus answers, “It is a true saying, but I will not say it at your behest.”  Exactly. Thanks, Jesus. Don’t let the bastards get you (or me) down!

I find other officially approved jargon to be merely mystifying, self-contradictory, and hypocritical. Get this: you can’t call anyone “colored people” (not that I want to; I never have), but you should call them “people of color.” What’s the hell’s the difference? And if you don’t play that game, you are accused of racism. More Newspeak.

But I find it creepy to use pigmentation as a category description at all. I admit, that does smack of racism to me, because it still implies that the color of the skin matters. We know better than to refer to anyone as “darkies” (God forbid!), but I admit, calling folks “blacks” appears equally racist to me. (I’m not saying you’re a racist if you say that; it just hasn’t hit you yet.)

So I welcome the neologism “African Americans.” It revives the short-lived 60s designation “Afro-Americans,” which is just as good. It is properly descriptive. We are used to denominating various other ethnic groups according to their pre-American heritage, and when we do, we speak of “Irish Americans,” “Italian Americans,” etc. That’s fair and not at all contrived. So “African Americans” does not strike me as in the least forced or ideological. A few more syllables, but who cares?

Has it ever occurred to you that racism is implicit whenever you call President Obama “the first black president”? Of course he is actually biracial. If you flip the coin and decide to label him “black,” this seems to me to hark back to the bad old days of classifying mixed-race individuals (as “octoroons,” etc.) according to how much “black blood” they are “polluted” with. If any African blood makes one “black,” it implies African heritage is a taint. But it ain’t. I am not trying to tell anyone what to say or not to say. But this example seems to me to show what a futile exercise it is to try to “purify” language. After a while, you’ve got to make the best of it and use the tools you have, even if they’re nicked or dull.

liberty gaggedCall me a curmudgeon, but I resist and resent the meaning of words getting ideologically redefined. I guess I’d have to call myself an “anti-sexist.” I’m not entitled to the tag “feminist” because apparently you don’t qualify if you’re not pro-abortion or a member of the Democratic Party. Some would even say politically conservative women do not qualify as true women because they do not hold the party-line on “women’s issues.” The same people will say Bill Clinton was “the first black president” because he was liberal, while Dr. Ben Carson is not really “black” because he is a Republican. (Again, “black” is not my preferred usage, but I am commenting here on current, familiar usage.) I have trouble identifying as an atheist because I am not a liberal, and it is generally accepted that “critical thinkers” can only be liberals. Condescending, propagandist nonsense, I say. Boy, stereotypes just ain’t what they used to be!

How about new terms aimed at eliminating sexism? I’ve always hated neologisms like “chairperson” and “spokesperson,” at least when you’re speaking of a particular individual whose gender you know. Why not call her the “chairwoman”? Why not refer to him as your “spokesman”? You wouldn’t have called Frank Sinatra the Chairperson of the Board. He’d have slugged you. But I do kind of like the egalitarian term “Spokeshole,” don’t you?

But calling the police “police officers” instead of “policemen” makes good sense to me. For one thing, it is already an established usage, just an older one. So you don’t have to feel like you just graduated, properly chastened, from a Communist self-criticism camp. And for another, “police officer” has a nice ring of appropriate dignity. The fact that it is gender-inclusive is icing on the cake.

I also like “fire fighters” better than “firemen.” (I think “fire fighter” is British.) Anyway, I remember how, as a little kid, I heard someone refer to “firemen” and thought they meant arsonists! So I appreciate the extra clarity.

I’m not as used to this one yet, but I wouldn’t mind letting go of the familiar “mail man” in favor of the British “letter carrier.” Again, it sounds classier!

By contrast, I remember once hearing a Politically Correct speaker referring to the college janitor as the “gardener.” I cringed. The speaker felt he was showing respect to the guy who does the clean-up and repairs by using a euphemism to cover the “shame” of what he really did. As if the guy were a member of the lowly Hindu Shudra caste, rendered ritually unclean by his menial labor. Hey! What’s wrong with being a janitor? Nothing I can think of. It’s hard, honest, needful work. The speaker was committing the not uncommon Liberal sin of showing contempt for the very people they pretend to favor.

Another one that riles me is “Native Americans.” I was born in America. That makes me a native American. The American Indians were born here, too, and they are equally native with me. Like mine, their ancestors traveled here from another continent. Mine came from Europe, theirs from Asia, across the Bering Strait. If you want to get more authentic than that, you’re talking about buffaloes.

