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Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press
March 5, 2001
Words Mean Things
And What They Don't.
By Jesse Shieldlower

    CLOVIS -- It's official. The University of North Dakota will be featured on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" investigative sports-news program this Sunday. At issue is the Fighting Sioux nickname controversy.
     A few day ago State lawmakers in Idaho rejected a proposal to change place names that include the word "squaw," which some Native Americans believe to be an insult deriving from a vulgarism for female genitalia.
Other states have faced similar challenges; in 1998, for example, Arizona rejected a proposal to rename that state's Squaw Peak, while Gov. Angus King of Maine signed a bill last year to ban the word from two dozen place names.
     Some dictionaries do label squaw as offensive, but that reflects its derogatory usage, not its derivation. In fact, linguists agree that the etymological meaning of the word, a borrowing from the Massachusett language, is simply "woman," with no insulting implications.
      The link to genitalia was promulgated, with no evidence, in a 1973 polemic, and circulated broadly after being mentioned in a 1992 episode of "Oprah." But for those trying to squelch the use of "squaw," it probably wouldn't matter if the word really did have a vulgar background.
      English has a variety of words that are used freely despite etymologies that might give users pause. The verb "gyp," for example, comes from "Gypsy," members of which people (who prefer to be known as Roma) were stereotyped as swindlers. "Poppycock," which seems like the sort of quaint expression a character in a Norman Rockwell painting might use, derives from a Dutch word meaning "soft excrement."
      The juvenile insult "dork" is from a slang term for the penis, as are the Yiddish-derived terms "schmuck" and "putz." The military "snafu" is an acronym often euphemized as "situation normal, all fouled up."
In general, only when someone gets upset are these stealth offensive terms noticed. Thus the outrage in the 1998 New York Senate race when Alfonse M. D'Amato called his opponent, a Jew, a "putzhead." (The insulted party, Charles E. Schumer, won.)
      Conversely, words whose actual origins are truly inoffensive can get the cold shoulder if they sound like words that are viewed as offensive. The tendency to avoid such words has been described by the Yale linguist Larry Horn as a variant of Gresham's Law (bad money driving out good), in which an offensive word drives out an inoffensive word that sounds like it verbal guilt by association.
      Thus in 1999 a Connecticut schoolteacher was reprimanded for employing the saying "When you `assume,' you make an `ass' of `u' and `me,' " though this "ass" is the word for "donkey," used for 500 years (including by Shakespeare and in the King James Bible) as an insulting term for a person, and unrelated to the identically spelled word for the buttocks.
      Most prominently, in 1999, a white mayoral aide in Washington was forced to resign after using the word "niggardly" a Middle English-derived word for stingy in a conversation with a black official who thought it was related to the racist term it sounds like.
      Some words also fall prey to what linguists refer to as the "etymological fallacy," the belief that a word's history has a strong bearing on how it is, or should be, used. Some purists criticize the use of "decimate" to mean "destroy" or "seriously harm," on the grounds that the only proper meaning is "to kill or destroy 1 in 10 of," a sense that has never been used apart from a direct reference to the ancient Roman custom from which it derives.
      These examples have very little to do with the way English is actually used. Most words change their meanings over time without bothering anyone, so we don't now care that "boy" originally meant "servant" (of either sex) or "nice" meant "ignorant, foolish" or that "prestige" meant "a deception."
      Sometimes even when the meaning of a word doesn't shift, its offensiveness can change dramatically. The words "Tory" and "Whig" entered the language as highly opprobrious slurs, but were later adopted by the parties to which they referred.
      More recently, we have seen a variety of disparaging terms adopted with pride, from "fag" and "dyke" by homosexuals, to "crone" and "hag" by members of some neo-pagan groups.
      Guidelines for words' usage are determined not by their history (real or imagined), but by someone who cares one way or the other having the power to convince an audience. Groups that have or gain political power can have an influence on what they are called.
      It's no coincidence that it was in 1967, with the civil rights movement growing, that the United States Board on Geographic Names changed "Nigger" to "Negro" in 143 American place names.
      People continue to use "squaw" in place names because the concerns of Native Americans have not been taken as seriously (which is also why "Redskins" and "Braves" are still used as the names of professional sports teams), not because the word is or is not a vulgarism.
      "Gyp" is in wide use for the same reason, while the similar expression "to jew down" is widely shunned; the people of Wales haven't yet had much success arguing against the use of "welsh" meaning "renege," which in any case is etymologically unconnected to "Welsh."
      A word's "real meaning" according to its etymology may not match the "real meaning" of its context and usage. And in matters of taste, it is the usage the way that we and the words we speak every day exist in the world that is always the deciding factor.

     [Editor's Note: From the Preface to the First Edition of his 1852 Roget's Thesaurus, Peter Roget wrote: "It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded...in the year 1805, I completed a classed catalogue of words...of much use to me in literary composition, and ... might, when amplified, prove useful to others." Click to open a free online interactive digital version of Roget's Thesaurus!]

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