A Quote Unfit to Print

This quote—in an interesting for its own sake New York Times article on a new generation of clean incinerator power plants popular in Europe—caught my eye:

Nickolas J. Themelis, a professor of engineering at Columbia University and a waste-to-energy proponent, said America’s resistance to constructing the new plants was economically and environmentally “irresponsible.”

“It’s so irrational; I’ve almost given up with New York,” he said. “It’s like you’re in a village of Hottentots who look up and see an airplane — when everybody else is using airplanes — and they say, ‘No, we won’t do it, it’s too scary.’ ”

Colorful quote—but probably too colorful. “Hottentot” is a word once used by Europeans to describe the Khoekhoe, a people encountered by colonists to southwestern Africa. The Oxford English Dictionary says “Hottentot (when referring to the people, or their language) is generally considered both archaic and offensive,” elaborating that it is derogatory when used to indicate a “person of inferior intellect or culture.” On this side of the pond, the American Heritage Dictionary agrees.

That’s no surprise, give the term’s association with some really noxious western history and ideas about certain African female body types.

Obviously, sometimes offensive and archaic language should be printed, say when a politician uses a racially charged phrase, or when it tells you something about the speaker’s own view of the world that is directly relevant to an element of the story. But this is an article about power plants, and surely the Times could have found another way to express Themelis’s diagnosis of Luddite sentiment.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.