"Innocuous" slurs

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linguoboy
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"Innocuous" slurs

Postby linguoboy » 2020-06-18, 21:34

Recently, I fielded a question from an English-learner about the use of "boy" as a term of address. It was a reasonable question, as equivalents of "boy" are used affectionately in many languages. However, because of the peculiar history of race relations in the USA, this word is extremely offensive when used by a white person to a Black male of any age.

This got me thinking of "innocuous slurs". There are many slurs that are simply slurs; they are always insulting, regardless of the context, and have no other uses. But there are a lot of other words which are only slurs when used in a certain way in a certain context. They have other meanings, and they are generally "innocuous" when used with these meanings. Obviously, these types of slurs are going to be the trickiest for learners, since the insulting meanings are often unpredictable and specific to particular contexts. You have to know something about the culture and even the relationships of the speakers to know whether they're being used as slurs and not as ordinary words.

Because of its long history of white supremacy, the USA has a lot of these terms related to race. After blatant slurs became uncommon in "polite society", coded terms started to come into use. Here's a sampling:

  • In some dialects of American English "you people" is an ordinary informal second-person plural. But in the US South, where "y'all" is the usual plural form used, "you people" has racial overtones when used by a person of one race to members of another.
  • It's common in many languages to compare active children to "apes" or "monkeys". But because of an ugly history of racist caricature equating Blacks with primates, these terms are highly offensive when applied to Black children, even accidentally (e.g. when describing a mixed-race group of children).
  • "Thug" can be used generically in American English to refer to brutish, intimidating men. (E.g. "hired thug", someone paid to threaten someone else with physical violence.) But due to coded usage over the years (e.g. "inner-city thugs"), it's become increasingly racialised, carrying the implication that all Black men are intimidating and dangerous. (When Trump recently referred to protesters in Minneapolis as "these THUGS", it was widely interpreted as a coded racist reference or "dog whistle".)
  • The dictionary definition of "articulate" when applied to people is "speaking in a clear and effective manner". However, since white folks have a common stereotype of Blacks as uneducated and hard-to-understand, using it to describe a Black person who speaks without a stereotypical "Blaccent" is considering condescending at best.
  • On the subject of speech, men have often described women as "shrill" when they wish to be dismissive of their opinions and their willingness to voice them, to the point that this is no longer a neutral description of the tone of a person's voice.
I could go on, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what I mean. So what are some similar "innocuous slurs" in your own languages a learner should be aware of?
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby Car » 2020-06-20, 11:15

The "Uncle Ben's" debate is a good one. Go to Facebook pages of German news sites (I guess it's the same in many other countries) and people write they always thought it was just a nice uncle who happened to be black, people tend to associate lots of positive attributes with him.
BTW: Before the debate started, that's how I felt about it, too. I remember being surprised when I was younger that they actually used a black guy and not a white guy since that simply wasn't common.
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby linguoboy » 2020-06-20, 17:55

Car wrote:The "Uncle Ben's" debate is a good one. Go to Facebook pages of German news sites (I guess it's the same in many other countries) and people write they always thought it was just a nice uncle who happened to be black, people tend to associate lots of positive attributes with him.

Are you talking about the familiar use of "Uncle" here? Otherwise there's not much I can see to connect your post with mine.
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby Car » 2020-06-20, 20:44

linguoboy wrote:
Car wrote:The "Uncle Ben's" debate is a good one. Go to Facebook pages of German news sites (I guess it's the same in many other countries) and people write they always thought it was just a nice uncle who happened to be black, people tend to associate lots of positive attributes with him.

Are you talking about the familiar use of "Uncle" here? Otherwise there's not much I can see to connect your post with mine.

Yes. Since people just weren't aware how "Uncle" can/is/was used in the US, too.
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby md0 » 2020-06-21, 8:45

There's also 'malicious friends' and destructive transfer from L1. You may be shocked to hear a Greek speaker use 'the coloureds' in English. The Greek calque is still considered quite respectful in Greek.
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby Gormur » 2020-06-21, 9:17

Car wrote:
linguoboy wrote:
Car wrote:The "Uncle Ben's" debate is a good one. Go to Facebook pages of German news sites (I guess it's the same in many other countries) and people write they always thought it was just a nice uncle who happened to be black, people tend to associate lots of positive attributes with him.

Are you talking about the familiar use of "Uncle" here? Otherwise there's not much I can see to connect your post with mine.

Yes. Since people just weren't aware how "Uncle" can/is/was used in the US, too.
This is the first I've heard this. What does it refer to exactly?
Eigi gegnir þat at segja at bók nøkkur er hreinferðug eðr ønnur spelluð því at vandliga ok dáliga eru bœkr ritnar ok annat kunnum vér eigi um þœr at dœma

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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby Car » 2020-06-21, 20:41

Gormur wrote:
Car wrote:
linguoboy wrote:
Car wrote:The "Uncle Ben's" debate is a good one. Go to Facebook pages of German news sites (I guess it's the same in many other countries) and people write they always thought it was just a nice uncle who happened to be black, people tend to associate lots of positive attributes with him.

