“We very clearly had made a mistake,” said the marketing director of Merriam-Webster, explaining her company’s decision to pull an on-line thesaurus that included “faggot” and “fruit” as synonyms for “homosexual.” While many homophiles freely use expressions like “faggot” and “fruity,” and “butch,” they reserve the right to dictate polite usage to the straight world. Not too long ago, a similar fuss was made over the dictionary definition of “nigger,” and we are treated to the spectacle of African-American professors solemnly denying that “nigger” could ever be used except as an inflammatory racist epithet. The professors have led a sheltered life.
It is a curious process. Only mentally deficient whites object to terms like “whitey” or even “honky.” If I am not ashamed of what I am, what do I care what the term is—so long as it is not actually defamatory or unduly descriptive? When an African-American professor says, “Listen, you cracker,” I am not offended, because I am not a cracker, and even if I were, I would be proud of it. People uncomfortable with their identity, though, are forever coming up with new ways of describing themselves, and we have gone from black to colored to negro to Afro-American to black to African-American. I do not object ever name they have chosen.
Why should terms of racial identity have to undergo the same metamorphoses as terms related to excretion (crapper, water closet, toilet, commode) or death (boneyard, graveyard, cemetery, memorial garden). I’ve never understood, for example, why it is insulting to refer to Norman Mailer or Irving Kristol as Jews. If I were Jewish (as we must say), I should rub people’s noses in my people’s accomplishments.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi film, Alphaville, the government issues a huge book, every week, listing the words that no longer exist. Godard is a Marxist, but he is more honest and more free than the leaders of our society, who sit quietly as our language is turned into an instrument of oppression.