English, Motherfucker! Do You Speak It?

So much fuss over words! And yet, what else do we have if we want to communicate? I am constantly amazed by how often people complain when you expect them to either say what they mean or mean what they say. I am accused of nitpicking if I repeat a word someone used when they don’t want to take responsibility for its actual meaning.

In a comment thread about Sarah Palin, I was upset by the misuse of the word nonplussed. But apparently, usage experts are beginning to acccept its use for the OPPOSITE of its definition. Nonplussed does not mean “nonchalant” or “not bothered!” It means the FUCKING OPPOSITE! Negro, please! It’s like when people think they can use the word “literally” to mean “figuratively.” Or “I could care less” when they mean “I couldn’t care less.”

No no no no no no. Words don’t, and never will, mean the opposite of themselves.

So, back to “Negro.” I was just testing you when I used it. Is it offensive? If so, why? Everyone is up in arms over the Harry Reid quote about Obama, characterizing him as a “light-skinned African American….who   doesn’t use Negro dialect..” I swear to god, I don’t see the racism. Reid was just explaining why Obama was electable as President. He was an early Obama supporter and to me, it sounds merely factual. To many normal people (i.e. not Republicans) Reid’s language was decidely racist, even if forgivable.

John McWhorter, a linguist and journalist who is black, explains why he doesns’t find Reid’s comment racist.   And he is quoted by Andrew Sullivan, who adroitly compares the greater acceptability of light-skinned Blacks to society at large to openly gay men who don’t seem effeminate.

Is it racist to even be aware of race? Do we have to be color-blind in order to escape being accused of racism?

Here’s a disagreement I just had with one of my nephews, who insists that Reid’s language is racist. Years ago, I was mugged on my doorstep by a big Black guy who grabbed my bag, knocked me down, and ran to a waiting car. When recalling the incident that’s exactly how I describe it. Am I racist for noting that the guy was Black? My nephew asked how I’d feel if someone described their mugger as a “big-nosed dirty Jew.” I’m pretty sure I’d laugh, as I am while typing this. Although I guess I’m a little annoyed by the nose reference, which I find size-ist, if not nose-ist.

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40 Responses to “English, Motherfucker! Do You Speak It?”

  1. sarah.p Says:

    THIS IS VERY INTERESTING (I’m too ill to elaborate).

  2. David Duff Says:

    One of the main reasons I keep returning here every day is in the hope that eventually you will write something with which I agree, then, if you can manage to keep it going for, say, 3 days out of a month, I will propose that we run away together and share the rest of our lives!

    I found nothing wrong in Reid’s remarks although there was a deadly barb at the end when he mentioned that Obama did not use Negro dialect “except when he has to”. It takes one pol to recognise the age-old techniques of another pol. Much more amusing, I think, was ‘good ol’ Bill’ telling everyone that a few years back Obama would have been fetching cups of coffee! Still, we must forgive him because he’s an ‘Arkie’ and so the usual rules do not apply – ask ‘JK’.

    I frequently fall foul of the language commissars ‘over here’ and I never tire of telling them that the various nick-names we allot to different groups are usually neutral but the word or words that *precede* them are not!

  3. JK Says:

    Well, was it he or ye who was “nonplussed?”

  4. Make Do Style Says:

    Sister Wolf you are a joy to me in my education on linguistics. I have looked up every word in the dictionary which I attempt to digest correctly in accordance with its meaning. I think figuratively will become my word of the month, in fact (literally) I will correct a person should the occasion arise. (please admonish me over my interjection of literally if needs be-I’m willing to learn)

    The use of Negro is more difficult as the issue in the States is the fact segregation still occurs in the delineation of race – what we don’t understand here in the UK is the fact Obama is Black, we think he is mixed race because he is of white and black parentage. I know for a fact that mixed race is not an option in the states you are either white American or African American – hence the term light skinned.

    The other aspect is you use Jew/Irish/Italian/Catholic etc to also determine ethnicity in a way we don’t here in the UK. I’m not saying we are better for this or more tolerant (although there is some evidence for better tolerance to diversity in UK and less ghettoisation to some extent)

    We have inherited America vocab via music particularly the dominance of hip hop/rap and so I would conclude that every politician has resorted to this dialectic use of language at some point to communicate with those who’ve adopted it as their everyday vocabulary.

