I came across the term “paddy wagon” in this Atlantic piece about the Stonewall uprising today, and it sent me spinning back to the era of extreme political correctness in American newsrooms, which is to say, the ’90s.
I don’t like the term “politically correct” anymore, because it’s been twisted so from its original, ironic usage, not to mention utterly co-opted by people who use it as a code for “I’m a jerk.” (Really, if someone says to you, “I’m not what you’d call politically correct,” isn’t that precisely what they’re saying?)
But there was without a doubt a time when it looked like we might lose terms like “paddy wagon,” “gypped” and other American slang to those who would rinse the language of even its pastel color, not to mention coherence. I mean, everyone knows what a paddy wagon is, right? A “prisoner transport vehicle” might be anything.
I try not to get too excited about these things anymore. Language is elastic, and some of this stuff is, to be sure, offensive, even obscene. You let in paddy wagon and pretty soon someone thinks “n*gger-rig” is just fine, too. But in general, I give this a pass, and I’d be willing to bet a show of hands among people under 40 would reveal precious few who can even tell you a) “paddy” is slang for an Irishman, and b) the wagons got that name because they were so often filled with brawling Irish drunks.
I’ll go almost as far with “gypped.” I had no idea it referred to gypsy scams until adulthood, but given how often I’ve read press releases from law enforcement, warning business and home owners about scams being perpetrated by “travelers,” I can’t say the term doesn’t have at least some legs. But OK, if you want, it’s now “swindled.”
What else? I recall being lectured about the use of the syllable “jap” in a story slug — i.e., the file name. If you’re like me, sometimes you shorten words in file names. SALESPROJ, maybe, or VACAYEXPNS. But woe fell upon the wire editor who shortened an account of the Sino-Japanese trade talks to SINOJAP.
Also, we were instructed not to ever use the word “gay” to describe a homosexual female. She would be, of course, a lesbian. But could you say, “The move was applauded by gay people across the country?” You could not. The move was applauded by gays and lesbians.
“Can I say lesbians aren’t funny?” I asked my boss, who was gay, once, just to bait him. I was writing about the spectacular tanking of Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom after she came out. What had been a pleasant little half-hour about a woman running a book store turned into a weekly lecture about gay rights — er, rights for gays and lesbians, and also bisexual, transgendered and questioning persons.
“Sure,” he said. I now regret that column. Wanda Sykes is a funny lesbian. So is Tig Notaro, and so are many others. I’d also like to say the only person who made that string of individual categories work in a sentence was Lady Gaga.
What happened to ease up on all the oversensitivity? Something happened around 9/11 — all of a sudden people were running around talking about bombing Afghanistan back to glass. You started hearing “c*nt” on premium cable. A whole new crop of insult comics made objecting to “paddy” and “gyp” sound like squalling over using the wrong fork at dinner. And with the collapse of the newspaper business, well, who had time to worry about that?
Speaking of what gets in the paper, I guess Kirk wasn’t working this particular night.
And with that, we have pivoted to the bloggage at the end of a very long week. I don’t have much, but I have this silky video of a skateboarder navigating a decayed but oddly beautiful Detroit. Or maybe that’s just the Portishead talking.
Enjoy your weekend. I plan to.