Can We Eliminate “Offensive” Language?

From time to time efforts burgeon forth to eliminate or at least suppress from speech and/or print words and phrases that are usually labelled in contemporary dictionaries as “vulgar slang” or “offensive usage.”

A good many of these are found where diverse cultures mingle and sometimes clash, as in, say,  the United States of America.

I have written quite a while back about the efforts to eliminate the “N-word” by referring to it as the “N-word.”  This is an exercise in semantic mumbo-jumbo,  perhaps, but socially necessary in order to get along with (remember the eloquent plea from Rodney King:  “Can’t we just get along?”) the most significant “minority” group in our culture and social history.

Even national and regional Scrabble events (according to a recent article by Judith Thurman) prohibit the use of vulgar slang terms (even though these may be found in contemporary dictionaries) and, as well, such racially or culturally-directed terms like “jew” (as a verb), “wop,” and,  of course, the  the word to which the “N-word” refers (my editors have always consistently edited out of my blog comments the “actual word”).

Lately there has been quite  a bit of semantic noise raised about a word commonly used to refer to those who have often been described as “mentally retarded.”  “Retard” is often referred to now as the “R-word.”  The Special Olympics organization has taken up the cudgels to get this word excised from the vocabulary of American English speakers and writers.  A letter to the Editor from Jo-Etta R. Simmons of Fayetteville on April 17 made a strong plea for the word to be banished or at least limited in its usage.

I don’t know whether such a campaign, no matter how well-intentioned, can completely succeed.  Some people who use such language are not intentionally trying to hurt those the word or terms refers;  they just “don’t know any better.” And so we may be able to educate them.

But since some users of these negative, derogatory terms may be deliberately cruel, the task seems unlikely to ever completely succeed.  And I myself feel that using a favorable label sarcastically (“Well, aren’t you the big genius!”) may actually be more harmful than the more straightforward term.

Many of us of a certain age may recall, for example, when “moron” and “idiot” were both considered accurate labels that described specific characteristics of stages of “mental retardation.”  Over-usage of these terms in an offensive mannertook care of that.

I must confess that I have used creative labels of my own to characterize the lame behavior of my own children in times past.  (But not “lame brain,”  I believe.)

Those I particularly became fond of were “Dumbelinda” and “Doppelina,”  both of which, I now recognize, appear to be feminist labels.  (Sorry about that, Tory.)   Walt Disney was not abashed, however,  to name his heroic young elephant “Dumbo.”

A clever writer can, of course, get away with using similar “tags” for his characters. (See John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” for example.)  One of the classics in contemporary fiction (well, “contemporary” to me) is a character in Joseph Heller’s great WWII comic novel  “Catch-22.”  This, of course, is “Lieutenant Scheisskopf.”



10 Responses to “Can We Eliminate “Offensive” Language?”

  1. Daryl Cobranchi Says:

    Walt Disney was not abashed, however, to name his heroic young elephant “Dumbo.”

    Of course, he didn’t. The elephant’s name was “Jumbo, Jr.” He was derisively called “Dumbo” by the other elephants because of his ears.

    And, yes, I’ve seen the movie about 23,000,000,000 times. It was my son’s favorite when he was at that age where kids like to watch the same movie over and over and over and… 🙂

  2. Tammy Stephens Says:

    I would like to see it start with the negative language first.

  3. thescoop Says:


  4. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Mr. Cobranchi!

    Your 23 Billion views of the movie version of “Dumbo” makes you our resident expert.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the entire movie, just some segments here and there. I do remember my perhaps 3″ x 3″ book version of “Dumbo.” One fascinating wrinkle for a kid my age was to be able to flip the corner visual images so fast that you could see Dumbo begin to fly. . . . I’ve never seen a book with that particular feature since.


  5. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Not as much of a ruckus in responses to my original posting as expected.
    All of you would get some information, if not any great pleasure, from “the scoop” whose comment above offers a link to a “YouTube” segment that is kind of a puff for a book by H. Lewis Smith titles “Bury that Sucka.”

    It offers some images and an observation or two about the present dealings in the “mainstream culture” and in the “street culture” with the two contemporary renditions of the “N-word.” You will know what these are.
    Maybe “the scoop” will be able to attend our breakfast on May 29. . . .


  6. Mr. Corbina Says:

    I didn’t see the article by Judith Thurman, but I can assure you that the only Scrabble tournaments that ban “offensive” words are school-age tournaments. These use the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary (OSPD) to adjudicate word challenges, and you won’t find ethnic slurs and other naughty words therein. (The OSPD can be purchased in your local bookstore, and projects the “family friendly” image Hasbro desires.) The other 200 or so (per year) officially sanctioned “adult” tournaments (though plenty of minors participate) use The Official Club and Tournament Word List (OCTWL, or OWL), which you canNOT purchase at your bookstore (last I knew), and which contains just about every ethnic slur, four-letter word, etc., that you could think of (including you-know-what), and some you’ve probably never heard of. The OSPD-OWL split came back in the 90’s, when Hasbro decided to clean up the OSPD to appeal to families and schools, and club and tournament players — of ALL races and ethnicities — raised such a stink that the “unexpurgated” OWL was born!

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