    I default to French words often as I like their meaning and bound but I’ve used fuck, cunt and Jesus Christ a lot of late and quite often when I think about duffster trying to run off with you into the sunset

  5. Make Do Style Says:

    PS not bound – sound. Looks like I’ve got a case of palinitis when use the keyboard – merde!

  6. Mandy Calder Says:

    I blame the French myself, have you notice how they always say the opposite to what they mean followed by non? Is that a kind of double negative making a positive kind of thing?

  7. mariya Says:

    Did you see Topshop’s email blast that used “It’s” instead of “Its” in the subject line?! I wasn’t sure where to send my complaint.

    Reid only said what everyone else has been thinking when they say something intentionally soft and vague like that Obama is “relatable” and has “popular appeal”. He talks like us! Weren’t Republicans and Fox accusing him of being a foreign-born jihad-loving Muslim for several years? That’s not racist, I guess, that’s patriotic.

  8. Ann Says:

    Reid’s comment was not racist. Neither was Michael Steele’s “honest injun” comment. People need to stop getting up in arms over supposed race infractions, and start getting pissed about changing word meanings to satisfy an ignorant few. That really does not give me blowjob.

  9. Mr. Shreck Says:

    To your general point, I have gotten to the point where I’ve had to write people out of my life because of the whole “words have no meaning but what I impart to them” mentality. I am routinely able to be friendly with people having radically different views than my own, but a reliable vocabulary for conversation is a must. People who want to redefine words to give themselves an out, well, pie my shinbone. It’s the worst kind of communication killer. I only share abstract expressionist relationships with those with whom I generally empathize. If you want to be adversarial *and* friendly, you better bring a fucking dictionary.

    Yeah. This “negro” thing. RIDICULOUS. As mariya noted, Reid was just saying what everyone else was thinking and/or saying in more or less polite form. Racism and xenophobia *are* widespread in the US. Obama’s moderate skin tone and eloquent speech control were important to his “electability” and broad appeal the same way that Bush’s redneck whitey image was to his. Which one of these facts bothers you more?

    The Republicans are just playing for advantage. Democrats would have done the same thing. What really curdles my keyhole (wonder how many of these I can work in?) is media fucktards (do we need a definition for this word?) drawing a parallel between these comments and Trent Lott’s statements about how if we’d only elected Strom Thurmond president we’d have been so much better off. WTF?!

    Sorry. I love you.

  10. Mr. Shreck Says:

    Oh, I forgot. As a member of the white male dominant class power structure, I am unable to have opinions on such topics. Please disregard my previous comment and carry on.

  11. David Duff Says:

    Mr. Shreck, I must ask you to withdraw those scurrilous and over-familar words of affection towards our hostess – I was here first and she’s mine, all mine, I tell you!

    “I’ve used fuck, cunt and Jesus Christ a lot of late and quite often when I think about duffster”.

    Anyone up on all that word association psycho-babble stuff? I am anxious to parse that phrase by ‘MDS’.

  12. Make Do Style Says:

    Duff – ha ha you’ve misrepresented the sentence. The sentence is meant in the same sense as Campbell’s appearence and utterings drove you up the wall at the hearing today. I feel the same way about your stoic defence of Palin and the American right, so when you suggest anything to do with Sister Wolf on an emotional or sexual level I roll my eyes and internally swear.

    Whilst your comments and views on UK government and other matters have validity because they show real understanding (whether I agree or not – although you were very right about swine flu) I think you really are weak when it comes to an understanding of American culture and political matters. Not dissimilar to anyone who views things and looks upon it from afar. I’m not saying I’m any better either, before you go off on that tract.

    But I wish you luck in your attempts to woe Sister Wolf and there’s some rather nice Wolf jewellery at Wendy Brandes that might help.