Are you talking about the familiar use of "Uncle" here? Otherwise there's not much I can see to connect your post with mine.

Yes. Since people just weren't aware how "Uncle" can/is/was used in the US, too.
This is the first I've heard this. What does it refer to exactly?

Apparently, blacks were called "uncle" because they weren't deemed worthy of being called "Mr.".

I found this link in a German article:
Critics have pointed out the problematic use of a Black man to be the face of a white company, noting that Black men were often referred to as “boy” or “uncle” to avoid calling them “Mr.” during the country's Jim Crow era.
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby linguoboy » 2020-06-22, 0:15

Car wrote:I found this link in a German article:
Critics have pointed out the problematic use of a Black man to be the face of a white company, noting that Black men were often referred to as “boy” or “uncle” to avoid calling them “Mr.” during the country's Jim Crow era.

See also "Uncle Remus" and "Uncle Tom".
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby Linguaphile » 2020-06-22, 4:49

linguoboy wrote:
Car wrote:I found this link in a German article:
Critics have pointed out the problematic use of a Black man to be the face of a white company, noting that Black men were often referred to as “boy” or “uncle” to avoid calling them “Mr.” during the country's Jim Crow era.

See also "Uncle Remus" and "Uncle Tom".

Also Aunt Jemima. In all cases (Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus, etc) the origin of the "uncle/aunt" part of the name is what Car explained: unwillingness to use courtesy titles like "Mr." or "Mrs." when referring to African-Americans. This started long before the Jim Crow era, but was certainly used during that era.
It does fit perfectly with what Linguoboy mentioned, because "Uncle Sam" does not fit into this category and is not considered offensive - because he (the image associated with the term) is not African American.
I've been trying to think of any terms I know of that work this way in other languages. I haven't come up with any. There are plenty of words that are insulting or used as slurs, but they don't fit the description of "words which are only slurs when used in a certain way in a certain context" in the sense that they would be innocent when said to or about one person but a slur when said to or about another. They are not context-dependent to that extent. (Other than maybe using feminine forms when speaking about a man or vice versa; those would be innocent when said to a person of the mentioned gender and could be used as a slur when said to a person of the opposite one.) Some words I can think of in other languages are innocent when they are used to refer to something other than a person, but insulting when used in reference to any person, regardless of who the person is. Linguoboy, I don't think that's quite what you're looking for? I'm not sure I'd want to list those here anyway. :wink:

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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby vijayjohn » 2020-06-26, 5:15

In Malayalam, നീ [n̪iː] 'you' can only be used with people who are of lower, or possibly equal, social status. Otherwise, it is considered insulting. Similarly with എടാ [ɛˈɖaː] and എടി [ɛˈɖi] for men and women respectively, which is actually unlike Tamil, which throws these words around everywhere.

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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby OldBoring » 2020-06-26, 6:51

vijayjohn wrote:In Malayalam, നീ [n̪iː] 'you' can only be used with people who are of lower, or possibly equal, social status. Otherwise, it is considered insulting. Similarly with എടാ [ɛˈɖaː] and എടി [ɛˈɖi] for men and women respectively, which is actually unlike Tamil, which throws these words around everywhere.

Imagine if I go to Kerala and say 你 to someone.

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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby Jurgen Wullenwever » 2020-09-22, 16:42

vijayjohn wrote:In Malayalam, നീ [n̪iː] 'you' can only be used with people who are of lower, or possibly equal, social status. Otherwise, it is considered insulting. .

That is very close to how "ni" [ni:] 'you' was used and regarded in 19th century Swedish. :shock:
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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby Gormur » 2020-09-23, 14:49

Jurgen Wullenwever wrote:
vijayjohn wrote:In Malayalam, നീ [n̪iː] 'you' can only be used with people who are of lower, or possibly equal, social status. Otherwise, it is considered insulting. .

That is very close to how "ni" [ni:] 'you' was used and regarded in 19th century Swedish. :shock:
Must be the same as Norwegian De, formal you used to address one's elders

I have it in my dialect but now it's only used to address the king, unless you just want to be polite to a stranger and come off a little bit stilted. I also have the word de pronounced the same way as De; something like [di], without capitalization that means you guys (plural you) :)
Eigi gegnir þat at segja at bók nøkkur er hreinferðug eðr ønnur spelluð því at vandliga ok dáliga eru bœkr ritnar ok annat kunnum vér eigi um þœr at dœma

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Re: "Innocuous" slurs

Postby mōdgethanc » 2020-10-29, 3:43

"Niggardly" (which comes from Old Norse and means "miserly", nothing at all to do with any word for skin colour) has had so many controversies over it that it has its own Wikipedia page.


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