Offense can be a cultural thing

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/04/15 17:30 -04:00, original URI:

I was reading Benjamin's brief history of 'spaz' on Language Log, and I think it is quite interesting how words that can be quite innocuous in one culture can be quite incendiary in another.

In the particular example with Tiger Woods and the word spaz it is not even between languages since it is English in both cases. Perhaps we could distinguish different dialects in terms of whether there are such "points of passion" in one but not another?

For myself, I know that I should speak about my own problems in a more polite way than I do since other take offense. But it is easier to laugh off the situation with the occasional self-deprecting gimp.

Or to counter my ex-fiance's glib 'girls with glasses don't get passes' with a 'man with stick can't find a chick' or the newer 'man who scoots gets no beauts'.

Or to answer questions like 'what's your height?' with 4"1', or even better 124cm (which is about what my height is when I am sitting in the scooter).

Of course its considered slightly different if you are a member of the group you are perhaps nominally insulting. It doesn't bother me obviously, but sometimes it makes others uncomfortable (especially people who feel I am working against the progress for sensitivity on the issue).

We call it Political Correctness mostly, as if saying that I "have multiple sclerosis" is somehow magically better than saying I "am afflicted with multiple sclerosis". Which in my humble opinion is completely asinine; on a day that I do not leave my house for fear of being able to walk more than 20 feet without falling (it's rare but it has happened) calling it an affliction is probably the most polite way to adequately describe the situation.

On the other hand, I probably might be offended if someone used such a term on a day that I was feeling just fine -- perhaps going so far as to say the only affliction I was suffering from that day was the presence of the person making the statement....

And I have had quite spastic moments before, and could easily keep someone up at night if they had to be around me and my muscle spams (I take Baclofen now, so I generally don't have the problem). Somehow calling myself a spaz in those situations is slightly less frowned upon by most. Even in England.

But, to get back to cultural issues, we hit the real problem -- it really shouldn't be a cultural issue so much as a situational one. It is an issue where we shouldn't use the most extreme form of the problem as the default. Better to save the exteme stuff for when you feel pretty afflicted by it.

How on earth can someone know about every single possible point of offense in every single culture? It is truly impossible, unless you have every word you say pre-screened by native speakers before you say anything. Which is not always going to be possible.

I doubt we can add a LOCALE_SWORDSTHATOFFENDTHECRAPOUTOFPEOPLE flag to GetLocaleInfo to solve the problem programatically, though it would be fun to collect the data!

So, if anything I post here in the blog offends someone in a particular culture, I can promise that it was not intentional (unless I specifically say otherwise!).

Or, at the very least remember that I am sometimes a gimp and/or a spaz....

# Gabe on 16 Apr 2006 2:24 AM:

It's a shame the British press didn't consider the fact that words might have culturally different connotations, particularly considering that the word is slang and something like this is a bit out of character for Tiger.

I mean, if I heard a brit saying something like "fags make me sick", I would probably think they were talking about cigarettes rather than assuming they meant homosexuals.

Similarly, I was shocked to read a headline talking about "All Blacks", because it's not politically correct to speak like that in the US. Then I found out that it's a sports team in New Zealand, and figured that it's not offensive to them, so I figured it shouldn't be offensive to me.

It would be nice if the OS could supply a nice list of offensive words, but then you would have trouble keeping track of the thousands of different subcultures, let alone what derogatory slang they use.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 16 Apr 2006 3:03 AM:

Hi Gabe,

I agree. The other problem I would see in the software solution for us is the ten thousand warnings the file would trigger in scanning tools trying to help avoid shipping offensive terms in software! :-)

# Alun Jones on 17 Apr 2006 12:15 PM:

Would it be more appropriate to refer to them as the "All Really-really-dark-greys"?
The remark refers to the colour of the New Zealand rugby team's uniform.  Is the word "Black" now no longer appropriate to represent the colour?
I'm reminded of a story in one of the American newspapers that told me that a huge number of African-Americans had voted in South Africa's first fully-inclusive elections.  Someone had obviously gone through and substituted "African-Americans" for "blacks" in a number of articles, and hadn't bothered to see what the effect was on the meaning of the text.
As for "spaz", I'm wondering what the derivation could have been that doesn't have a likely offensive lineage.
Warnings in programs?  Try asking MS developers about Microsoft's "policheck", which prevents you from documenting a "white-list" versus "black-list" approach to spam filtering, but doesn't prevent you from naming a variable "felch".  Oh, and it also prevents you from saying, in comments, "I hate having to write this code in this way."
Me, I eat faggots for dinner.  They're tasty, especially when covered in gravy.

# Dan Glick on 18 Apr 2006 2:53 PM:

Interesting, I didn't know that about Policheck.

If I were encountering that, I'd be sorely tempted to use, e.g. 'blanc-list' and 'noir-list'.

Or are we supposed to say that in the 1950's, suspected Communist sympathizers in Hollywood were African-American-listed?

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