Revisiting slurs and the argument from etymology

When the most recent wave of discussion about the Washington NFL football team’s name first began to gain some steam, I wrote a bit about the use of the “argument from etymology” as a means of denying the offensiveness of the term. As the conversation is again becoming heated, and the owners and (some) fans are digging their heels in, Ives Goddard is quickly becoming the “linguist for non-linguists” du jour. A Language Log post by Bill Poser from 2006 also analyzes the etymology of the term, in less academic prose, and with reference to the counterpoints by Suzan Harjo, one of the original leaders of the movement to remove the name. Harjo (apparently – this is not linked or referenced in the Poser post) argues that the term originates in violent practices and displays of “bloody red skins and scalps”.

There are some pretty strong parallels between this case and the case of “Squaw Peak” that Jane Hill discusses in the book The Everyday Language of White Racism. Hill shows in that book how, in the debate about whether or not a name should be changed because it contains a slur, those (predominantly white) people who are uncomfortable with the name change use various resources to defend their self-perception as “non-racists”. Within these justifications, they will often invoke what she calls the “baptismal ideology” (what I had been referring to as “the argument from etymology”). In that case, just as here, Goddard is brought in as the authoritative source that the term has an innocuous origin, with the – totally erroneous, as Goddard never weighs in on the question of whether either of these terms should be considered a slur in contemporary contexts – next-step claim being that the sanction of a credentialed linguist means that it’s not a problem.

The baptismal ideology recurs over and over in discussions about slurs and the seemingly desperate desire of white people to use them while also reassuring themselves that they are not racists. I have similarly seen word origins – invented or well-supported – used to debate which slang terms for female body parts are positive and affirming and which ones reflect patriarchal sex roles, to suggest that a well-known slur used against gay men is among the most heinous possible words, and to suggest that we should also remove from our lexicons additional, relatively common terms with opaque but problematic histories. While I, personally, find these arguments politically unconvincing, something about them clearly resonates that leads to their being brought up so frequently. Hill traces it to the Christian myth of degeneration/loss of the true meanings of things, originally coming from God and having been lost through the Tower of Babel story. The original meaning of something, as best as we can access it post-Babel I suppose, therefore becomes the true meaning. Those who argue that it is a slur may still have a sense that origin matters, and draw on hypothesized or alternative etymologies to support the idea that the true meaning of the term is a problem.

The power of this baptismal ideology is, academically speaking, intriguing to me. Morally and politically speaking, I find it frustrating. Because for me, the most relevant question is how the term is used, perceived, and interpreted now. Speaking as an academic, I also feel as though articles like Poser’s and other commentary often make us look bad, as they reinforce the sense that we are out of touch with an disengaged from the realities that matter to the people we are talking about. As a case in point, during a twitter conversation in which I was briefly involved, a critic of Native American mascot imagery responded to a Goddard link with the comment

As others noted in response…from the perspective of linguistic history? Sometimes, yes. Goddard has spent an awfully significant amount of time over many, many years doing this as his full time job. But from the perspective of why it matters in the contemporary context, of how a term like that makes them feel, of the ways in which it constitutes a slur and a reminder of their status as outsiders, others, racialized inferiors, of course notOverall, I do think that the evidence points in Goddard’s favour, and he likely is correct that both the football team name and the name of the mountain in Arizona were not originally hateful or violent terms. I also think that both of these terms are clearly slurs now and have no business standing in as the names of public entities/landmarks.

But more than that, I wonder about the erasure of the in-between history of these terms, the process by which they have become slurs, and within that, the possible sources of the racist/violent/hateful etymology stories offered by Harjo and others who have been the target of these terms. The tweet above criticizes both linguists and those who cite them for claiming a stronger understanding of the true meaning of the terms than those who experience them most viscerally, and this is a valid critique on a lot of levels. Even if Goddard provides evidence to support the idea that the non-racist meanings are older than the ones that Harjo invokes, that certainly does not imply that these alternate meanings are invented out of nowhere. We owe it to the slur’s victims to listen to these stories, to consider where they might come from, how they have become a part of the history of the term, and where these meanings have been erased from the written, if not emotional, record of its use.

Emotionally weighty and politically controversial words like slurs have meaning far beyond their literal denotative meaning, either historical or contemporary. In case it is in any way unclear, I side completely with those who believe the name should be changed. I think all contrary arguments, etymological and otherwise, are spurious and irrelevant in the face of a not insignificant number of people saying it hurts and demeans them. I have yet to see any argument that convinces me that changing the name would cause any other people and equal or greater amount of pain. And that, to me, is the point that matters. This additional conversation is mainly about how the story has become one of truth, meaning, and authority, and what we can do to move beyond the “linguists vs. Indigenous people” dynamic that comes into play here.

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