Context matters in language

I know the title to this post is wildly obvious, but for some bizarre reason it bears repeating. People do not seem to understand that the power any given word may have is premised in the context in which it is presented. A white Southerner in 1845 who calls someone a nigger is doing so for some awfully racist reasons. Herman Cain saying “niggerhead” had nothing racist about it (nor would it if a white person dared to say it on TV). The same idea goes for any given word, including “retard”, “faggot”, “wetback”, or even words which are often considered politically correct. For instance, “Jerry Coyne is a Jew” has no bigoted meaning behind it, at least in the majority of contexts in which it may be said. However, “I think the used car salesman really Jewed me on my purchase” is entirely different because it appeals to stereotypes about Jews screwing people over monetarily.

I wish more people could understand this. EDIT: Not that I’m advocating for the use of any of these words. While context does matter, sometimes it is too difficult to divorce a word from its historical context without being very specific.

(And context certainly matters behind this one word.)


Thought of the day

Herman Cain recap: If you are poor, it’s totally your fault. But if you get accused of sexual harassment by three women, it’s Rick Perry’s fault.