In the current climate of racial consciousness in America, we’re learning that every word matters. In Part I, I covered slang and idioms used without thought that have hidden, and often hurtful, meaning to different segments of our population.
In Part II, I covered other people who have been the object of racist or sexist or homophobic ire with prejudicial language. Name an ethnic group, and there probably have been racial slurs made about them.
This week, I cover pejorative language, words and phrases used commonly today that have roots in insults and slurs to targeted individuals and social groups. Coming from the Latin word to make worse, pejorative is both an adjective and a noun. As an adjective, it means disapproving or disparaging.
- Professional radio operators at the beginning of the 20th century used to single out amateurs with ham-fisted Morse-code skills. That description is still used today for anyone not professional in a particular field.
- Tree-hugger is a pejorative term for an environmentalist, someone concerned with protecting parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats. It was first used in 1730 when almost four hundred men and women of a branch of Hinduism physically clung to the trees in their village in order to prevent them being used to build a palace. (They lost not only their trees, but their lives.)
- If you call someone a politician in the pejorative sense, you mean that they are scheming and out for personal gain. The first record of the word politician comes from the late 1500s and is ultimately derived from Greek, meaning “civil” (well, that’s certainly changed) and is related to another Greek word for “citizen.”
- The expression in the burbs can be seen as pejorative for its cookie-cutter design of town-center style developments in the suburbs. It became popularized with the 1989 movie The ‘Burbs, a dark comedy starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Dern, among others.
- Use of the word fascinate to describe the way someone engages with you and your life has a pejorative iteration. An archaic definition means to deprive a person of the ability to resist or escape the power of a look or gaze. I think today it has been replaced by mesmerize.
- Terms of abuse such as jerk and negative euphemisms such as bottom feeder are pejoratives, words you use when you want to call someone a bad name.
- Ambitious, when used with women, always seems to be pejorative. According to a Forbes article in 2016, the word and its use in the past have been strongly tied to Hillary Clinton’s desire to win…a.k.a. her ambition. Ambition, a word long associated with power is an asset for a man in our modern business era. Yet being ambitious is loaded for a woman in the workplace, a negative trait synonymous with b*itch (and not in a good way).”
Like the “Me too” movement, the “Black Lives Matter” movement seems to be sweeping aside old ideas, and changes are coming quickly to mainstream America, though a few got a head start. For example:
- Master bedroom/bathroom: A master bedroom typically refers to the largest bedroom in the house, often accompanied by a private bathroom. CNN reported that forty-two percent of current property listings on Zillow use the term master in reference to a bedroom or a bath.
The master bedroom first appeared in the 1926 Sears catalog, referring to a large second floor bedroom with a private bathroom. Master bedrooms were more widely implemented in American homes after World War II, intended to give working parents a private space within their own homes.
CNN said that while it’s unclear whether the term is rooted in American slavery on plantations, “it evokes that history.” And because of that connotation, some members of the real estate industry are working to retire the term and replace it with the word primary to describe both main bedrooms and bathrooms.
- Master/slave: CNN reported Twitter announced last year that it was dropping master and slave from its code, “after two engineers lobbied for the use of more inclusive programming language.” And America’s biggest bank, JPMorgan Chase, said it would take similar steps.
“Tech engineers use these terms to describe components of software and hardware in which one process or device controls another. Although the terms have been around for decades, they apparently caused concerns.” According to CNN, the programming language Dupal replaced master/slave with primary/replica terminology in 2014! Django is using leader/follower, and Python eliminated the terms in 2018.
- Lady Antebellum: The country group formerly known as Lady Antebellum announced last year that they will now be known as Lady A in an effort to distance themselves from a term with ties to slavery.
- Dixie Chicks: Because the word Dixie is associated with the Confederate-era South, the country-pop trio also announced their name change to The Chicks. And they had a protest song—“March, March”—released as a single from their new album last year that is powerful in its message.
Words are important because we use them to relate to one another. It has been said that “When we refer to an entire group of people by their perceived behavior, we trivialize their existence and culture.”
Why does it matter? Because marginalized people feel threatened by the derogatory attitudes revealed in the slurs mentioned here and in earlier blogs. Some will complain that political correctness has been taken too far when called out for their racist or otherwise offensive use of these everyday terms.
I believe because we’ve been exposed to four years of unchecked language of racial slurs, bigotry, sexist and homophobic anger, that now more than ever we need to realize how much this has hurt our public and private discourse. And continued use of these terms only prolongs the agony of people divided by more than language.
Everyone needs to be held personally accountable for their language and realize that they cannot say certain things any longer without social consequences. After all, the 45th president is permanently barred from Twitter, and Facebook continues (for the time being) a moratorium on his participation.
Words do matter!