Can political correctness be retrograde? It’s a tricky question. One I am grappling with as I write a historical novel. As with all thoughts, they lead to others, until a convoluted labyrinth of words and ideas become the warp and weft of the fabric of our convictions. Right or wrong.
The novel, Anna’s Fancy, is set in the Danish West Indies in the latter half of the 19th century. It was a time of unrest on many of the sugar plantations, even though slavery had been abolished on the island thirty years before the story starts. I am able to get around using the racial slur of the n-word by writer’s jiggery-pokery. But I do use the word ‘negro’, which is the correct terminology for the time. And yet, even though my African American friends assure me it is alright, I feel uncomfortable.
I have one particular friend who is 91. He uses the the word as a descriptor for himself, along with African American and black. Come down a generation and the word ‘negro’ is deemed derogatory by many.
Having spent much of my life in ‘black’ countries, I consider myself colour blind. So, many years ago, when I lived in Papua New Guinea and found an abandoned black bitch, I called her Negrita. It was an apt descriptor of a beautiful little puppy.
And there’s another. Bitch. A female canine. Surely bitch sounds better than girl dog? The poor little bitch would grow up wondering which lavatory to use, or indeed which one she would be allowed to use in this country. Am I a bitch or am I a dog? The word can of course also be used to describe a spiteful woman, as well as, in colloquial terms, a conundrum. But should one meaning negate another?
Another word rife with angst is ‘retard’. Unlike ‘negro’ it is, to my mind, an ugly sounding and looking word, and I think I have always felt that. But it was used, without any disparaging undertone, for many years to describe those with mental retardation. Spastic falls under the same category. And then, as some words are, they were picked up by the school yard and people who should know better, thus becoming offensive. And so now we have mental and physical disabilities, which as umbrella words cover a multitude of conditions, but at least do not sound disrespectful.
Which brings me to ‘disability’. Sitting around a dinner table recently I was appalled to learn there are still, in 2016, some companies and organizations who have the temerity to label maternity leave, ‘disability leave’. One wonders if their boards and HR departments have ever seen the energy and perspicacity needed in order to take care of a newborn.
When my novel came back from my wonderful editor, Jane Dean, www.wordgeyser.com she had vetoed ‘gay’ as in, “Gone was the gay headpiece, gone was the blue uniform and white apron. Instead Emiline wore a loose twill dress, black as the night, her slight ankles showing, her hair corkscrewing freely.” I would argue it was a word of its time but unlike ‘negro’ the connotation has utterly changed, and so I replaced ‘gay’ with ‘cheery’.
How sad that some words have been hijacked. Then we have words which become used in a totally erroneous manner. ‘Like’ comes to mind. To hear it used now, by not only young men and women, one wonders how we managed to start any sentence without the word. To my mind there are only two ways to use ‘like’ and I freely steal my husband’s example. “I like ice cream, which is not like yoghurt.”
I remind myself language is an evolving science, but when is it acceptable to use terms now deemed politically incorrect? As I said, it’s tricky!