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Innocent Words That Offend Some People

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

There are a lot of delicate snowflakes around who find certain words objectionable and it’s not the profane cuss words we’re talking about.


Good HeavenO

Leonso Canales Jr. was a good, God-fearing Christian. He owned a flea market in the town of Kingsville, the county seat of Kleberg County, southern Texas. He didn’t like greeting people by saying “Hello.” It’s the first four letters of the word that got his ire cranked up.

In 1997, Canales successfully lobbied the Kleberg County commissioners to designate “heavenO” as the county’s official greeting. Interviews from all around the globe followed. Some supported Mr. Canales; for others he became the butt of jokes.

Canales died in 2014 and, since his passing, the heavenO movement has wilted.

The etymology does not support the notion that “Hello” has any connection to the inferno of damnation. According to The Oxford English Dictionary the word comes from Old High German roots such as halon, holon “to fetch,” “used especially in hailing a ferryman.” (Of course, the fabled Charon is the ferryman of Hades but that’s a pretty tenuous connection).

Advice for Mr. Canales might have been why not spell it “Hullo” in your head when you say it? Or, this being Texas, what’s wrong with “Howdy, Y’all?”

Thou Shalt not Use Fancy Words

David Howard’s rich vocabulary cost him his job. In 1999, Mr. Howard was an aide to Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. He said he would be “niggardly” in managing a tight budget.

Gasps of horror spread through city hall, smelling salts were dispensed to those in need of resuscitation. The torches and pitchforks were being readied and Mr. Howard was almost accused of being a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. Life became so hot for the man using a synonym for tight-fisted or stingy that he was forced to resign.

Eventually, it was pointed out that “niggardly” is not a racial epithet and Mr. Howard was hired back.

But, the innocent word has continued to take its toll on those who use it. A month after the Washington furor, a professor at the University of Wisconsin used the dread word in a lecture on Chaucer.

Amelia Rideau, a junior English major and vice chairwoman of the Black Student Union blew a gasket. You’d think an English major would have a more secure grasp of the language. You’d be wrong to think that. When she heard the terrible utterance she said “I was in tears, shaking.”

Ms. Rideau was so aggrieved that she demanded the university institute a speech code that would banish “n-ardly” from discourse. The university looked into the matter with due solemnity and then thanked Ms. Rideau “for clarifying precisely why the UW - Madison does not need an academic speech code.” Such a code would have a chilling effect on the sacrosanct business of academic freedom.

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But, the word keeps on claiming victims. Eron Tworetzky was a senior drug counsellor until he uttered the dreaded word in November 2011. His employer, Broward Addiction Recovery Center in Florida, fired him. But, he seems to have been able to get his job back as his Linkedin profile describes him as Substance Abuse Supervisor in Broward County.

Words as Casualties of War

When the French refused to join President George W. Bush’s ill-conceived attack on Iraq words had to be changed.

Remember Dominique de Villepin? He was the aristocratic French Foreign Minister who, in 2003, gently lectured Washington about the inadvisability of going to war over non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

In speaking to the UN Security Council on February 14, 2003, he was remarkably prescient about what invading Iraq might lead to: “Let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace. Let us not delude ourselves; this will be long and difficult because it will be necessary to preserve Iraq’s unity and restore stability in a lasting way in a country and region harshly affected by the intrusion of force.”

His eloquence did not go down well in the U.S. Congress and obviously a strong statement in response was needed; so the cafeterias in the seat of government were ordered to rename French fries as Freedom fries. French toast became Freedom Toast. Patriotic restaurateurs followed the lead. That’ll show them snooty continentals we mean business.

(“Point of information Mr. Speaker; ‘French fries’ probably originated in Belgium where they are called frites.”)

Democrat Barney Frank opposed this bit of nonsense on the grounds it made “Congress look even sillier than it sometimes looks . . .”

Collateral damage hit the company that makes French’s Mustard. It put out a news release announcing that “For the record, French’s would like to say there is nothing more American than French’s Mustard” referring to its debut at the New York World’s Fair of 1907.

This all harkens back to an earlier time. During World War I the U.S. Committee on Public Information changed sauerkraut to “victory cabbage,” bratwurst was renamed “hot dogs,” and “Salisbury steak” replaced hamburgers.

To Ban or Not to Ban? That Is the Question

Hyper-sensitivity to loaded text is threatening some of the greatest works of literature.

Poor old Will Shakespeare frequently comes in for a public pummeling when his Merchant of Venice is performed. Why not change Shylock’s religion? Better still ban the play altogether. And, that’s been done in several school districts.

A group of students at the Jewish Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in London's east end went further. They refused to sit an examination on the Bard’s works even though they were actually studying The Tempest.

The rationale seems to be that if The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic then all Shakespeare’s work is tainted. But, he’s an equal-opportunity bigot; he doesn’t exactly treat Othello, a black Muslim, kindly. And, white Christian Richard III had his memory besmirched forever by Will.

The cleaning up of Shakespeare is not an invention of our woke world. In the 19th century, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler got themselves into a froth of indignation over some of the Bard's bawdy passages. So, they sanitized the great man's text and published The Family Shakespeare in 1826 with all the naughty bits cut out.

By the reasoning that writers who hold, or held, politically incorrect racist views, then we’d have to toss Roald Dahl, T.S. Eliot, Winston Churchill, Edith Wharton, Dr. Seuss, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, V.S. Naipaul, G.K. Chesterton, Amises Martin and Kingsley, and Ezra Pound among others into the shredder. Mostly, their racism has to be fitted into the context of their time.

And, what about Mark Twain? The n word (no, not the niggardly one, the other one) appears 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The work-around here is an expurgated version that replaces the horrifying word with Indian and slave. That seems a bit sacrilegious to the book about which Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Bonus Factoids

  • On February 12, 2006, a character on the television series Grey’s Anatomy had gone into labour. Through the contractions she tells a male intern observing the birth canal to “Stop looking at my vajayjay.” The word was picked up by Oprah giving it about as prestigious a seal of approval as possible.
  • Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D) finds the “Amen” at the end of a Christian prayer to be non-inclusive. In January 2021, he concluded a prayer in Congress with “Amen and Awomen.” The word “Amen” has nothing to do with gender, it comes from a Hebrew Word meaning certainty or truth.

Sources

  • “Texas Town Says Goodbye to ‘Hello.’ ” Associated Press, January 17, 1997.
  • “D.C. Mayor Acted ‘Hastily,’ Will Rehire Aide.” Yolanda Woodlee,Washington Post, February 4, 1999.
  • “Big Brother Is Listening.” Ethan Bronner, New York Times, April 4, 1999.
  • “French Fries to ‘Freedom’ Fries.” Alexandra Silver, Time, March 28, 2011.
  • “ ‘Freedom Fries’ and the Republican Right’s Faux Solidarity with France.” Joseph A. Palermo, Huffington Post, November 15, 2015.
  • “French’s Mustard Denies French Connection.” CBC News, March 27, 2003.
  • “What Did You Call It?” Stephanie Rosenbloom, New York Times, October 28, 2007.
  • “Robert Fisk: Offended by Shakespeare? Let’s Ban him.” Robert Fisk, The Independent, March 7, 2008.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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