Sunday, 12 December 2010

what's in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we used to visit my grandmother regularly in Newcastle. Towards the end of the decade, I became aware that ‘darkies’ had moved into the top of the street. I didn’t think much about this term at the time: it was the word that the grown-ups used. However, I slowly realized that by using it I was categorizing people solely on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Some people still use this label, but not Hawley & Hazel. This company used to market a brand of toothpaste in Hong Kong called ‘Darkie’, which had a picture of a black man wearing a top hat and a bow tie on the box, like the performers in the nineteenth-century minstrel shows. However, about twenty years ago, the name was changed to ‘Darlie’, probably in response to complaints, and the image was doctored (by increasing the contrast) so that it was no longer possible to deduce the ethnicity of the model.

Unfortunately, ‘darkie’ isn’t the only word that is regarded as offensive by those to whom it is applied, and coloured immigrants to the UK are not the only targets of such language. However, national and ethnic groupings are the most common focus of derogatory labels, and the English are among the worst offenders. Every nationality that becomes fully established in the English consciousness has an unflattering name attached to it: Chink, Dago, Eytie, Frog, Kraut, Pikey, Yank, Yid (the full list is a long one).

On the other hand, some of those on the receiving end of such English disdain refer to the English by equally unflattering names: Limeys by Americans, Poms by Australians and, best of all, rosbifs by the French. The object in all such cases is to belittle the nationality that is being labelled. And the English aren’t even particularly friendly towards their Celtic neighbours, nominally part of the same nation, whom they frequently label as Jocks, Taffs or Micks, depending on their actual country of origin.

There is a purpose to this name-calling: to emphasize the distinction between the in-group and the out-group. All cultures and societies do this to some extent, and by coincidence every generic term that I’m aware of for an out-group begins with the letter ‘g’: gaijin in Japanese, gweilo in Cantonese, gentile by Jews, gorgio by the Roma, and gringo by Latinos. The mention of Latinos highlights a difficulty in choosing an inoffensive name for oneself: for many years in the USA, it was perfectly acceptable to refer to ‘Hispanics’, and the term is still in use, but it is no longer seen as ‘politically correct’ because of its direct reference to Spain and that country’s colonial history in the Americas.

However, if these were the only examples that I could muster, there would be no point in raising the matter, but some ethnic labels have always been offensive and have been used intentionally for that reason. It is probably impossible nowadays to use the word ‘nigger’ in any context without causing offence to someone: I was pulled up recently in a pub in the UK for relating an experience that I had while working on an oil rig in the middle of the Sahara Desert in 1968. With two other Englishmen, I had asked that lamb be put on the menu from time to time (at least ten out of the fourteen main meals in a week were steak!). Our timid request was rejected in the most peremptory of manners:

“If you want lamb, why don’t you fuck off down to the nigger camp?”

Leaving aside the racial confusion that often affects uneducated people (all the roughnecks and roustabouts on the rig were Arabs, and they had their own living quarters and canteen), what this story illustrates is that reporting a conversation in which a dubious word was used is enough to annoy some people. This cannot be a good thing, because self-censorship is a weakness in any writer.

There is another angle to this tendency to label entire groups: in wartime, giving the enemy a derogatory name dehumanizes them and thus makes them easier to kill. For example, American soldiers were in Vietnam to kill gooks. Had they stopped to reflect that they were actually killing Vietnamese, the illegitimacy of their position might have dawned on them sooner. A similar process is at work in Iraq and Afghanistan now: referring to someone as a raghead makes it easier to kill them without troubling one’s conscience. Kipling knew what he was doing when he introduced his readers to ‘the Hun’, the German army, during the First World War.

Other groups that are often singled out in the same way include homosexuals and people with disabilities, although in both cases considerable progress has been made in my lifetime. When I worked at the Outward Bound School in Eskdale in 1971–72, I once ran a course for a group of ESN boys from a nearby residential school. ESN? It stood for ‘educationally subnormal’, which in those days was the official designation. Nowadays, children like these would be regarded as having ‘learning difficulties’, and they would be educated in mainstream schools, where the unhelpful epithet ‘retard’ is likely to be used by some fellow pupils. However, it should be noted here that ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’ are acceptable, although only when directed at someone whose cognitive ability is regarded as ‘normal’.

Another group whose lot has improved is sufferers from cerebral palsy. The UK charity tasked with looking after the interests of such people used to call itself the Spastics Society, and ‘spastic’ was once an acceptable term, but it came to be used to describe a clumsy person and was thus seen as an insult. The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope, a word so neutral that it would be difficult to work out the charity’s purpose, in 1994.

