Friendly Fire

Insulting without meaning to

As language and society evolve, words that were once considered merely slang sometimes take on an offensive odor. In the past twenty years, for example, many municipalities have renamed localities with “squaw” in their names after the belated realization that the word, flung about casually for decades by cowboys and Indians in westerns, is actually a vulgarity.

Sports teams have struggled with whether having an Indian as a mascot is offensive. We also have “Indian summer,” which, the grammarphobia blog notes, may have more to do with it being a false summer than intended as an offense. Not so “Indian giver,” which is considered offensive—so take it back!

In the early part of the twentieth century, an American slur for the Irish was “Paddy,” derived from the Gaelic name Padraig, which often became “Patrick” in the United States. When those Irish began joining the police force in large numbers, many people believe, the slur was sanitized a bit to apply to the police vans those Irish were driving and filling with criminals, hence “paddy wagon.” Few sources list that as offensive, but some will find it so.

Some ethnic terms have only a whiff of possible offense attached: There’s little evidence that “Dutch treat,” for example, is a slur; more likely, it refers to a Dutch custom of paying one’s own way.

Some terms become more offensive as time goes on, while others start to lose their sting. A cheater rarely seeks to “gyp” anyone any more (the derivation is from “gypsy,” and the stereotype that a gypsy was always looking for a way to cheat or steal), and it would be shocking these days to hear someone seeking a bargain to say “I’m going to jew her down.” But people talk casually of other people as “schmucks,” probably without knowing that, though “schmuck” in German means “jewelry,” in Yiddish it means “penis.” The new American Heritage Dictionary lists “schmuck” merely as slang for “a clumsy or stupid person,” though it’s usually used to mean something a bit closer to its Yiddish meaning. And WASP, once considered a jokey way to categorize a group, is actually an insult to many white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Some words aren’t related to offensive terms but are guilty by association. “Niggardly” has nothing to do with race, at least not the one that comes immediately to mind. It may be of Scandinavian origin, and means “stingy.” But it sounds so much like an offensive term that, spelling and etymology aside, it is becoming ostracized.

And then there’s the unintended consequence of political correctness. A large grouper species used to be called a “jewfish.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1697 passage in A New Voyage Round the World by explorer William Dampier: “The Jew-fish is a very good Fish, and I judge so called by the English because it hath Scales and Fins, therefore a clean Fish according to the Levitical Law” (meaning it was kosher). Some believe the name originated as an anti-Semitic reference even earlier. But in 2001, having received a few complaints, the Committee on Names of Fishes, an arm of the American Fisheries Society and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, decided that name was offensive, and renamed the fish a “goliath grouper.” The irony was not lost on many journalists, who noted that Goliath was slain by a Jew named David. Any Philistines want to complain?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,