In response to this post, my very fine commenter Stan offers the case of gyp:
Will Shortz will occasionally use the word GYP in the Times crossword puzzle. Invariably he gets complaints from people who consider it a slur against gypsies. Shotz’s defense is that the word does not derive from gypsy and insists on his right to use it.
So what is your feeling about political correctness in the context of mistaken etymologies?
Here‘s a good post on that particular word. It seems that the derivation of gyp is at best somewhat cloudy (not unlike that of paddy wagon). One commenter on the post takes this straightforward position:
If a word is meant to be offensive, or is taken to be offensive, then it is offensive.
But what if there is no question about the word’s derivation, and it has nothing remotely offensive in its history? That’s where we are with the word niggardly, which clearly predates the offensive term and has a well-understood etymology from ancient Nordic. Here is an example of the high dudgeon people get into over this word, and others like it:
Unfortunately, in today’s America, actual instances of racism are so rare that false allegations of racism are the new racism. We are left with bizarre new English language rules with perplexing vagaries on usage: May I use “chink in the armor” when referring to the weakness in the game of non-Asian basketball players, or has the very meaning of a non-racist phrase been so consumed by the slurred meaning of one of its words that we must never again speak, even with historical accuracy, of the practice developed by the men in armor?
Instances of racism are so rare? Yikes! What’s America coming to, and how come Blacks have the right to say words that Whites can’t? (I love the commenter who complains that American English is a literal minefield.)
After the recent Supreme Court decision Eric Cantor sent out a tweet about Obamacare where he said something like “It’s time to call a spade a spade.” The tweet was subsequently retracted. A minefield!
Here, by the way, is Google’s history of the use ofniggardly in American English for the past century or so:
Something has been going on here, obviously. Are people being forced to give up their precious word because of political correctness, or are they becoming naturally more sensitive, even if they are hazy on etymology?
Conservatives have clearly cultivated a sense of victimhood over political correctness. And language is certainly a minefield, if not a literal one. But that has always been true, although the mines have generally been related to “correct” usage. The writer who wrote in regards to in an email to me stepped on a mine, even if she didn’t know it. With political correctness, the stakes are simply somewhat higher. Stepping on a usage mine may make someone think you have inferior language skills; stepping on a political correctness mine may make someone think you are an insensitive jerk. You may not care, safe in your superior knowledge of etymology. But that doesn’t mean you’re not an insensitive jerk.
Back in college (a long, long time ago) I wrote a review of a Tennessee Williams play, which I said was about “two aging queers.” In the newsroom, each article from every paper was clipped out and pasted in a large book, where other reporters and editors could write comments about it. Next to my article, someone took me to task for using the offensive word queers, although he allowed as how it might have been acceptable in context. Holy shit, I thought. I’d had a somewhat sheltered upbringing, I guess; I had no idea the word was offensive.
The incident has stayed with me to this day (obviously) and recalling it still causes a shiver of embarrassment. I had (and have) no wish to be an insensitive jerk.
Others may feel differently.