I’ve always been interested in the origin of words and how their meanings and relevance change over time. In some cases, the metamorphosis is subtle, sometimes dramatic.
For example, the word “awful” originally referred to something that was “full of awe” or “inspiring.” Today, based on common usage, it infers the opposite. Sometimes words are appropriated by individual groups of people and the original meaning becomes obsolete, less frequently used or avoided altogether for fear of mis-identifying someone, such as the word “gay.” In other cases, the overuse of a word, such as “racist,” now often used to silence someone with whom we disagree, can lose its meaning altogether.
In today’s hypersensitive society, words are more beleaguered than ever and expressing yourself in a way that won’t inadvertently offend someone or be misconstrued presents an even greater challenge. Sometimes the smallest transgression can ruin careers and destroy reputations.
A perfect illustration of this occurred in January 2000. In a Q & A column entitled The Straight Dope, the author, Cecil Adams, was asked about the appropriateness of the word “niggardly” by a reader who assumed it was a disparagement derived from the infamous N-word.
Adams reassured him that the word, which, by definition, means “stingy” to “miserly,” predated the racial epithet by at least a couple hundred years and is most likely of Scandinavian origin. In truth, the first printed use of the word may have appeared in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th century English poet.
This fact, however, didn’t save the reputation of David Howard, the head of the Office of Public Advocate for D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, who made the national news for using the term to describe the way he was administering a particular city fund. He was eventually forced to resign for apparently being more literate than the members of his staff who overheard the remark. According to columnist Tony Snow, Howard was eventually forced to apologize for his staff’s “ignorance.”
In a similar way, the names of many well-known products have been attacked and ultimately retired, because they were perceived as racially stereotypic — household stables like Uncle Ben’s Rice and Eskimo Pies. Most recently, Trader Joe’s was taken to task for branding its products based on their ethnic origins — for example, Trader Jose’s, Trader Giotto’s, and Trader Ming’s. Based on customer feedback, however, it appears that since the retailer’s clientele is not offended by what the company describes as a “fun” approach to product marketing, these names will continue, at least for now, to pay homage to their ethnic origins.
In a co-authored article entitled “A Modest Proposal for a Name Change,” Sergiu Klainerman, a mathematics professor at Princeton and his colleague John Londregan, a professor of politics and international affairs, examine the organized effort underway to erase the “symbols and exemplars of American society” which, in their view, have become the target of an “unprecedented iconoclastic purge.” Their own university, in obedience to this movement, decided to change the name of its Woodrow Wilson School because the president, after whom it was named, held views that, by today’s standards, are considered racist. In response to this new litmus test, Klainerman and Londregan suggest that, based on today’s cancel culture standards, the Democrat Party should change its name since its origins (in the American South) were rooted in “slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, poll taxes and literacy tests for voting.”
As we depopulate our American lexicon with words and names that are deemed to be ethnically insensitive or stereotypic, we should remember that by doing so we are self-segregating and, in some cases, homogenizing our country while, ironically, still praising its cultural diversity. We commit the same sort of offense when we shame people for so-called “cultural appropriation” based on how they dress or wear their hair. What happened to the proposition that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?
As we navigate our way through these perilous times, when factions in this country are creating a new era of civil unrest by stirring the swill of hatred, polarizing our politics, pitting neighbor against neighbor, defining people by the color of their skin with little or no regard for who they are as human beings, and sacrificing free speech to the whims of political correctness, we should never disregard the ballast that stabilizes this ship of state — what a study, by the international research initiative More in Common, describes as the “exhausted majority.”
These are Americans who “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation.” They are the critical observers in this era of excesses, where the declaration of “God bless you” is viewed as an anti-Islamic microaggression and where the use of small chairs in preschools is deemed to be sexist, problematic and disempowering.
In the words of Fredrick Douglass, a former slave, abolitionist and stateman who was once denied the right to speak his mind, “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”