The writer is in the US.
YOU would need to have just arrived from another planet not to know that language in 2023 is a minefield on which increasing numbers of well-intentioned men and women fear to tread.
At a time when progressives are urging us to engage in meaningful conversations about the issues of the day, doing so has never been more problematic, to borrow a term favoured by those on the left who have weaponised language to such a degree that many decent people are afraid to open their mouths, let alone express an opposing viewpoint. Indeed, the left’s takeover of the language must count as one of its greatest accomplishments since the first stirrings of its ascendency during the 1960s and 70s, and a key weapon in its successful rebooting of our cultural norms and civilisational standards.
Using the wrong word or phrase or using language everyone was using until a week ago can land you in a heap of trouble. As a young man growing up in England, I learned that it was no longer acceptable to refer to homosexual men as ‘queer’ and to use ‘gay’ instead. Now the term queer is all the rage. Recently, I was invited by the Catholic institution of higher learning where I teach part-time to participate in the ‘queering’ of the university and to help create a ‘Qmmunity’. I kid you not.
‘Deadnaming’, which Wikipedia defines as ‘the act of referring to a transgender or non-binary person by a name they used prior to transitioning, such as their birth name’, or ‘misgendering’ a person can get you fired or even arrested. Examples of hapless individuals falling afoul of the language police – not to mention the actual police – abound, but I will not waste readers’ time telling them what they already know.
Less well known are examples of speakers using the English language correctly but being called out because they used an innocuous word which sounds like a word now forbidden in polite society. Such words are called homonyms and English seems full of them. This is not a new phenomenon.
On 15 January 1999, David Howard, an adviser to Washington DC Mayor Anthony A Williams, used the word ‘niggardly’ in a speech about the city’s proposed budget. Some of his hearers lodged a complaint, misinterpreting the adjective which is found in the Wycliffe Bible, and was used by Geoffrey Chaucer, as a racial slur. Ten days later Howard tendered his resignation and Mayor Williams accepted it.
Niggardly and the N-word are etymologically unrelated. Niggardly means stingy, miserly, ungenerous; the N-word stems from the Spanish word for black, ‘negro’. Presumably Williams, who is black, was aware of this but let Howard, who is white, die on his sword anyway, political considerations trumping truth and justice, as they so often do.
Largely forgotten today, the fallout was a seminal moment in this nation’s moral and intellectual decline. Williams failed to defend a loyal aide for using a word first recorded in the English language in the fourteenth century. It took Julian Bond, then chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a veteran of the civil rights movement, to inject an element of sanity into the ensuing madness: ‘You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding. David Howard should not have quit. Mayor Williams should bring him back – and order dictionaries issued to all staff who need them.’
Admitting he had acted ‘hastily’, Williams offered Howard his old job back; Howard turned him down. Whether any dictionaries were purchased remains unknown.
One is tempted to ask, where are the Julian Bonds of 2023?
Such misunderstandings when it comes to homonyms are surprisingly common and, given the relentless dumbing down that is taking place throughout the English-speaking world, will become more frequent as we become more stupid and less literate.
David Howard was exonerated and defended by powerful and influential people. But allegations of racism based on the use of a homonym can also destroy your reputation and leave you besmirched for ever, as happened to Doug Adler in 2017.
What was his offence? Adler, a former ranked tennis professional and a commentator for ESPN, described a tactic deployed by Venus Williams, who is black, during a match at the 2017 Australian Open as ‘the guerilla effect’, denoting her aggressive style of play. Some fool with connections to the New York Times thought that Adler called Ms Williams a ‘gorilla’, and the rest is history, literally so for Adler, who was dropped by ESPN and suffered a near-fatal heart attack due to the stress. Despite the catchphrase ‘guerilla tennis’ being used in a series of commercials featuring tennis stars Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in the 1990s, and its usage being widespread, almost no one came to Adler’s defence, certainly none of the giants of tennis who knew better. And he has yet to be fully exonerated.
As someone brought up in the United Kingdom and as a teacher, I am careful in my choice of words. I have learned not to use the term ‘spook’ meaning spy or ghost because it is sometimes used as a racial slur on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Given the assaults on free speech now taking place in the West, it may not seem of great significance that someone gets into trouble for using an innocuous word which sounds like a pejorative term; but it has a chilling effect and adds another weapon to the already extensive arsenal being deployed by the left to undermine our civilisation.