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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Vernon Public Art Gallery's new Regional Reach program which sends supplies and lessons to classes, has been a hit in the North Okanagan classrooms. (VPAG photo)
Travelling art kit a hit in North Okanagan schools

Art Gallery’s new Regional Reach program delivers art education to the classrooms

A kaleidescope of colours was captured over Lake Country Sunday, Feb. 28. (Wendey Innes-Shaw photo)
Colourful close to month with North Okanagan sunset

From all angles: Vernon and Lake Country photographers capture sunset Feb. 28

The Okanagan Screen Arts Society is set to take over Vernon’s historic Towne Cinema on 30th Avenue June 1 as fundraising for building upgrades is a third of the way to its goal. (Photo contributed)
Historic Vernon cinema rolling into society’s hands

Okanagan Screen Arts Society will take over and run with volunteers the Towne Cinema starting June 1

(File photo)
UBCO introduces another reading break in November

The break only affects the Okanagan campus

A man wearing a mask against coronavirus walks past an NHS advertisement about COVID-19 in London, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
92 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths: Interior Health

The region is reporting 92 cases after the weekend

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

Pastafarian Gary Smith, pictured here dressed as a pirate, wanted to wear his tricorn (also pictured here) in his driver’s licence photo, arguing that the display was a religious observance. Photo: Facebook
B.C. Pastafarian loses Supreme Court fight to wear pirate hat in driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith of Grand Forks, put his case to the Supreme Court in Rossland in early February

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation, May 8, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s weekend COVID-19 cases: 532 Saturday, 508 Sunday, 438 Monday

Fraser Health still has most, eight more coronavirus deaths

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

City council passed resolution in support of an expansion of the licence area at Salmon Arm’s Marionette Winery for the inclusion of a lounge area. (Marionette Winery/Facebook)
Salmon Arm council supports lounge addition at Shuswap winery

Marionette Winery expanding licence area to host small gatherings

An injured skier was helivaced from Apex Mountain Resort to Kelowna General Hospital Monday, March, 2021. (Linda Geggie / Facebook)
Injured skier helivaced from Apex Mountain Resort

The skier was taken to Kelowna General Hospital

B.C. Attorney General David Eby speaks in the legislature, Dec. 7, 2020. Eby was given responsibility for housing after the October 2020 provincial election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends COVID-19 rent freeze again, to the end of 2021

‘Renoviction’ rules tightened, rent capped to inflation in 2022

Face mask hangs from a rear-view mirror. (Black Press image)
B.C. CDC unveils guide on how to carpool during the pandemic

Wearing masks, keeping windows open key to slowing the spread of COVID-19

Most Read