27 March 2017

What's in a Word? The Importance of Recognizing the Etymology of Words

There have been a number of interesting posts lately about the 'unsavory' history of some everyday words and phrases in a growing discourse which argues that the use of slurs and unsavory language needs to be protected as one's right to freedom of speech.

In perusing social media of late, it's not hard to see how language has changed and the use of racialized, prejudiced, or derogatory language is becoming more common place (for example, see Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui's recent article in the National Observer entitled You know there’s a problem when you get 50,000 anti-Muslim emails in your inbox).

In a recent post, Adeshina Emmanuel explores the background of few phrases that don't typically show up in such reviews, including: No can do, uppity, long time no see, and peanut gallery.

Linguistic Anthropologist Sarah Shulist from MacEwan University has also recently pointed out the issue with arguing for the continued right to use these unsavory words by those in privilege. She argues that negative meanings are particularly potent and their meanings enhanced (read: prioritized, highlighted, understood, or run through conversations as an undercurrent) through their continued use (as slurs, through discussion or analysis...which she admits is what she's doing in her post) in discussion.

As for whether or not the use of slurs should continue under the guise of arguments defending free speech, she writes:
The loss of a few (or even a lot of) words from my repertoire doesn’t really hinder my communicative creativity all that much – it limits me verbally about to the same degree that not being allowed to hit people limits my range of acceptable arm motions. The fact that we strive for ideologies of maximal offensiveness allowed is yet another ugly feature of a structurally racist society.

Quick links and further reading: