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Interesting Etymologies 40 : Political Correctness

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

PLEASE BE ADVISED: This episode involves discussion of some terms that may cause offence.

"Hello again Word Lovers!" Today we are going to dip our toes in the waters of controversy as we explore political correctness and language.

Political correctness poses some difficult questions for etymologists as the basis is that words are derived from insults and that should be apparent. But what if you are not aware of the etymology of a word? Charly was once told off for using the term "salmon pink" as pink is the colour of the flesh of salmon and therefore is only known to us when we eat it.

So do such considerations need to be taken into account when we use expressions such as Chav or Pikey when used to describe members of a perceived underclass?

Chav: Has almost as many etymologies as O.K (See IE 1). Council house And Violent has been suggested as an acronym root, Cheltenham Average is another claim Charly has heard. Chav is claimed to simply be another word for "Bloke" - guy, mate, fella ,geezer, man, dude etc. in Kent. This is probably close to the actual root. It probably meant child or kid from a Romany language. This etymology locates it securely in Kent, in the south of England.

Pikey: To mean gypsy or traveller, is considered more insulting than Chav. Pikey can actually be traced to a first use in print in the Times in 1837. The transient work force that arrived in the Isle of Sheppey to work were referred to as "Turnpike Travellers". The Turnpike was an earlier word for roads, especially toll roads. Some may argue a euphemism for "tramp". The name Turnpike emerges as shafts of wood, known as "pikes" were placed across the toll road to only allow pedestrians to enter. Carts needed to pay a toll for the pike to be "turned" and pass.

Etymology can help shed light on the pejorative origins of the word hysterical.

Hysterical can be traced back to the Greek word for womb - Hystera. This comes from a PIE root that will be familiar to English users - PIE *udtero-, variant of *udero- "abdomen, womb, stomach". It could therefore be easily argued that hysteria requires a womb and therefore is a sexist concept.

The fact that a word can evolve in meaning may not save it from condemnation. Describing a poor shot on goal in a football match as "lame" or "gay" (see IE 26 Reappropriation) would once have been fairly unremarkable. Both words have come into and out of fashion as insults. Are we allowed to refer to someone as mad or crazy?

What about the abbreviation of Transsexual: A Tranny? This is considered insulting. (Ed: Originally an abbreviation of transvestite, a person who likes to dress in the clothes of the opposite sex rather than transsexual. In recent times it has come to be considered hate speech as a slur for transsexuals).

Illegal has become a word under pressure when used in relation to people such as migrants or refugees who have not followed registration procedures when crossing borders. The argument being that a person cannot be illegal.

Often what is considered correct in one era can be thought of differently in another. People are all too aware of the battle over pronouns in current culture but as we are here to explore etymology rather than current cultural trends there are two word in particular we can take a deep look at because of their terrible etymological origins.

The first word is a word white people cannot say. Yes, a word so steeped in unpleasantness and visceral reaction that we dare not announce it or write it. Often referred to as the "N word" to avoid causing offence. But we are not even talking specifically about the word you think we are. Sensitivities are so high that in 1999, an aide to Washington D.C Mayor Anthony Williams used the word "niggardly" in a budgetary meeting. David Howard, Head of the Office of Public Advocate resigned after he used the word, which means "miserly" and has no racial connotations, in fact arose in the Middle Ages, coming from Old Norse nigla meaning "to be poor". Chaucer in fact used the word "niggard" to mean "miser" in 1374. The word niggle, to give excessive attention to minor details is probably related to this root. The word is etymologically unrelated to the word it sounds like, that causes such offence.

But no, Charly wants us to look at the etymology of the word nitty-gritty. "legend has it...." (never a good start) that this means the detritus that accumulated at the bottom of slave ships and so we should not use the term. There does not seem to be any evidence to support this supposition. The word is not recorded in print by the Oxford English Dictionary until the twentieth century.

A further theory put forward is that when people in the southern states of the US wanted to discuss issues of race utilised this expression as a development of the word that is not to be used. . Such a process does occur in English, especially in the development of slang or in childish use of language. Replacing vowels or consonants to create a nonsense word that maintains a similarity to the original term. This puts nitty gritty in a similar vein to "willy nilly" to mean whether or not, or in a haphazard manner. This theory develops problems though. It requires us to understand that white slave owners would sit together and use a coded word. Maya Angelou recalls being punished by her mother for using the term. One commentator was surprised to hear of the unpleasant root of the phrase as reported from diversity training courses in Bristol, England in 2005. Research produced no evidence for the supposition.

Nevertheless, there is persistent argument over the phrase. In 2002 a man wrote to the Times to complain over the Police using the phrase. There is reference to the debate in Time magazine in 1963 explaining that it is simply inconceivable that a slur lay dormant for a century post the last slave ships without someone writing it down.

Our second word for consideration is Squaw. In 1992 Oprah Winfrey interviewed Native American activist Susan Harjaw. She defined the word as a an Algonquin Indian word for vagina. It has been used to refer to Native American women and therefore has taken on a pejorative use. It has been argued in response that even Native American folklore and common use saw Squaw used to mean wife or partner. This raises an interesting question regarding the use of words and their derivation. The English word Queen can be traced back to Quim, a word used for female sexual parts. Quim extends back to Middle English and seems to have meant "a tight fit". Vagina originally meant something similar to "sheath". The etymology of queen could in fact be worse. It could deride from an old Dutch word to mean "a barren cow." Alternatively it could be from the PIE root *kwen to mean "woman" or "wife". In Mohawk the word for vagina is ojiskwa but the word squaw seems to have emerged into English via Massachuset (Algonquian) squa"woman" in the 1630s. There is no understood cultural or linguistic link between the two peoples. It is true that words for women that are often very positive and endearing can deteriorate over time to be more pejorative. This happens across cultures and epochs. The potential development of Queen from Quim shows us that the journey can go in the opposite direction as well. In the same way "Square" was complementary in 1900 and an insult by 1950. Protestant, Expressionist and Bolshevik all began as insults and were reclaimed (see IE 26 Reappropriation).

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

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Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

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