  13. Sil Says:

    Come on… all this mess because of words. If someone is black, how are we supose to call that person?? Here in Spain some people think as well that black is racist. By the way, black is negro in spanish, so I would much appreciate if someone could tell me how the fuck should we call them. I don´t give it a despective meaning, so maybe it´s a problem of the meaning people that don´t like this words give them. If I am called white I don´t get angry.
    Oh, by the way, Mr. Duff, after having a look at your post about how fucked Spain is with all this economical stuff (it´s old, I know), I kindly invite you, to drink a glass of Somontano instead of Rioja, wine that is way better.

  14. David Duff Says:

    ‘MDS’,
    “Methinks the lady doth protest too much”. I mean, I know old Freud was as nutty as my old mum’s Sunday fruit cake but when you use, not one, but two sexual words plus a reference to a man who is worshiped by millions (very understandable in this context) whilst thinking about me, well, of course, I do understand, my animal magnetism zips round the ether of the internet at the speed of light and with the power of magnetism. I say, you haven’t been taking sneaky looks at that photo of me in my long Johns, have you? Not that I wouldn’t understand …

    Sil,
    first of all, you very kindly told us you were white *but*, and this is important to establish as early as possible in our new and exciting friendship, you forgot to indicate whether you are a lady or a gentleman! I tremble as I wait.

    In the meantime, and being serious, thank you very much for your information concerning Somontano. I have never heard of it but I just looked it up on Google and it sounds delicious and I intend to try and find some to taste. As for Spain being “fucked”, alas, we’re *all* fucked today – so thank God we have wine like Somontano to cheer us all up.

  15. Mara Says:

    (Wildly off-topic)

    If you need a laugh, head over to Sea of Shoes and check out the hideous new boots Mom of Shoes picked up. They truly defy description, even for that blog. Two words: thigh straps.

  16. hammie Says:

    Okay; I was at the counter of a cafe getting a refund for the coke and iced coffee we had prepaid for 15 minutes before, which had failed to materialize in the hands of one of the 14 year old wait staff…
    AND my nephew was leading my autistic son Boo out the door behind me as I waited for the 15 year old manager to count up on his fingers the right change….

    AND- Boo being autistic and sensory seeking managed to bump another customer waiting behind me as he was lead out. I turned to apologise as the customer said “Don’t be so rude” and Hit my son.

    I blasted seven shades of shit out of the OLD QUEEN telling him my kid was autistic and didn’t mean to bump him but that it was NEVER okay to hit another person’s child EVER!

    My son gave me a hug – as he does, and the 15 year old cafe manager continued to count up on his toes the difference between $9.40 and the 60 cents I had given him so I could have my ten bucks back…

    And we proceeded out of the cafe to my car.

    I hesitated to tell this story to my beloved Imelda-Mike. At least I hesitated over the NEGRO part of the story.

    why? xx

  17. Alicia Says:

    Firstly, Andrew would just LOVE this post. Words, words, words.

    And “negro” isn’t racist; it’s more archaic than anything else. For other people it’s loaded with all sorts of nasty little bigoted bits, so without context or a sense of humor (read: possessing a heightened sensitivity to every-damn-thing), people can get offended. It depends on when you came of age, really.

    And to Sil, in Spain and the Spanish Caribbean, negro is still used widely because it just means black…in America, that isn’t necessarily the case. You may not give negro a despective meaning, but as you probably know, it devolved into that other n-word that is…not so cool to say.

    I’m with Mr. Shreck…light skinned black folks who speak well tend to fare better on a public stage – we all know it and people just don’t want to say it…although I do think Reid would have been better off had he said “ebonics” instead of “negro dialect.”

    Or maybe that would have just been hilarious.

  18. Alicia Says:

    And it seems I forgot to send ” and ” to hug that word “despective.”

    Words…words…words…

  19. TheShoeGirl Says:

    You can’t compare “black guy” with “big-nosed dirty Jew”. I wouldn’t be offended by someone saying “a Jewish guy”. That’s a better comparison. You didn’t say you were mugged by a big-assed dirty black guy…
    I assume that people usually describe others by their race unless they are talking about someone of their own background. An Asian for example would say “this white girl blah blah blah” but not “This Asian girl I know…”

    I had a girl at work ask me if “Jew” was offensive. She asked me very seriously too.
    It went something like,
    “What did you parents think when you met your husband? Were they upset that he wasn’t a Jew… oh- sorry. That’s not right is it? That’s rude, right? What do I say… Jewish?”

