Showing posts with label language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language. Show all posts

Saturday 15 August 2020

Should the Washington Redskins Be Renamed the Washington Rednecks?

The Washington Redskins' name controversy

Wikipedians have outdone themselves in outlining the multiple aspects and perspectives of the Washington Redskins' name controversy. Personally, I have always interpreted the expression "redskin" as a racist slur. However, despite complaints, protests and a number of court cases, "Redskins" has survived as the name of the Washington NFL team since 1933. Justification and defense of the name include the fact that some Native Americans support its use and even use it themselves as an object of pride. Additionally, the expression's origins are etymologically neutral and only took on negative connotations from the way the locution has been used.


How language evolves

As I've pointed out elsewhere, in the evolution of language, usage trumps definitions and origins. How a word gets used eventually becomes its meaning. "Redskin," particularly as it has been dominantly used in American culture, is an intentional disparagement. Nonetheless, we might ask if "redskin" could be reappropriated as have other insulting epithets over the years. For example, in the art world, the word "impressionist" was understood as a criticism until the painters to whom the disparagement was applied--Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Matisse--began to describe themselves as impressionists. Similarly, words like "Yankee," "Jesuit," "Protestant," and "Suffragette" were originally intended as insults but have been reappropriated as labels to be proud of. In more recent times, members of the LGBT community have begun to self-describe as "queer" and "dyke." Even "gay pride" would have, not so long ago, seemed a contradiction in terms--which, of course, is why the expression exists and is paraded today.

Red skins and black face

As with Blackface (see Blackface and Best Evidence), there is nothing inherently immoral about the expression "redskin." The locution is racist because it has a long history of derogatory usage, and the insult has gone hand-in-hand with the mistreatment and genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Cancel culture

The first defense of "Redskins" to appear in my inbox was a video of a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist  who described the call to change the name as "cancel culture."  Merriam-Webster traces the origin of the expression "cancel culture" to "#MeToo and other movements."  It seems impossible not to notice that the people decrying "cancel culture" are typically privileged communicators:  celebrities, office-holding politicians,  journalists in the mainstream media, established authors, the already famous and affluent in general.  As my guru has pointed out to me, there is a difference between "free" speech and "privileged" speech.  Being a blogger for over seven years now and having written 104 posts which have been viewed 50579 times, I recognize that I am no competition for the Kardasians nor, at the other end of the spectrum, for Desmond Cole who reports that for two of his pieces as a freelance journalist writing for the Toronto Star: "each one had earned well over fifty thousand views"  (Cole, Desmond. The Skin We're In [p. 73]. Doubleday Canada. Kindle Edition).  In short, I appreciate the difference between "free" speech and "privileged" speech.

If you already enjoy some notoriety or you have the support network of a newspaper,  yours is a privileged position.  Whatever you do or say might put that privilege at risk.  Cole was eventually not employed by the Star (you can't be "fired" when you're a freelancer because you do not strictly speaking have a job) ostensibly for (overly?) actively supporting Black Lives Matter in Toronto.  Was his dismissal an example of "cancel culture"?   Or was it just a plain, old-fashioned case of being "let go," "your services are no longer required," "pack up your pencils," "here's your hat, what's your hurry!"?

Reductio ad absurdum

According to the Pulitzer laureate's reductio ad absurdum discourse, "cancel culture" is about hyper-sensitivity and alleged triggers. (Consider Do No Harm.) He goes on to suggest, ironically, that the name "Washington" should be changed because George Washington was a slave owner and a tobacco farmer. He might want to reconsider his irony (see Avoid Irony and What Is Irony?). In my country, Canada, the name and statues of our founding Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, are under attack for his role in establishing residential schools and policies of assimilation of indigenous peoples.

The Washington Rednecks?

The Washington football team will eventually be renamed but no, the new name won't and shouldn't be the "Rednecks."  Such a switch would just be changing one racist epithet for another.  In fact, it could be rightly argued that the name "Washington Rednecks" would be a celebration of racism.  However, the question is an interesting thought experiment.  How many privileged white people would be happy with the choice of the name?  We need look no further than Jeff Foxworthy's early"redneck" jokes to get the gist of the expression's unflattering intentions. (As in:  "You might just be a redneck if you go to your family reunion to pick up women.")

However, the expression "redneck" (like "redskin") seems etymologically neutral.  A white farmer's red neck from a hard day working in the fields might even be considered an icon of pride.  Certainly, many white people have taken on the appellation as an object of pride.

