Posts Tagged ‘English Language’

Is the word ‘thug’ a racial slur?

June 11, 2020

In a group discussion the other night, I was surprised to be told that the word “thug” is a racial slur.

To me, “thug” meant a brutal, violent person, regardless of race.  I think of police who beat handcuffed prisoners as thugs.

My dictionary backs me up.  Its definition of thug is: (a) a violent person, usually a criminal; (b) a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India.

The rapper Young Thug

But when I did a Google Image search on the world “thug,” nine out of the first 10 hits were images of black people, including a rapper known as Young Thug.

The linguist John McWhorter also said that “thug” is a racially-charged word.  It once was a race-neutral term, he said, but its meaning has changed.

I see I need to be careful about how I use the word.  I don’t think I am bowing to “political correctness.”  I just want to be sure to avoid language that causes people to misunderstand my meaning.

Sometime back, I had conversations with teachers who loved the book, “Little Black Sambo,” as children and felt put upon because they could not teach it.

They had good intentions.  But students and teachers who heard the word “Sambo” would not have understood their good intentions..

I worked for 40 years on newspapers, and one thing I learned was that it is the responsibility of writers to make themselves understood, not the reader’s to guess my meaning.

If a reader misunderstood what I wrote, that showed that I failed to make myself clear.  Saying the reader should have understood was not an option.

What I need now is a substitute race-neutral term that means brutal, violent person.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, liberals and progressives said the words “law and order” were code words for racism.  No doubt many white people who complained about crime were prejudiced against black people.

But violent crime and property crime in that era were increasing rapidly.  In this case, the policing of language shut down conversation about a serious problem.

I understand the argument that street crime, if it is committed by a poor black person, is a lesser crime than financial crime typically committed by a rich white person.

I agree that a looter who steals the stock of a small business does less harm than a financial speculator who destroys a thousand small businesses.

If you think that this is an excuse for the looter, go ahead and make that argument.  But don’t shut down discussion by objecting to my language.

It is one thing to object to the assumption that young black men as a group are brutal and violent.  It is another to excuse brutality and violence by forbidding language that refers to it.

George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four wrote about a world in which language was manipulated in such a way that certain ideas could not be expressed.

I worry about this.  But I will no longer use of the word “thug.”

The Saturn V rocket explained in common words

August 3, 2013

Double click to enlarge.

The Saturn V rocket explained in the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

Source: xkcd: Up Goer Five.

If you like this, you might like Short Words to Explain Relativity.

Hat tip for both to

Can we recognize feelings we cannot name?

May 13, 2013

Oliver Burkeman, writing in The Guardian some years back, cited words for emotions without English equivalents, and raised the question of whether we can recognize feelings we cannot name.

The Danish word “hygge” (pronounced, very approximately, “hooga”) means something like “cosiness”, but with undertones of “camaraderie” and “well-being”.  Denmark’s tourist industry likes to suggest that it’s untranslatable and unexportable: the only way to feel it is to hop on a plane to Copenhagen. … …

Hard-to-translate emotions aren’t always positive, of course: the Portuguese “saudades” refers to a particular kind of longing, and the Korean “han” is a form of collectively felt resentment in the face of injustice, blended with lamentation.

But the sense of cosiness embodied by “hygge” is especially interesting because something like it occurs again and again in non-English languages: German “Gemütlichkeit” is similar, as is Czech “pohoda” and Dutch “gezelligheid”.  There is, it seems, significant demand for this kind of friendly, secure, usually home-based warmth.

I’ve never really seen the appeal of cosiness of the English variety, because it seems so passive and lazy: apparently, I’m just not the sort to enjoy dragging the duvet to the sofa, making a cup of hot chocolate and bingeing on old episodes of ER.

But hygge, a Danish friend explains, “is a conscious activity. ‘Let’s go to my house and cosy’ – it doesn’t make sense in English.  But hygge is a verb as well as an adjective.  It’s something you do.”

That’s more like it: not vegging out, but actively weaving the fabric of friendship and ease. There ought to be a word for it.

Click on Are some emotions untranslatable?  to read Burkeman’s entire column.

Click on 21 emotions that are unspeakable (in English) for more untranslatable foreign words.

25 handy words that don’t exist in English

May 12, 2013

Here is a list of words that don’t exist in English, but ought to—especially arigata-meiwaku, gigil, manja and tingo.

  1. Age-otori (Japanese): To look worse after a haircut
  2. Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude
  3. Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face badly in need of a fist
  4. Bakku-shan (Japanese): A beautiful girl… as long as she’s being viewed from behind
  5. Desenrascanço (Portuguese): “To disentangle” yourself out of a bad situation (To MacGyver it)
  6. Duende (Spanish): A climactic show of spirit in a performance or work of art, which might be fulfilled in flamenco dancing, or bull-fighting, etc.
  7. Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love
  8. Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute
  9. Guanxi (Mandarin): In traditional Chinese society, you would build up good guanxi by giving gifts to people, taking them to dinner, or doing them a favor, but you can also use up your gianxi by asking for a favor to be repaid
  10. Ilunga (Tshiluba, Congo): A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time
  11. L’esprit de l’escalier (French): Usually translated as “staircase wit,” is the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it
  12. Litost (Czech): A state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery
  13. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan): A look between two people that suggests an unspoken, shared desire
  14. Manja (Malay): “To pamper”.  It describes gooey, childlike and coquettish behavior by women designed to elicit sympathy or pampering by men. “His girlfriend is a damn manja. Hearing her speak can cause diabetes.”
  15. Meraki (pronounced may-rah-kee; Greek): Doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing
  16. Nunchi (Korean): The subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood. In Western culture, nunchi could be described as the concept of emotional intelligence.  Knowing what to say or do, or what not to say or do, in a given situation.  A socially clumsy person can be described as ‘nunchi eoptta’, meaning “absent of nunchi”
  17. Pena ajena (Mexican Spanish): The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation
  18. Pochemuchka (Russian): A person who asks a lot of questions
  19. Schadenfreude (German): The pleasure derived from someone else’s pain
  20. Sgriob (Gaelic): The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey
  21. Taarradhin (Arabic): Implies a happy solution for everyone, or “I win. You win.” It’s a way of reconciling without anyone losing face. Arabic has no word for “compromise,” in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement
  22. Tatemae and Honne (Japanese): What you pretend to believe and what you actually believe, respectively
  23. Tingo (Pascuense language of Easter Island): To borrow objects one by one from a neighbor’s house until there is nothing left
  24. Waldeinsamkeit (German): The feeling of being alone in the woods
  25. Yoko meshi (Japanese): Literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language

via So Bad So Good.