As I have mused in many earlier posts, offensiveness is not easily defined and what makes a word or phrase offensive to some, or all, is not easily reckoned. By way of further example, I offer three sorts of objections to verbal expressions that someone, somewhere, has found offensive and ask whether they can assist you in constructing a guide for cleaning up our lexicon.
Nasty Words (from the Five-Letter Brood)
As most readers likely know, in January The New York Times bought Wordle, an online game in which players are given six chances to uncover a hidden five-letter word. Shortly after the purchase, the Times dropped a few offensive words from the pool of eligible words, including these: slave, bitch, wench, sluts, whore, lynch, and pussy, and announced that the pruning is not complete (other words that have fallen: darky, gooks, spics, and coons). Four-letter and six-letter offensiveness is safe from the Wordle ban.
It also banned a few words for being “archaic,” including agora and harry, and for posing spelling difficulties, either because the words are British variants (e.g., fibre) or confusingly close to other words (e.g., pupal). One word, fetus, was dropped in May, because it would have appeared coincidentally with the leak of the Dobbs draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, and the Times seeks to avoid having users mistake Wordle as a shill for news reporting.
Now go back and look at the list of removed offensive words. They are gone not because of how they are used in a particular phrase but presumably because the most common understanding of each accords with a public consensus that the word is vulgar, transgresses the norms of polite society, or is associated with an intent when communicated to demean particular people. Devoid of use, these words fall because of how the Times staff believes people will assign meaning to them.
Is it a problem to drop these words? Well, it’s not as if the words are disappearing from use, or the dictionary, or anyone’s writing. It’s a game, for fuck’s sake (italicized five-letter word not yet banned). This way, it’s a friendlier game, isn’t it, and besides, it’s their game, and who cares? I mean, Jesus.
A Grammatical Cock-Up
I raise a point of privilege, having nothing to do with white privilege. I write to denounce—not a defined class of people objectively identifiable from an immutable characteristic but—a nationally televised moment unrelated to race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc.. It sullied the Super Bowl. The Superbowl, for G-d’s sake. (Yes, people take offense at the spelling.) You may think my objection is mere piffle, since I’m pointing to something only a longtime writing teacher might justifiably take umbrage at, even though everyone should decry it—namely, the airing of a commercial during the Super Bowl 2022 broadcast, in which in the first few seconds Salma Hayek (Salma Hayek!), playing opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger (Arnold!), committed a grotesque solecism touting the snazzy BMW iX. Tremble at the unveiling:
“It is time for Zeus and I to retire.”
Offensive? Insulting? Exasperating? Sad? Reprehensible? Dispiriting? Pathetic? All of the above.
A whole generation of American schoolchildren irretrievably corrupted. Taught to ignore one of the few basic, incontrovertible rules of English grammar. Generation Z and their successors doomed to . . . Oh, good Lord, was I just about to impute fault to a whole class of people defined by an immutable characteristic? How sick is that?
It wasn’t Arnold’s fault: he didn’t say it (perhaps, being gentlemanly, he didn’t jump up and down to object or correct Salma, though as a former governor of California he should have done so, of course, to keep his population grammatically correct and to showcase his disdain for offenses against our language). I suppose it might have been Salma’s fault. She did say it, after all. But still, she’s an actor, trained to speak lines. And it could easily have been reshot when the hotshots who made it reviewed the rushes.
I’m not just being oafish, mistakenly calling out others for errors that aren’t errors or for misconstruing their points. This rule is ironclad no matter how often it’s broken on television. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve heard actors on NBC’s NCIS muff it. This blooper has made cameo appearances on many other shows as well. (Send me a self-addressed stamped envelope if you want more.)
And lest you think I’m being the typical overzealous, persnickety, even foolish didact trying to stifle American creativity, try it yourself in the simplified version (dropping Zeus from the line): “It is time for I to retire.” You wouldn’t say that. Nobody would.
If it was just some silly entertainment show, perhaps I’d let it slip by. But this was the Super Bowl. Serious AF watching. This show had an audience, an immense congregation of acolytes. BMW paid a lot of money to a fancy ad agency to do it right. And the agency failed its client. Now we will all think of BMW as the car company that doesn’t know any better. BMW, the company that doesn’t care. BMW, wannabe elegance.
Memo to Goodby Silverstein & Partners, BMW’s “lead U.S. creative [advertising} agency,” which, according to the company’s blog, “conceived” the ad:
Cancel your fuck’n copywriter.
The Logic of the List
So far, then, the claims are that (1) some words are just inherently offensive but won’t be missed in a mere game, and (2) some ad copy betrays an insulting lack of professionalism despite the obscene fee paid to its expert creators.
Then there’s a third category: words and expressions which, as used, are beyond the pale. Some atrocities are so well-known that they go by pseudonyms, their real names too awful even to pronounce; hence, the N-word. But some hunters of offensiveness range much farther afield, compiling collections of words that nobody knows are offensive until they explain why you should be outraged.
I invite your attention to one such list posted in January by the Information Technology Department of the University of Washington. It consists of two sublists: the first encompasses “IT-specific words and phrases”; the second, problematic words from all over.
The IT-specific word list is a single category. The problematic list has four parts: (1) race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, native/indigenous identity; (2) disability and ableism; (3) ageism; and (4) gender and sexual orientation. Let’s look at one example from each. (You can look at all of them by visiting the single list; click above.)
