Recently, a work acquaintance of mine used the word “Jews” in a sentence and promptly apologized to me in a panic.
His explanation: “I’m not sure if we’re allowed to use that word anymore. Like, is it still politically correct to say? Because I don’t want to offend anyone.”
As someone who fancies himself not especially politically correct, I responded as I believe most so-called normal people would in such a situation. I made fun of him.
“My understanding is, the World Language Police have developed a three-pronged test on this subject,” I explained. “One, are you using the word ‘Jew’ as a verb? It’s not allowed. Two, does the sentence include positive sentiments about Adolf Hitler or Nazi Germany? It’s off-limits. Three, are you saying the Jews in question control Hollywood, the media, Wall Street or all the world’s money? If so, stay away from that, too.”
For a moment, he looked like he might pull out a notebook and write down the rules. “I’m kidding,” I told him. He laughed and drank half his iced tea.
“You really had me worried there for a second,” he admitted.
As someone who works with words for a living, I’m also worried.
Back in the day, words were used to construct sentences, which put forth ideas and enabled us to connect with and better understand one another.
In 2020, each word seems to be like a small explosive charge, linguistic TNT, liable to detonate at any moment and maim not only the speaker but everyone within hearing distance.
Last week, for example, UN Women, the United Nations “global champion for women and girls worldwide” tweeted to its 1.7 million Twitter followers to “use your language to fight gender bias with gender-neutral expressions!”
Their recommendations: Say “chair,” not “chairman.” Say “partner,” not “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” Say “humankind,” not “mankind.” Say “owner,” not “landlord.”
To me, if the biggest problem in your relationship is what to call your, uh, “better half,” then you two are doing just peachy.
Meanwhile, the folks over at PETA have taken aim at the word “pet” as derogatory and demeaning to animals. Their term of choice? “Animal companions.”
“How we say things governs how we think about them, so a tweak in our language when we talk about the animals in our homes is needed,” said Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA, in an interview with the British media outlet Metro.
“A pet is a commodity, but animals should not be things on shelves or in boxes. Hopefully, the time is passing for this kind of attitude.”
Here’s a thought. When dogs and cats can buy their own food, open their own can of Purina and feed themselves dinner, I’ll start referring to them as equals.
Until then – or until I start scooting on the kitchen floor as a sanitary practice – I’m sticking with the word “pet.”
Besides, Newkirk and many members of the language police have it backward. They believe the words we use govern how we think. I believe our thoughts govern the words we use.
Think about it: Is a member of the Ku Klux Klan smart enough to avoid using racial slurs in public any less racist? Of course not.
Is the person who laughs and says, “Let’s just steal this parking space marked for ‘people with disabilities,’” any less rude? Hardly.
Personally, I’d rather racists, bigots, sexists, anti-Semites and the rest of the world’s haters speak out at the top of their lungs, using the most offensive language they can muster.
To me, it makes it easier to separate the blithering morons from the rest of us.