Wednesday, March 13, 2013

You can't say that!

If you can't bear to read taboo words, don't read on. They're here in full. The post wouldn't make sense if they weren't. My use of them should not imply approval.

Two years ago on BBC Radio 4's The Today Programme, the appropriately named James Naughtie accidentally started saying Jeremy Hunt's job title (culture secretary) before he'd finished uttering his name. Thus, the UK's most prestigious radio programme – the sort of show that can get the prime minister as a guest (and, on one occasion, me) – accidentally broadcast the word 'cunt' just as the nation was settling down to its muesli. 

Everyone had fun at Naughtie's expense, and BBC London radio asked its listeners whether some words were too offensive ever to be uttered; words such as "the c-word, the n-word and the j-word". I was tempted to ring up and ask, "What the cunting fuck is the j-word?" How can you have a reasoned discussion if you're so timid that the audience can't be told what you're discussing? For instance, this story from AP would have had less impact if we had been prevented from knowing what the "racial slur" was.

By the way, if you know what the j-word is, please leave it in the comments below, along with any other choice obscenities that come to mind.

The issue is so charged that an aide to Washington DC's mayor was famously forced to resign in 1999 after describing his budget as "niggardly". He was later reinstated, but others have complained about its use since then, while anti-PC campaigners have sniggered in the background.

So, in the spirit of reasoned discourse, how about a quiz? Question 1 of 1: which of these statements is more offensive?
A) "I don't know if they fags or what
Search a nigga down and grabbin his nuts"
Ice Cube of rap crew Niggaz Wit Attitudes, from the song 'Fuck Tha Police'
B) "Woman is the Nigger of the World" Title of a song by John Lennon (the phrase was coined a few years earlier by his wife, Yoko Ono)
C) "I fucking hate niggers"
Young man on my local high street who was threatening to beat up the black traffic warden who had just given his friend a parking ticket
If you're a grammar pedant or just a lover of words, then it's clearly A, because there's no justification for writing "tha" instead of "the". But if you agree with the apparent media consensus that "nigger" is too offensive a word ever to be uttered or written, then they're all as offensive as each other. This is surely nonsense.

Start typing the Lennon quote into Google and its auto-complete feature offers "woman is the n of the world". Yes, even Google can't bear to let you see this word, although it will happily offer you "fuck", "cunt" and the full wording of The Stranglers' "I Feel Like A Wog". Read into that what you will. 

(For non-English readers, "wog" is a term of general racial abuse, although some say it specifically refers to Indians. It has fallen out of fashion since the 1970s.)

It seems clear to me that C is far more offensive than A or B. NWA, like many other hip-hop groups, are happy to describe themselves as "niggaz". Not only are they reclaiming the word, in the same way as gays reclaimed "queer", but they are also using it as a term of empowerment. This isn't new. Sixties revolutionaries Jefferson Airplane, accused by vice-president Spiro Agnew of helping to destroy American society, sang: "Everything they say we are, we are / And we are very proud of ourselves."

Regardless of the change of spelling, it's still the same word, especially when spoken. That surely disproves the argument that the word can never be uttered. It's only offensive as a term of abuse, which is why it's inconceivable that any non-black person could use it to describe a black person unless they intend to be racially abusive. Simply saying it in a reasoned discussion about language shouldn't be offensive at all, although it certainly jars on the eye and ear. 

Ono and Lennon used it not as a racial description but as a class label. They could have used "serf", but it wouldn't have worked as a slogan and they would have sounded like history professors. 

It would be difficult to accuse NWA of racism, but they could certainly be accused of homophobia. If anyone takes offence at their lyrics, it will be because they called the police "fags", in a way that clearly implies contempt for gay men. It's not the language that's offensive, but the intention behind it: NWA used the politically incorrect "fag" and the far more offensive "nigger", but they were being homophobic, not racist. 

Moral: Fight foul ideas, not foul language.

Monday, March 4, 2013

"-ess" bend: the curious resurgence of 'authoress'

Louise Bolotin took issue with me about the decline of the word 'actress'. I argued that actors and actresses perform distinct roles and so it's not unreasonable for them to have different titles. Read her counter-argument here.

I contrasted it with the word 'authoress', thinking that this pointless and patronising word had almost disappeared. Type 'authoress' into Google and, sure enough, you get 700,000 results, while a search for 'author' returns 2.3 billion results. Even though there are about as many female authors as male ones, the generic term outnumbers the female term by over 3,000 to one. 

So I ran an n-gram on the word 'authoress', just to confirm its demise. Sure enough, use of the word declined by 94% from its peak in the mid-19th Century to the year 2000 (which is where the n-gram graph stops by default). 

But then I took the date range out to 2008, which is as late as n-grams go, and guess what? The word is undergoing a resurgence. If the n-grams are to be believed (and they're not totally reliable), use of the word 'authoress' has more than doubled since the turn of the century and the word is more popular now than it has been for 30 years. Its rise is more than twice as fast as its earlier decline. At this rate, it will be more popular than ever by about 2020.

What's going on here? The only information I can find on the web is from the blog of "authoress" Venus de Mileage (no, really), who defends her use of it here. She also describes herself as a villainess. Every other page I looked at confidently asserted that the word 'authoress' is archaic and no longer used, even though the only available evidence points the other way.

With such scanty information to go on, I can only speculate, based on the observation that Ms de Mileage's website has an overwhelmingly black colour scheme. This makes me think of the Gothic renaissance in literature, which has made a millionaire(-ess?) of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. While vampires have become steadily more popular since the 1960s, the n-gram shows a more interesting phenomenon that mirrors the fortunes of authoress: the return of the archaic spelling 'vampyre':
There's a spooky similarity between the Vampyre and Authoress n-grams, even down to the mini-revival in the late 1920s. Clearly, writers are finding inspiration and a ready market in a genre closely associated with the 19th Century, and signal this by their use of appropriately archaic terms. Maybe this explains the return of 'authoress'.

Moral: Some words die; others become undead.