Politically correct, one syllable at a time

A TV reporter's faux pas raises the question: What do we do when a perfectly good word gets taken over by a hateful alternative meaning?

Phil McCarten/Reuters/File
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch and wife Wendi Deng arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Mortons in West Hollywood, March 5, 2006. A few weeks ago a CNBC reporter caused a stir during a discussion of the pending divorce of Deng and Murdoch.

Sometimes it seems as if all the great monosyllables are already taken.

Dint. Eke. Lurch, as in "left in the...." What treasures of expressiveness are compressed within these single syllables. What a world of confusion and anxiety, for instance, is suggested in the five letters of lurch. These are three of a dozen words that linguist Arika Okrent rounded up recently as examples of "fossil words": archaic words that live on in certain still-useful idiomatic expressions. "He succeeded by dint of his hard work."

Fossil words in useful idioms are on my mind in the wake of a reported case of journalistic foot-in-mouth. A few weeks ago a CNBC reporter caused a stir during a discussion of the pending divorce of Wendi Deng and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The reporter referred to Ms. Deng's lawyer as having a knack for identifying gaps in his adversaries' defenses.

But the reporter did not speak of "gaps" in "defenses." Rather, he used an idiom that includes a word that happens to be a homophone, or indeed a homograph, for a particular racial pejorative.

The Asian-American Journalists Association called the comment "offensive."

The Economist's language blog, "Johnson," is willing to give the CNBC man a pass, in part because the phrase made no semantic sense as a racial slur. By contrast, when ESPN used the same phrase in connection with basketball star Jeremy Lin, in a context in which it did make semantic sense, the editor responsible was fired – rightly so, says "Johnson."

What do we do when a perfectly good monosyllable gets colonized, so to speak, by a hateful alternative meaning? Dictionaries define chink as a gap, as between two boards in an old building; or the light that comes through such a gap. As a verb, the word refers to filling gaps – caulking, in other words. In an onomatopoeic sense, both noun and verb refer to the short, sharp ringing sound of glasses or coins clinking.

And while plenty of dictionaries give the pejorative meaning, clearly labeled as offensive, none that I consulted warned against using the word at all.

The flap over chink prompted me to investigate the fate of another "fossil." This one lives on in an idiom that originally meant "brand new" – "new as a recently made spike and chip of wood." It goes back to 1579; Samuel Pepys used the phrase in his diary. But the phrase includes a word that is now also widely used as a derogatory term for Latinos. For much of the 20th century, though, this particular old-fashioned idiom was literally a household name: It referred to a cleaning product invented by a couple of housewives during the Depression. It's still around, but since a 1999 boycott over its name, it's had a lower profile.

More people, I will venture, know the syllable in question as an ethnic slur than as an allusion to Pepys.

There may be an overlap of responsibility here: a responsibility to avoid giving offense in the first place, but also a responsibility not to take it when it can be avoided, especially when no offense was meant.

Real-time oral communicators, such as broadcast hosts and pundits, may need to internalize a degree of self-censorship that asynchronous communicators (writers and editors) do not. And some complainers may need to broaden their vocabularies.

We may need to be politically correct syllable by syllable. After all, we don't want to sound like fossils.

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