Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Watch what you say!

In my writing classes I engage my students in discussions about the inherent discrimination in the English language. You certainly know that we discriminate against people of color with our terms: "blackball", "blackguard", "blackmail and "blacklist" (among many others). This, of course, is opposed to a "white lie" and a "white knight" and so on. Perhaps at lunches today you ordered (the good and white) "Angels Food Cake" instead of (the bad and black) "Devil's Food Cake"! Hey, we're afraid of the dark so why not be afraid of dark skinned-people?

You may also know that we are prejudiced against left-handers: "sinister" meaning "left-handed" in Latin and "adroit" meaning "right" in French. (I always told mom that my left-handed sister Dianne was sinister!) We say someone is "in the right" but others are "out in left field."

Then we have "bachelor" and "spinster" (with its nasty connotation) and "master" and "mistress' serving to prejudice our feelings about gender. Only in 1979 did we stop naming hurricanes after women. And, then there's historical sexist language, as in: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," according to Neal Armstrong upon stepping on the moon.

When we "gyp" someone, of course, we are expressing a prejudice against Gypsies (and probably never even met one)! And it goes on and on, in the most subtle forms.

The bottom line is: we will never be free of prejudice until we stop using language that inherently contains prejudices of which we are unaware! I teach this to a few hundred students every year. But, the message needs to go to a larger audience, not as some PC fad but as a necessary change in the way we use words. Agree?


  1. Wow, I never released the negative connotations about some of these phrases! I will be sure to keep these in mind when writing a monthly newsletter that my team sends to ~3,000 people globally.

  2. Mr Edward hope you follow US English, but I found inconsistent usage of punctuations.

  3. Punctuation gives everyone fits, even teachers! I'll watch my usage from now on. But, we need to rid our language of prejudice first. It's much more dangerous than a comma error.