An IT-Specific Offensive Phrase: “Mob Programming”
Says the UW-IT List: “Mob programming (informally mobbing) is a software development approach where the whole team works on the same thing, at the same time, in the same space, and on the same computer.” The phrase is problematic, the List explains, because “historically, the use of ‘mob’ has a racial component and has been used derogatorily and in a negative way. This sentence, highlighted on the IT website, points to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which, however, contains no such suggestion. According to this etymology source, “mob” derives from words denoting the “common mass of people,” the “multitude,” a shortening of “mobility.” Oxford Reference says it traces to a disorderly crowd of people. Hard to find a specific racial component in that. The root objection seems to be that if a word or phrase has ever been used in a bad way by anyone referring to a particular group it can no longer be used in any way.
Race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, native/indigenous identity offensive word: “Guru”
The UW-IT List says the word guru is problematic because it is “culturally appropriative” and because in “tech job descriptions,” guru “can be perceived as more masculine and therefore discourage some groups from applying. These words also don’t identify exactly what qualities and qualifications are being sought.” This explanation may strike you as a bit forced—that the word is a non-self-validating fuzzy term, not native to English, with masculine overtones. The List defines a guru as “a person who excels in a particular skill or activity.” In other words, an expert or specialist. Merriam-Webster provides more than 25 synonyms for guru, including maestro, maven, and master. Master, which the List rules out in other contexts, is expressly allowed to be used in the sense of expert. Although maestro and maven are clearly imports, they are not banned by the List. None is better or worse than “expert” at identifying the qualities and qualifications sought. Suppose the Department is seeking a “programming expert.” Does that say more than “programming guru,” “programming maven,” or “programming maestro”?
Is guru more gendered than maestro? Suppose the Department had advertised for “a high priest of programming.” Must it add “or priestess”? Some related descriptors, once divided by gender, such as “actor”and “actress,” are increasingly adopting the once male-inflected word to stand for both.
While no one can object to “expert,” it’s hard to understand why the language gurus at UW are working so hard to exclude the more colorful term. In fact, the List expressly authorizes “charismatic person” to substitute for guru. Imagine the ad: “Seeking charismatic programmer” or “charismatic person programmer.” Query to List author: do you know the derivation of “charisma” and “charismatic”? You’re not worried about cultural appropriation of those words? Flimsy as it is, UW’s claim collapses of its own weight.
Disability and Ableism
The List urges its community to avoid the phrase “blind spot” because it equates blindness to ignorance. Not quite. The general metaphor “blind to” connotes ignorance only in the sense that if we cannot see something we know nothing of it. Often, of course, that’s not true. More generally, the connotation is not “ignorance” of a fact but the ignoring of it, i.e., intentionally disregarding it. “Blind spot” is another step removed: We all have a blind spot, an area insensitive to light where the optic nerve connects to the retina. If we all suffer from it, how is it “ableist”? As important as the conversation over offensive phrasing might be, eliminating metaphor from every corner of the language is impossible when it touches on a variable characteristic or attribute of a human being. Why eliminate this metaphor and not the following usage, said to a person on crutches: “I forgot my wallet; can you run it over to me?”
The only listed item is “gray beard.” It lands on the List because it “can be perceived as derogatory toward someone’s age.” Not because it connotes gender or disability? Anyway, it’s derogatory. Really? What if you were to call me “old”? I prefer the term that connotes the wisdom and experience that comes with my age.
Gender and Sexual Orientation
Read in its most logical sense, the List advocates abolishing the words “he” and “she.” Strictly, it says that the words “he or she” (“his or her”) should not be used in combination because “gender and sexual orientation are not binary.” But four decades ago, the use of “he” as a general pronoun to include “she” in a collective group was anathematized and the enlightened folk of the time insisted on “he or she.” If that term no longer suffices, neither can either of the pronouns standing by itself, unless referring to a specific person known to be a he (or she). Are the apostles of decency saying that our only options are “person” or “they”? For example:
Incorrect: I saw a woman and pointed to her.
That sentence is apparently offensive because the person I saw might have been Rudy Giuliani in drag. So it has to be:
Correct: I saw a person and pointed to them. Or: In a crowd of many people wearing clothing once considered “men’s,” I saw a person wearing a dress and a flowered hat, and I pointed to them. Or, since that last sentence might seem obscure, perhaps: In a crowd of many people wearing clothing once considered appropriate to men, I saw a person wearing a dress and a flowered hat, and I pointed to the person wearing the dress and flowered hat.
I know, I know, it’s a cheap shot.
But the Logic of the List might well lead to such conclusions. Following the logic, here’s another word for the zapper: cross. None can deny that the Ku Klux Klan have burned crosses at the homes of Black families; the term may therefore trigger feelings of anxiety and panic. And, of course, the cross symbol is not inclusive.
Browse the List for yourself. You may well agree that some of the condemned words belong on it. But I ask you to think hard about its logic. At bottom, it propounds this Algorithm for the Great Dictionary Purge:
Find words native to English, historically ungendered, never used by unfeeling bullies to hector or harass, even in some other context, and incapable of being associated metaphorically or otherwise connected to the possibility that someone may feel demeaned or excluded. Delete all else.
It should yield a short book.