Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Adjectives, not nouns

The trans* community are not the only ones to point out that "transsexual" is not a noun, it's an adjective. There are many other groups who have made the same point. It's rude to refer to someone as "a dyslexic", "a spastic", "a gay", "a black", "a Chinese", "a Malay", "a ginger".

Why is that? Well, for one thing, the characteristic being referred to is not the only significant thing about them; it's not a defining characteristic. They may also write poetry, drive a vehicle, tap-dance, sing, be a great lover, and so on.

There are plenty of alternatives to using these adjectives as nouns. A transsexual person (who could be male or female - the term transsexual does not signify gender); a gay person; a person with ginger hair / a ginger-haired person; a person with dyslexia / a dyslexic person; a person with cerebral palsy; a Black person; a person of colour; a Chinese person; a Malaysian person. Of course, their ethnicity is only relevant in the context of a conversation about ethnicity. (Though several Black people have pointed out recently that the whole colour-blindness trope is actually really unhelpful and assimilationist.)


John List said...

It's ground upon which angels fear to tread, but as I tweeted I feel some caution is required before applying such hard-and-fast rules.

In particular it's worth looking at the prevalence of each example of noun-as-adjective use in the wider language and whether that use is more likely to be in an offensive context. In the case of some adjectives those uses are likely to be unequivocally offensive but in others they may well be in perfectly acceptable speech.

The danger is that creating an atmosphere in which such use is automatically proscribed might alienate and offend people whose usage of language is not offensive nor meant to be so. As always a little common sense on the part of both the user of the word in their choice of usage and the hearer in their choice of response goes a long way.

Yewtree said...

Good qualifying points, John.

Of course many people don't mean to be offensive, but if it is calmly pointed out to them that their language usage is offensive, and why, most people are happy to oblige.

Of course I slip up from time to time and say "dyslexic" or "transsexual". But I try to get it right. And I certainly don't say "a Malay" or "a Chinese" and it really jars when I hear others doing it.

John List said...

I have definitely heard older people use "A Malay", probably because that was the accepted language in their day. But yes, I'm not convinced a Malaysian would approve.

It's funny, having heard it spat out as a hate word by nutty people it jars for me then I hear people say "A Jew". But that one *is* a noun, and one that Jewish people seem readily to use of themselves. I guess it's my own linguistic sensibilities kicking in.

Yewtree said...

Yes, I have trouble with saying "a Jew", for the same reasons. I tend to say "a Jewish person" instead. Maybe it's one of those ones which can only be used by the community to which it refers...

I also intensely dislike the term "Neo-Pagan" (whether adjective or noun), but others feel differently. I prefer Pagan.

John Cowan said...

Unfortunately, the argument from not being the only significant thing proves too much. After all, if I say that Joe is a husband, or a father, or a plumber, or a Christian, or a vegetarian, nobody turns a hair, yet plainly none of these is the only significant thing about Joe. Yet there is no demand to replace "Joe is a plumber" with "Joe is a person who plumbs." And this, of course, has nothing to do with plumber being a noun, and everything to do with the fact that there are no hate groups standing outside Joe's house yelling "Filthy plumber! Get an honest job!"

The history of the last century has shown unequivocally that you cannot prevent hate speech by changing names or parts of speech. If faggot (a noun) is an insult, and you therefore start to use gay (an adjective) instead, children use the adjective gay as an insult instead: "That's so gay!" is now common form, at least in the U.S., and what it proclaims is stupidity, not homosexuality.

This whole process is called the euphemism treadmill, and it has been going on for millennia. The blunt old English word whore has as its nearest Spanish relative the word cara, meaning "darling". Presumably the English word once meant the same thing, was adopted to replace some even cruder word, and came to have the same nasty connotations as the now-lost original.

No, the only hope of fixing the problem is to change our attitudes about the people behind the labels, rather than slapping on a new label every time the old one gets frayed. And in the longer term, to avoid taking labels so seriously. Lewis Carroll once said that he held much the same religious views as his father, except that he considered the question of what views one held to be much less important than his father had. Or, as a wit has put it, all Christians agree that all Christians agree on the major points of their religion, and disagree only on the minor points. Alas, the question of which points are major and which minor is itself a matter of much disagreement.