The NFL, the “N’ word, and Language Evolution
This week the National Football League has raised at least a small media flutter with the floated concept of a penalty for the use of offensive language on the field. This is most likely (yet another) NFL media ploy to make sure that the NFL is discussed ad nausea by the legions of “experts” on every sports talk show, of which there seem to be an infinite number. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting concept to ponder.
First of all, I taught my students for years that there are no purely “bad” vocabulary words, but there are lots of poor choices of audience. The example I used was the sort of language used on the lake on winter weekends playing hockey with my friends, as opposed to the language used at Grandmother’s house at Thanksgiving dinner. Nobody I knew ever said, “Please pass me the puck, for I appear to be open.” And nobody would ever say “Pass me the fucking mashed potatoes, you stupid son of a bitch.” Well, at least not in my family.
In fact, virtually any word can be made to sound ugly or obscene in the proper context. Or would that be improper context? What is a word that is beautiful? How about “love?” Have you ever heard a convicted child molester talk about the “love” he had for his victims? Is that not obscene? Context is everything in word meaning, and our tone and body language communicate well over 90% of the meaning of any expression.
Words evolve over time, which is why we do not sound like Shakespeare in our everyday speech. Interesting (to me) side note: For many decades language scholars noted that the “purest” English, by which we mean that closest to the English of centuries ago, was spoken in small backwoods areas of the Appalachians. These were, due to a lack of technology, travel, education, and other factors, almost completely closed societies, and many things, including language, tended to remain static over time. The onset of radio and other media rapidly destroyed this language lab, and now all national-level TV announcers sound about the same.
As words in general use evolve, and so do words meant to be insulting. “Cops” was once a negative, but is now used every day by everyone, including the police. That was replaced by the more negative “Pigs,” and the police turned this around in later years by staging charity football games between departments referred to as “Bacon Bowls.” There was one between the Seattle and Tacoma forces for years.
As new cultures are assimilated into our country (and language) the people of them are new, and different, and therefore mysterious. Mystery in people tends to cause distrust and fear, and so every new group, even indigenous peoples who had their lands stolen from them by invading cultures with better technology and more aggressive policies, have had negative terms associated with them. Note the current furor over the use of the term “Redskins” by the Washington NFL team. Some argue that the term is now positive. Some Indian tribes argue for its removal. In a great irony, some of the tribes opposed to its use have high schools on their own Indian nation property with teams that are referred to, fondly, as ‘Redskins.” It is all very confusing.
I recall my teen angst and fury when my brother married a woman of Japanese-American descent when I was 20. Their wedding was one of the most fun and meaningful ceremonies I’ve ever attended. My parents could not be there, as mother was ill in the hospital with the cancer that would soon end her life. Months later I showed the slides of the pictures I had taken (remember those?) to my father and Grandmother. Grandmother had grown up in North Dakota, and World War II was much closer to her consciousness than to mine. She did not want to speak what was on her mind, at all, and finally, after great thought, uttered the most positive thing she could think of to say. “I understand they are a very clean people.” I was so enraged I stood up and left the room.
Today if you indicated bias against a person of Asian descent (I know, it does happen) the vast majority of people who look at you in disbelief, like you had farted aggressively in church.
During and just after the Vietnam War, thousands of Vietnamese immigrants came to our country. A GI term for them that was unfortunate was “Gooks.” I once had an argument with an imposing lady with a large blue hairdo because I was applying for a “vanity” license plate that said “Geek 3.” A “geek” was a term for the lowest paid performer in a circus sideshow, who usually had an “act” that consisted of (I am not making this up) biting the head off a chicken or small rodent. In our times it usually refers to a nerd, which was my intent, and I had to explain to the lady that no disrespect was intended to the people of Vietnam. One of those immigrants, by the way, is now a head stylist at Ford responsible for the look of the Mustang, that icon of American sports cars.
The “N” word is particularly worrisome at the moment, because it is the latest in a long time or pejorative terms being dragged, kicking and screaming, to the trash pile of language usage. But it is not the first or last (sadly) by any means. For people of around my age who were raised in liberal households, the “N” word is never to be used, and is so repugnant that I don’t even want to type it.
On the other hand, am I, as a white male product of an upper middle class childhood, going to tell a young man who grew up in Compton and who graduated from Stanford what words he can use while playing the most violent of sports? That seems a stretch, to put it mildly. When I was playing hockey on the lake in the winters of my youth the language was usually “inappropriate,” although my crowd tended to go for expletives rather than racial catchwords. Since we were all white males that makes sense.
Over time, such language will probably go away in the manner that most words do over time. They fail to communicate effectively in the culture of their time and thus lose communications value. “Gay” as a negative term for homosexuals appears to be leaving the room with all good speed, although not fast enough for sure.
Over 25 years ago, my wife was teaching at an elementary school that was attended by then-Sonics coach Bernie Bickerstaff’s son. Bernie Jr. was in 5th grade. One day there was a ruckus on the playground, and the teachers came out to see that, on the far side of the playground, a girl had a boy pinned down on the ground, sitting on his chest and absolutely pounding him with all the strength her arms and fists could muster. She was white, and so was the boy on the ground, and she was furious that he had called her friend Bernie a “nigger.” (There, I typed it). The teachers spent some time pondering what to do, before sauntering over to break it up. The boy was not hurt, but I doubt he ever used that word again. That was an effective way to create language change, even if mildly violent.
When my wife related the story at dinner, our son Will, who was 10, asked what “nigger” meant. He had never heard the word. Now that is progress, and my hope is that in a few years his reaction to such a story will be common.
The NFL mandating penalties for expressions nobody but the players can hear? Which ones? Who says? I don’t think it is workable.
As for “Redskins,” I am conflicted. There’s a parent at my wife’s school who is a full-blooded Cherokee. A very nice man who helps out at school and has such a wonderful smile and attitude. He often wears a t-shirt that reads “Fighting Terrorists for 200 Years.”
Food for thought, that.
Copyright 2014 David Preston