Stiff prose of an anxious era
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 February 2005)

After all these years, the editors of The New York Times believe we still have Eskimos in Canada. They don't know that three decades ago Ottawa moved them out, terminologically, and replaced them with Inuit. I began thinking about this difference in language when my eye fell on a Times heading, "Eskimos Fret as Climate Shifts," over a story on the Canadian Arctic. Reporters sometimes mention that Canada calls them Inuit, but in the headlines they remain Eskimos.

Outside Canada, it's hard to find support for what Canadians apparently consider a serious moral principle: Don't call anyone an Eskimo. The Canadian Encyclopedia classifies "Eskimo" as a pejorative because in Algonquin it means "eaters of raw meat." That's the common explanation, but no one explains what's wrong with eating raw meat. And lately (this just in) a fresh complication has appeared: The Alaska Native Language Center says linguists nowadays think that "Eskimo" actually comes from an Ojibwa word meaning "to net snowshoes." Is that also an insult?

The bureaucrats who promoted this change in terminology believed they were righting a historic wrong. In the 1970s, when I used the word "Eskimo" in a piece to be printed by the government, they set me straight. I said I thought Inuit sounded affected. They said "Eskimo" was as bad as "nigger." I retreated.

We all hope to write language as transparent as a well-scrubbed windowpane, so that thought shines through like the morning sun. But words are often the muddied, complex results of lobbying. They are freighted with messages, intended and otherwise.

Language chosen carelessly can be damaging, but excessive anxiety produces stiff, nervous prose. There are writers so eager to be fair that they speckle their paragraphs with "he/she" and "his/her," terms that string barbed wire between writer and reader.

When acute language sensitivity becomes ingrained in journalists they try desperately to avoid saying what they mean. On Feb. 9 the Times reported on a donor whose presence at a fund-raiser embarrassed Bill and Hillary Clinton. The reporter twice referred to this man's "troubled past," a perfect euphemism. As the story eventually explained, he had served 42 months for cocaine possession and major financial fraud.

Euphemisms come into play because organizations or individuals seek image-upgrading or rebranding. But a euphemism wears out its value and may have to be erased quickly. "Displaced Person" was the neutral 1940s term for an immigrant from a refugee camp. In the mouth of Canadian-born bigots, "DP" quickly turned into a pejorative and had to be dropped. A substitute term, New Canadians, soon became cloying and disappeared.

The descendants of slaves in the U.S. were once routinely called "colored." Later the word "negro" became popular, and when capitalized as Negro it acquired, as Booker T. Washington argued, an enhanced dignity. But in the 1960s the black power movement decided it was a term imposed by whites. From now on, the same people would be called blacks and Negro would be an insult -- "sometimes taken to be offensive," Merriam-Webster now warns.

Each term expressed an era. If "colored" was a gentle request for tolerance, "Negro" demanded respect and "black" announced angry impatience. Then came "African-American."

It originated in the 19th century but wasn't proposed as the principal name for black Americans until the 1970s. In 1972 Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, suggested it be generally adopted. Acceptance grew slowly until 1988, when Jesse Jackson endorsed it at a news conference during his presidential campaign. "It puts us in our proper historical context," he argued. Many blacks agreed but many others have never accepted it. Since most journalists and politicians now use nothing else, it's become another instance of official language separating itself from the language of ordinary life.

And now the right to use "African-American" is contested. Last summer Alan Keyes, a black Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, suggested that his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, might not be truly African-American. While Keyes is a descendant of slaves, and therefore shaped by that bitter history, Obama has a Kenyan father, which makes him crucially different.

Keyes is not alone. Many people sharing his background also share his views. Blacks who arrived in the U.S. after slavery ended, including immigrants from Africa, have become victims of clumsy language strategies. Their claim to be African-Americans having been questioned, they're not quite sure how to state their racial identity. They are Africans. They are Americans. But apparently they are not permitted to be African-Americans.

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