    Ummm… really you waspy bitch? Haha.

  20. Shawna Says:

    Wow. Way up here in the frozen north ( Canada), on the west coast to be more specific, the whole concept of what to call a person who is of African descent is so not on the radar. I always thought way to much ridiculous fuss was made about negro not being acceptable when it simple means black, which is acceptable. Anyhow, I was simply excited to read about someone else who even notices, never mind is irritated by the incorrectly used expression, “could care less.” I now know I am not alone in the universe. Thank you.

  21. MoBee Says:

    Now I lay me down to sleep, having been truly titillated pink by Sister Wolf and her bright readers with funny, profound, lovely, and smartly-placed words. A good laugh and a provocative thought at the end of a hard work day…does it get any better?

  22. Aja Says:

    Eh, I don’t know how I feel about it. Lemme think. Like Alicia, I do think “negro” is archaic.

  23. Susan Says:

    Shame things can’t be plain and simple black and white. I blame it on all the shades of grey in between.

  24. kate Says:

    The connotative value of “negro” has shades of terms like “fag,” “dyke,” “honky,” “yid”…more or less. It can be a reclaimed signifier among those who could be otherwise put-down by the word in question, but it just isn’t strong enough a term to make a true statement of judgment, therefore being near-neutral or, yes, simply archaic. At the same time, it is a bit like calling someone a Caucasian…or, worse, a Mongoloid. Creepy Social Darwinist overtones abound. I once noticed that Jane of Sea of Shoes is fond of throwing the term “mongoloid” around to mean goofy or ugly. Yiiiikes.

    So, if “negro” is used sarcastically or to characterize the lingering existence of the word in the American imagination, as in Reid’s case, then…it isn’t totally a case of ugly-Americanism, linguistic Indian-giving, cultural jewing, faggoting bigotry, or crackering up.

  25. Sil Says:

    Mmmm… I´m not sure how to feel about a simple word for me as negro (just a colour) used in that way in USA… what I tried to explain is that here, where we have not too less african illegal inmigrants, some people think that using black to describe them is despective, but if you go to Caribbean countries they use the word. All this politically correct stuff is crap if you cannot just call things with the right word.
    David, my name is Silvia, and I´m a female, at least the last time I was in front of a mirror I was. Somontano is one of the wines produced in Aragon, the region where I come from (yes… jokes about Aragon and Lord of the Rings are welcome)

    Hope you all have a nice day.

  26. Mostly Says:

    This might be of some interest: http://mightygodking.com/index.php/2010/01/13/what-we-have-here-is-a-failure-to-comprehend/#comments

    Certainly one of the calmer examinations of this situation I’ve seen.

  27. Ann Says:

    Hammie’s post made me really angry. Hammie gave me much hope in humanity when I read of her iPhone app for Grace, and then you get a reminder of what shits most people really are when you hear what happened to Boo. Ugh.

  28. David Duff Says:

    Silvia, delightful name and you live in the heart of a wine region – this could be the start of something big – but for God’s sake don’t tell ‘Sister Wolf’ because I promised myself to her. Mind you, I promised myself to the lovely Sarah Palin before her so now I have to wear a bullet-proof vest. Life is very difficult sometimes.

  29. Sil Says:

    Dear David, I could never betray Sister Wolf. If it would only be Sarah Palin we could have a chance, as I have no problem betraying that zorra prepotente (sorry, really unpolite vocabulary used, not want to hurt your british feelings).
    Anyway, there´s as well a nice brewery in my hometown, so I could fulfill all the requirements to become the perfect girl if alcohol facilities counts.
    I´ll visit your blog.
    Silvia

  30. David Duff Says:

    Visit my blog!!!!! For God’s sake be careful. I don’t think I’ve told you about the little ‘Memsahib’, or, ‘the wife’, as she likes to be known. I know, I know, I never told you I was married, did I? But then we men never do!

