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.)

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5 Responses

  1. This country has gotten to be too politically correct. Context absolutely matters. Recently the writers of “Horrible Bosses” got into some hot water for calling a character who refused his female boss’ advances a “faggot”. They weren’t out to gay bash anybody. People are too hyper sensitive when it comes to matters like this.

  2. There are two areas where I part with my liberal brethren: 1) gun control and 2) political correctness. It isn’t that I’m not sympathetic to the reasons behind the desire for sympathy. I am. I just feel very strongly about not restricting language.

  3. You better not get all gun control on me someday, likely to get you pistol whipped my friend.

  4. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I blame the racial connotations of the word nigger for the practical disposal of the word niggard. They have very, very different meanings and origins. I think we should be scared of more near-homophones that are covered by close synonyms.

  5. I recall a high school or college level coach getting a bunch of crap for using the word a few years ago. He used it within context and there was nothing there to indicate that he was using it as an excuse to effectively get away with anything. I was glad when he not only stood by his vocabulary but also berated others for being dumb.

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