Yes, but these folks are not from India, so why call them “Indians”? Good question. Columbus mistakenly thought he had reached India when he had gotten only as far as the Western Hemisphere. But they are Asian in origin. I say, that’s close enough, especially since anything you called the whole bunch of them would be incorrect anyway. They exist in many and varied tribal identities.

It would be best if eventually we called non-Europeans by labels as specific as “Italian Americans” and “German Americans,” namely “Ute Americans,” “Ashanti Americans,” “Japanese Americans,” “Apache Americans,” etc. That’s what I’m waiting for.

So says Zarathustra.south park pc speech

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4 Responses to Newspeak Lexicon

  1. Gerri D says:

    Hi Robert
    I find your commentary interesting! However, sorry but, yes there is a however. Let me explain I am of the skin colour white, female, live in Australia and was born in Northern Ireland! There are many things that you said that I agree with and there are some that I don’t, a job is a job and yes call it what it is. It seems to me that Americans are obsessed with “labels”, they seem to like to have a classification for everyone! I was born British & Irish and am now an Australian citizen, my children were born here and through the accident of my birth can claim a passport in their birth country and in both the UK and Ireland!!!! So what am I? I am who I am when I hold the passport of that country and I can travel on all 3. So, my citizenship is purely situational and it is nice to be wanted by three countries! I think the use of terms such as Irish-American etc etc etc are so divisive, you are right they are Americans. It is not the words used, but the intent behind them! For many years I was told Irish jokes by the bucket load! It seemed that when someone asked because of my accent I would get inundated, I listened, smiled and did the customary giggle!!! However, all I thought was why did they all think Irish people are just dumb or being judged as not being “bog-Irish” as I could pronounce the “h” instead of saying “tirty tree”? With the advent of “political-correctness” or as I like to call it “being polite” I don’t get them as much anymore and until reading your essay have not given it a thought for years!! Now, I understand my privilege, and I understand that you may not like that term either, but I had an interesting experience with a fellow worker. This worker was an indigenous Australia (first nation/native/aboriginal), we had both a shared history with what could be considered as an invasion force on our birth land ( British) so we both (I think anyway) had an understanding or what it is like to be considered “different” even in the country that you are born in! So our relationship included us calling each other by politically incorrect names! To us they meant nothing we could laugh at the terms and we understand that, but anyone who heard us through that we were rude LOL!! We just understood what it was like to be called something other than what we were and had the experience to rationalise it! To move that onto words that are either male/female I don’t see that as feminism (which I see as eventually not being considered necessary when we are equal as in pay or reproductive rights etc, thank goodness primogeniture has gone away or parents of girls would be leaving their assets to possibly some other parents child)! I see what you are describing as an example of the transitory meaning of words and that they are just evolving into having a different definition as we transform their meaning in today’s society. Consider the word “gender” (not of course meaning male/female, well it depends on whether you consider this a social construct instead of the “sex of” a person), which mentioned in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, means “to copulate” you would “gender” someone!!! I suppose the other thing about words is the spelling, as like you with words, when I see the use of the American ‘z” in words it really gets to me LOL!! I think you are right in so much of what you said it is a pain in the arse! Not ass, cus we use that to mean a “donkey”!!

  2. Ginger Geezer says:

    As an English-man and former post-man (1979-2006), for me the British “letter carrier” is really a throw back to, and echo of Victorian Times. Letters being more important, with several deliveries a day in places like London. A far cry from the computer generated “junk mail” “letters” and advertising leaflets of today. Royal Mail itself is effectively a private company having been sold off by the Government. When I left, PC was the order of the day with management, and we were referred to as “Delivery Staff”. The great British public in its ignorance still uses postman/postwoman, and often the affectionate term “postie(s)”.

  3. Ophis says:

    On your British English:

    “Firemen” tends to be more common here, although there is a bit of a movement towards “firefighters” in the same way as in the US. Mailmen are called postmen (“letter carriers” sounds really weird). And for presumably obvious reasons, we tend not to refer to black people as African Americans.

  4. mdsamuels says:

    As a liberal and Bernie Sanders supporter, I am in firm solidarity with your position on this issue. The matter in academia is so bad now that we have the inmates running the asylums. Children are deciding who to target for expulsion from faculties based on whether or not they think someone’s Halloween costume choice “infringes on a minority culture” so as to constitute a “cultural appropriation”. FFS, they uninvited Richard Dawkins from a science and skeptics seminar over his failure to bow to the PC gods. This is scary. Real scary.

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