FWIW, I don’t think Harry Reid needs to fall on his sword for having used the word “Negro” approximately 40 years after its sell-by date. As one of our commenters put it yesterday, it’s hard to get older people to change their language, citing the nursing-home residents she works with. They insist on using such unfashionable terms as “colored girl,” for instance. Reid isn’t that old, but he’s old enough to have seen a few of these memos come down the pike, sometimes literally so — my paper was an early adopter of “African American,” at a time when even many black people weren’t using it, and it frosted my cookies, too.
That was a different time, though. I’m speaking of the late ’80s, when these things changed in far more formal ways, before it was one of those internet things that just appeared overnight, like Lolspeak or FAIL. There was a cadre of people in my newsroom — I believe their organizational title was the Committee for Chapping Asses — who curried favor from higher-ups by policing our pages for Wrongspeak, and no infraction was too small to generate a passive-aggressive finger in the face.
“I notice that when you slugged that story” — renamed a file, for you civilians — “on the Sino-Japanese trade talks, you called it SINOJAP,” one memorable exchange went.
The accused explained that yes, under our system for naming story files, we were only allowed about eight spaces to indicate to the database manager what the story was actually about, i.e. SHOOTING, or CITYCNCL.
“You need to know that JAP is an unkind term for certain Asian-Americans…”
“Yes, I know about World War II, thanks, but as you well know, we frequently abbreviate words in slug lines, and anyway, the only people who even see that are editors, and are you seriously implying that I had some racist intent here?”
“No, but this is something you need to be sensitive to. Other papers now abbreviate Japan as JPN. Thanks.”
You should have heard him the day an artist drew a cartoon of a mosquito as a kamikaze pilot. But those were the times. There was a huge blow-up over whether residents of the United States could be called “Americans,” seeing as how that was that excluded residents of other countries on the North and South American continents. You could no longer write about homosexuals, or even gay people; it had to be “gay and lesbian,” every reference, all the time. If we hadn’t been located in the ultraconservative Midwest, I’m sure it would have blossomed to “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and transgendered.”
Some of this stuff was easy to swallow; I believe you should call people what they want to be called, at least in polite relations, so OK, fine, you’re now African American, go with God. Other tiffs were more about the person doing the correcting than anything else; see the great abbreviation battle above. And some was just stupid, as the trend for making all those who endured a disease or traumatic experience not sufferers or victims but survivors. Mostly what I objected to was being told, as a writer, what my word choice had to be, usually by little weenies who couldn’t write an amusing text message, let alone 700 words of snappy prose.
And I didn’t like when the rules were enforced through robotics, although it did lead to some interesting items in Columbia Journalism Review whenever governmental bodies proudly reported their budgets were “back in the African American,” or when an outdoors writer (inevitably a dork freelancer who had enough trouble coming up with alternative ways to say “big fish”) was told he had to find a new word for certain bass lures, because the computer wouldn’t let him use the word jig anymore.
In his days as a police reporter, Jeff Borden noticed you could peg a cop’s age — and sometimes much more — by how they filled out their reports. The oldest would write MC (male colored), the middle-aged ones MN, and the youngest MB, and the hard-core racists MU (male usual). Orwell was right. Language matters. But that’s something I’m sure Reid knows by now. Peace be with him.
Slate looks at the same topic. Great headline: Watch what they say, not who they do.
I’m growing to hate Mondays, the busiest day of my week. Upside: By Wednesday, you feel the week entering a glide pattern. Not this one, though, with a big story due at the end of it and other kamikaze mosquitos buzzing around my head. I don’t have any more bloggage today, although maybe you’d like to discuss the a-bornin’ career of Sarah Palin, Foxy Gal…whatever it is she’ll be doing now. Finally, an excuse to buy a real wardrobe!
UPDATE: From the Department of Too Good to Wait Another Day, the sad-but-not story of the death of Mighty Joe Rollino, yesterday in Brooklyn.