    And a brewery, as well. Ah, such dreams of what might have been. Story of my life, really!

  31. arline Says:

    Damnit! I just wrote three paragraphs, and went to delete one word, and deleted the whole thing,

    Words are not the only way to communicate, but are the easiest to illustrate a thought or idea, Body language, art, music, dance, communicate in ways that words can’t. Sometimes unspoken communication is more powerful, but to understand it, you have to process more deeply.

    Semantics are important, but it is easy for me to get caught up in them. I definitely agree with you, that words and phrases, should not be used as their opposite. There is a lot in the vernacular, that makes me cringe, and I have to grit my teeth when I hear it.

    Intention, more than anything, can determine whether something is offensive.
    Hate comes across no matter what words a person chooses. Conversely, so does love and good will. That is not to say that words don’t matter, I believe they do.

    I was at the coffee shop tonight, and I overheard a conversation between two people, a male and female, who had different skin colors from each other. The guy was describing someone to the woman. In part of his description, he said “black guy”. The guy was not offensive in his despription, and the woman was not offended. Both of them were laughing and enjoying the conversation with each other.

    People can be very sensitive and make an issue out of anything. How are we supposed to describe certain things?

    If the guy who attacked you happened to be white, you would have said so, I’m sure. I know would have.

    What is the answer??? It is unanswerable.

  32. Jill Says:

    Black vs. big nosed dirty Jew are like comparing apples to oranges.

  33. annemarie Says:

    I hate the word police. I think people should quit getting their knickers into a twist over racist words and instead go after people like those bitches in Philadelphia who didn’t want blank children to swim with their white spawn. I still can’t get over the fact that NOTHING happened over that beyond a bit of mild public outrage. I think they should have been charged and put in prison.

    In South Africa Hate Speech is a crime, but Hate Speech is not some dumb-ass idea of the “politically incorrect.” Rather, it is speech that incites violence. If a distinction like that was to be made here, Harry Reid’s words would not have been reprimanded, but those of the Philadelphia bitches would.

    Re: the first part of your post:
    I no longer know what “random” means. I had an argument with a friend over what it meant (he thought it meant the exact opposite of what I did) and so we went to the OED to get to the bottom of things. Guess what? The OED said we were both right.

  34. annemarie Says:

    i meant BLACK children

  35. fashionherald Says:

    I was a little taken aback by Reid’s negro comment, but I’m more appalled by Hammie’s story. WTF??? Or, in hip-hop speak, Negro, get your f*&king hands off my kid.

  36. fashionherald Says:

    whoops, should have said “rap speak”

  37. hammie Says:

    Don’t worry Ann and FashionH: I had a lovely old screech at the old bastard.

    And BTW: One of my favourite films is Hairspray in which John Travolta doesn’t actually suck.

    I love Negro day. I wish everyday could be Negro Day! xx

  38. Rebecca Says:

    I fucking love this.

    When I was in an English class in college, we were discussing the book “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. A woman in my class kept talking about the “African American” writer… I corrected her (“African”) three times, each receiving a dirtier look than the one before, until I said “Look, he was born in AFRICA– there’s nothing AMERICAN about him”. People are so fucking scared of being politically incorrect that it makes me nauseous.

  39. casE Says:

    i love this and agree whole heartedly. it seems that words are being used incorrectly so much by public figures in many diff. careers…politics..music…keen celebrities that are put on the spot w/a question, then its spread 2 other ppl that believe what the tv says & somehow what was once incorrect is now acceptable due 2 ignorance. yet the “linguists” let it slide so ppl dont 4get about oxfords. [which i hear the most about when some moronic word or phrase had been added] & as 4 harry reid, i feel like he couldn’t have been more “PC” about it. sterotypes are what they are for a reason. & it goes 4 all diff. races,religions,etnicities. streotyping due 2 the way some1 looks is diff. than sterotyping the way someone acts. & this is coming from a garlic snappin guido that talks w/my hands & eats pasta @ least once a week. so salude or 4 u mazel tov [i believe] but either way i’d drink 2 that! great read!

  40. Sidney Gigantino Says:

    Time to start s.3 of madmen with some movie salad. alllll right.

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