Sunday, October 31, 2004

Pardon my (lack of / innocent use of) French

I can proudly say that I have never uttered the "F" word. No matter how angry I am, I cannot bring myself to use obscene words. I don't understand the humor in using abusive language that cracks people up, especially men. I used to flinch whenever someone used the "F" word in front of me. I don't do that anymore, but it still makes me uncomfortable. This word has become so prevalent that I sometimes think that I am prudish in my inability to use it myself. I have even started hearing the word at work now.

It's not just the "F" word, but any offensive words in either Hindi or English disturb me. To my recollection, the only two bad words I have ever used are "asshole" and "shit". I recently learnt quite a few bad Hindi words. It was surprising to my friends that after having lived in Delhi for so long I was unfamiliar with most of them. When I meet someone who speaks a language other than the two I know, I try to learn how to say "hello" or "thank you" in the new language. Men will generally exchange the bad words in their respective languages. Does gender play a role in use of abusive language?

My answer is a huge, resounding YES. As I learn more about the bad words in use nowadays, I find one aspect common in most of the vilifying words. Almost all of them are derogatory towards women. The simplest example would be the word "bitch." It means female dog, probably in heat, used to denote a sexually promiscuous woman. This word is used in a friendly manner amongst men like "dude" or "yaar". Standard greetings between my male friends are "what's up, bitch" and "hey, bong bitch?" (for a friend from Calcutta).

In the essay "Four Letter Words Can Hurt You" the writer refutes arguments made by her students that certain words are taboo “because of ‘sexual hang-ups’ (middle-class, middle-age feminist), or even as a result of class oppression (the contempt of the Norman conquerors for the language of their Anglo-Saxon serfs).” She does so by describing the origins and functions of some of these words –

The best known of the tabooed sexual verbs, for example, comes from the German ficken, meaning "to strike"; combined, according to Partridge's etymological dictionary Origins, with the Latin sexual verb futuere; associated in turn with the Latin fustis, “a staff or cudgel”; the Celtic buc, “a point, hence to pierce”; the Irish bot, “the male member”; the Latin battuere, “to beat”; the Gaelic batair, “a cudgeller”; the Early Irish bualaim, “I strike”; and so forth. It is one of what etymologists sometimes call “the sadistic group of words for the man’s part in copulation.”

The brutality of this word, then, and its equivalents (“screw,” “bang,” etc.), is not an illusion of the middle class or a crotchet of Women’s Liberation. In their origins and imagery these words carry undeniably painful, if not sadistic implications, the object of which is almost always female. Consider, for example, what a “screw” actually does to the wood it penetrates; what a painful, even mutilating, activity this kind of analogy suggests…

Tabooed male descriptives, when they are not openly denigrating to women, often serve to divorce a male organ or function from any significant interaction with the female. Take the word “testes,” for example, suggesting “witnesses” (from the Latin testis) to the sexual and procreative strengths of the male organ; and the obscene counterpart of this word, which suggests little more than a mechanical shape…

… [the female partner] is only a “skirt,” a “broad,” a “chick,” a “pussycat” or a “piece.” If she is, in other words, no more than her skirt, or what her skirt conceals; no more than a breeder, or the broadest part of her; no more than a piece of a human being or a “piece of tail.”

The most severely tabooed of all the female descriptives, incidentally, are those like a “piece of tail,” which suggest (either explicitly or through antecedents) that there is no significant difference between the female channel through which we are all conceived and born and the anal outlet common to both sexes- a distinction that pornographers have always enjoyed obscuring.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say something like “Dirty mouth, Dirty mind.” Most of the people who use these words probably don’t think of these words as described above. Sometimes it is a matter of personal taste. I find the term “coconut” used to describe people who are “brown outside, white inside” highly distasteful. However, some Indian friends used the term almost fondly to describe their American born daughter. Some words like “ABCD – American born confused desi,” “FOB – fresh of the boat” are in the middle; they offend some, but are harmless for the most part. Another word in general use that riles me up is “third world countries.”

On the flip side is the pervasive need to be "politically correct". Now it is politically incorrect to call people of African descent "black"; the new term to use is "African American." The logic being that color should not be used to describe a race, e.g. "yellow" is considered rude. Using the same reasoning, people of European descent should take offense at being referred to as "white". It is not the words, but the prejudiced notions associated with them that need to be refreshed. Eventually the stereotypes get affiliated with the terms, which attain negative connotations, resulting in the need for them to be replaced.

Here are some examples of neologism --

Negro -> black -> African-American
Spanish-American -> Hispanic -> Latino
Secretary -> Administrative assistant
Steward/Air hostess -> flight attendant
Toilet -> Bathroom -> Restroom -> lavatory
Garbage collection -> sanitation -> environmental services

A couple of months ago my sister got mad at her ex-boyfriend’s mother’s reference to her as “Oriental.” I pacified her reasoning that his mom was probably just unaware that the term is now considered offensive. Again the word got colored because it reflected the colonialist attitudes of West towards East and the idea that the East is exotic and effeminate in comparison to the West. I remember reading an excellent play dealing with this issue called “Madam Butterfly.” The correct term is Asian, which I learned doesn’t include people from India. This had me confused for the longest time. When I referred to myself as Asian, people would point out that according to American terminology I’m not Asian. I would say Indian then, but they would get it confused with the American Indians. Of course, now it is politically incorrect to use the words “American Indian”. The P.C. term is “Native American” to remind us “who was here first and to eschew the inaccurate European label.” So I refer to myself as South Asian or Indian from India. It works, for now.

Too good. Informative. One doubt... Y we Indians are not Asians anymore? Does the book say the reason?
It's not that we aren't Asians. The term "Asian" as Americans use, does not include indians
Poor Americans (or Indians??)
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