People who are revolted by "cancel culture" and mocking of sensitivity seem to be showing signs of hyper-sensitivity themselves.  Whatever Washington's new name turns out to be, as my guru wisely advises, "It's always better to err on the side of empathy."


Apparently, the leading contender for the new name is the "DC Sentinels"--the same name used for the fictional NFL team in the movie The Replacements.

Sunday 16 February 2014

How to Make Love to a Logophile?

What does it mean when John gives Mary flowers?

For more than a dozen years, I taught an introductory literature course to 60 or so first-year undergraduates, 80% of whom were young women--a number of whom would typically report being interested in questions of love and romance.  Every year in the first class I described the following scenario and asked the class what word they would use to describe this young man’s actions.

John’s eyes always light up when Mary enters the room.  He always talks in a tender, flattering manner to her.  He takes her out to dinner and buys her flowers and small gifts. Etc. Etc.

What is the verb for when a man pursues a woman?

As I presented this hypothetical heterosexual scenario, I could feel Judith Butler and the gender police breathing down my neck, but bear with me. So what do we call what John is doing?  Over the years I noticed a shifting in the tenor of the answers.  The typical mid-90s answer was that he “was cruising,” “on the make,” “hitting on her” and, cutting to the chase, “trying to get laid.”  At the millennium the answers became strident:  “he’s a sexual predator,” and “it’s patriarchal oppression” and “hegemonic domination.”  In more recent years the pendulum swung back slightly and it was typical to hear reported that it’s not about him but them:  “they are friends with benefits” or “they’re dating” or “hooking up.”

Without "wooing" and "courtship" is romance dead?

As I called the room to order, I reminded my students of what they already knew: that the expressions they had given me did not include the correct verb for the scenario I had described.  When pressed, someone would eventually come up with the proper expression:  “to court.”  Eliciting the older and much more English verb “to woo,” even among students who claimed to have read Romeo and Juliet where the lexeme is used a half dozen times, was a much greater challenge.  I eventually asked my students when they had last used the expressions “to court” or “to woo” in conversation.  The point of my questions was to provoke philological reflection on the relationship between language and culture using an example that I knew mattered to a lot of them.  What does it mean that there are no current, earnest words for courtship?  Does this gap in the vernacular prove that romance is no longer part of our daily culture?  The number of advertisements I see for dating and match-making companies and web sites tell me that there is a void in the culture which consumer capitalism has been moving rapidly and vigorously to fill. 

"Making love" before 1920 and after

The scenario I have described used to be called “making love.”  Thanks to Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, we can now date the shift in meaning to what Wharton called the “French sense” of the expression (i.e., having sex) to just before 1920 in the USA.  We might also associate this American shift of mores with the automobile, which F. Scott Fitzgerald likened, in his famous essay on the 1920s, to a bedroom on wheels.

"Making love" in the 19th century

It would be perfectly reasonable for us to imagine a conversation between two men in the 19th century in which one mentions fairly casually to the other, “I noticed you making love to my sister last night.”  Modern readers are likely to misinterpret Algernon’s meaning when he tells Jack, in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain.” Not a very nice sentiment, but not quite as bad as it sounds. “To make love” in this context means to display the courtship rituals I have described above; it does not mean to copulate.

"The Rules" for making love

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the earliest usage of “to court” meaning “to pay amorous attention or make love” as 1580.  The OED dates the Old English verb “to woo” as 1050.  Oddly, the OED describes “to woo” as “Now somewhat homely” but contradicts itself by adding “also poetic.”  (Much as we might love the OED--and I do--we should remember that the original version was significantly compiled by a homicidal maniac confined to a lunatic asylum.  See:  The Professor and the Madman.) “To court” is also a problematic expression because of its elitism since it explicitly refers to what goes on in the royal court and more specifically what went on in the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine where the rules of “courtly love” were first written.  The rest of us peasants and plebeians were to get by in whatever way we could, clubbing women over the heads in Neanderthal fashion and dragging them off to our caves I suppose.  I feel like the Grinch in saying so, but a lot of the behaviours which people today point to as evidence of “true love” are the remnants of the rules of “courtly love” codified in the 11th century under the supervision of Queen Eleanor and her daughter.  Over the last 30 years,  Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have turned their version of The Rules of “courtly love” into a not-so-cottage industry.  

Making love to a logophile 

Oh yes, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post:  a “logophile” is a lover of words, so the answer is almost redundant-- with words!

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine  I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic .   It came up again more r...