Taylor: Age old prejudices die hard

Words can create social ghettos, walls are not required.

What’s wrong with these sentences?

“We had a contract, but he welshed on the deal.”

“It looked like a bargain, but I got gypped.”

No, there’s nothing wrong with those sentences grammatically. But both sentences contain prejudiced racial descriptions.

The term “welsh” goes back to ancient conflicts between England and Wales. Raiders from Wales sneaked across the border to steal sheep and cattle from English farmers. Hence the old nursery rhyme:

Taffy was a Welshman, taffy was a thief,

Taffy came to my house and stole a side of beef…

In response, the English periodically sent armies into Wales to catch and punish the raiders:

…I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was in bed.

I took the marrow bone and broke Taffy’s head.

“Gypped,” on the other hand, is a derogatory reference to the Roma, the landless gypsies who roamed all through Europe. Some stories romanticized them; most treated them as thieves and cheaters.

I know, I know, you’re protesting that those things happened long ago. We don’t think of the Welsh and the Roma that way anymore. Perhaps not. But language changes even more glacially than social attitudes.

An acquaintance was astonished, recently, to hear someone claim that she had jewed a thousand dollars off the price of a car. Yes, that’s based on the stereotype of Jews as sharp bargainers.

You might note that all of these terms describe marginalized people, people relegated to the fringes of an otherwise white, male, and Christian society.

If you think I’m being unfair, consider how rarely you hear terms related to whites, males, or Christians used as epithets. I’ve never heard anyone called a “fatherf***er,” for example. No one gets “white-mailed” over personal indiscretions, or “Christed” in a stock trade.

Swear words, yes; personal insults, no.

When Helen Reddy sang “I am woman,” when Stokely Carmichael declared “Black is beautiful,” they took a courageous step. They deliberately used a societal put-down as a rallying cry.

Women and Africans seem to have been particularly vulnerable to verbal denigration.

The British Scrabble Players’ dictionary lists more than 160 pejorative names for women that may be used in games. Even those include nothing more offensive than “bitch” or “whore.” The dictionary has no comparable list for men. The only insult I can think of that’s exclusive to males is to call someone a prick.

A language blog by someone called Dr. Goodword states flatly, “Prejudice against women is a flagrant characteristic of the English vocabulary.”

Times do change. It’s no longer acceptable to refer to black people as ‘niggers’ or Negroes. (Those n-words have become so taboo that some websites even replace the Spanish word for the colour black with asterisks!)

But we still refer to villains as black-hearted. People get blackmailed. Members may be blackballed. Not because those acts are associated with Africans but because many religions use light as a metaphor for the holy. Almost inevitably, then, negative actions get portrayed as dark or black.

The metaphor spills over too easily into racism.

Tragically, words that we use unthinkingly today perpetuate prejudices against groups who have struggled—sometimes successfully—in escaping from their social ghettos.

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