As program director at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School in the early 1980s, I ran a series of courses for physically handicapped students. These were hugely successful, and as a result I was asked to lay on more by the government’s Sport and Recreation Service. But with one stipulation: they must be advertised as for disabled participants. I argued that ‘disabled’ means ‘without ability’, and that my operating philosophy accepted the concept of a ‘handicap’ but tried to find a way to circumvent the intrinsic disadvantages, but the government functionaries were insistent. ‘Disabled’ is nowadays what such people prefer to call themselves, despite the negative connotations of the word, so that is the term I use. ‘Cripple’ is not and never has been a polite term.

I can’t leave the subject of disability without mentioning the debilitating effects on general language usage of undue sensitivity to what can reasonably be regarded as purely descriptive terms. ‘Blind’ is a case in point. If people who cannot see prefer to say that they are ‘visually impaired’, then who am I to argue? However, I cannot understand why, having rejected the term for themselves, they resent it when someone refers to the blind spot in a car, another relates how he was sent up a blind alley, a third how she went on a blind date, a fourth how he turned a blind eye to illegal activity, and the blind side wing forward for the local rugby team how they had been robbed blind by the opposing side (a common loser’s complaint).

There is great danger in proscribing words merely because they may offend. And I don’t need to quote a fictitious example as a reductio ad absurdum: employees of Brent Council in north London were forbidden to ask for ‘black coffee’ in their staff canteen. The legendary West Indies cricket team of the 1980s had the appropriate response: after beating England 5–0 in one memorable series, they described the result as a ‘blackwash’. That’s the kind of creative language usage I like.

So what should you do if you are the subject of a pejorative label? If you’ve read all of my posts about Hong Kong, you’ll have noted that I often refer to myself as a gweilo. In fact, this would originally have been intended as an insult; there are polite terms, but they are rarely used here. I could be a Sai yan (‘Westerner’) or a Ying Kwok yan (‘Englishman’), but I’ve never been called anything other than a gweilo, or ‘ghost man’, in all my time here. Why should I care? It’s only a word.


  1. Racists are everywhere, unfortunately.

    I, for instance, would be called an "argie" in England, or "sudaca" (despective form of "south-american") in Spain, but even we, in turn, have our own list of insultant labels applied to neighbour countries, or aborigins, or blacks, etc.

    As to the best reaction to a pejorative word, I think it has a lot to do with self esteem (as an individual and as a group or nation), i.e. with the history of that individuuum or group. (Please forgive my poor english.)

    Regards from Argentina.

  2. Dennis:

    I am interested in knowing how Indians are referred to by people of different Western countries. I have heard of the word 'paki' but not any other.

    Joy always,

  3. Susan, ‘Paki’ is the only word with which I’m familiar. It’s intended to be pejorative, and it should refer to Pakistanis, but in most cases in the UK it’s used indiscriminately to refer to either Pakistanis or Indians. Most people who use it can’t tell the difference.

  4. Actually, Americans are unlikely to find "Yank" offensive unless they closely identify with the former Confederate States (for whom the Yankees were the enemy.) The rest of us assume it's just a term of endearment used in other Anglophone countries. Residents of the New England states tend to wear the term "Yankee" proudly so long as they aren't talking about baseball.

    Also, "gentile" is a completely neutral descriptive term and is a latinate translation of the Hebrew, goyim. It's generally rendered into English as "of/among the nations." The word has no intrinsic pejorative connotation unless the speaker's primary experience with gentiles has been on the receiving end of antisemitism.

  5. Thanks for the comment Ian. I should point out that I didn’t suggest ‘gentile’ was pejorative, merely a word that is symptomatic of in-group/out-group discrimination.

    Rob, I apologize for not replying to your comment earlier (I was having problems commenting on my own blog). You raise an interesting point: nobody in England would have referred to one of your compatriots as an ‘Argie’ before the 1982 war, for the simple reason that the average citizen would simply not have been aware of your existence. However, xenophobic English newspapers such as the Sun were quick to headline ‘Argy Bargy’ (colloquial British English for a dispute) when the war broke out.

  6. Dennis, yet another superb piece of writing and analysis. I think the word ‘nigger’ was probably widely used within the British Empire in reference to people who were not, in fact, niggers in the common jargon of bigotry! It’s used in Burmese Days, George Orwell’s first novel, where the locals are referred to as niggers.

  7. Thank you Anastasia. I have to confess that although I've read all his essays and journalism, I've not read his earlier novels, but the kind of racial confusion that you refer to persists with regard to immigrants from the subcontinent. Thugs from the English Defence League probably regard them all as 'Pakis'.


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