Language changes with time, so should we

RICHARD BOOCK
Last updated 05:00 13/11/2012

It's an interesting thing, language. Just when you think you have it covered, it finds some way of surprising you. Words considered highly offensive to previous generations are today uttered with impunity. Others, once thought entirely acceptable are now the worst type of insult imaginable. It's not hard to understand: as our community and culture evolves, so does our language. Stand still on this point and you're left playing catch up.

True, often it's not so much the word as the context it's used in. The Prime Minister recently offered an example of this with his "gay red top" gaffe. Neither did he do himself any favours by trying to justify his usage on the grounds it ("gay") could be found in the dictionary. As for the claim he meant the word to mean "weird"? That's nonsense. Clearly, he intended it to mean "effeminate". Ergo, he wasn't only belittling gays but women as well.

Of course, many of his supporters have rushed to his defence, suggesting no harm was done. They couldn't be more wrong. Just the fact so many similarly blinkered Kiwis have stood up to support him shows how important it is for the PM to set a good example. It also shows just how many of us are stuck in the old ways, unwilling to progress. Some even think such hate language is a good way to oppose "political correctness".

Reminds me of my childhood days in Dunedin, as the second youngest of six kids in a Catholic-Jewish household. That was a time when the word "Jew" had as many uses as the "F" word does now. You could be called a "Jew" (meaning a miser). You could act "Jewish", by being a spend-thrift. To borrow something from someone was to "Jew" from them; the gerund of that was "Jewing". Was all common-place banter in the 1960s school yard, and clearly, also in the home.

That's what I mean; language changes with the times. To use such terminology today would open you up to, not only profound condemnation but also ridicule (and in many countries, jail). Yes, the word "Jew" clearly still has legitimate uses but the pejorative version is viewed as being extremely offensive and anti-semitic. In the same way, the pejorative use of the word "gay" is universally condemned as being homophobic.

The folk who refuse to accept this (and our PM seems one of their number) are simply living in the past. Communities and cultures throughout the western world have given an emphatic thumbs-down to negative stereotyping but a few pockets of the narrow-minded will always resist. Old habits die hard, I guess. That's why, in countries such as the UK, hate speech laws are forcing the most-stubborn to reform, at least in public.

Britain's experience has been instructional. There, "Paki" - the abbreviation of the word "Pakistani" - was employed so often and in such a derogatory fashion that it's now considered as objectionable as the word "Nigger". If you don't believe me, try it out on the streets of Birmingham and see how you go. Similarly, the word "Yid" comes loaded with negative and hateful connotation. Once used freely, these descriptions can now get you arrested.

As if to highlight his flawed mindset, the PM has remained defiant over his "gay" gaffe, in the process becoming the poster-boy for every champion of intolerance in the country. Says he won't be made to change. That's probably true; few people change without wanting to change themselves. But one thing our PM and other misguided souls need to understand is that, with or without them, our language will continue to change.

The longer they remain in denial, the further they'll be left behind.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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