Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dictionary, Please!

OK. So it was not a wonderful day for the Radical. I had been up all night with Sailor, who has her recurrent tummy trouble, I had not heard from the vet despite repeated calls, I was dealing with this personnel stuff (see post from earlier in the week), someone flipped out at one of my people who is negotiating a big job offer and my newly popular young colleague called me in a fit of outrage. After I got off the phone from calling the administrator and reminding him that he was a grown up and might want to consider acting like one until our negotiations with the young person were over, I drove to work, looking ahead at the next four days and wondering how (by Monday) I was going to get an article in, read a dissertation that was due at interlibrary loan last Tuesday, write an exam, grade a set of papers and....oh, whatever. You have some version of this life too. You know what I'm talking about.

[Here has been excised a passage in which I describe being corrected in class by several students for using the word "denigrate" in a sentence for reasons explained here They believed it was racist, much as a very public figure was once criticized (wrongly) for using the word "niggardly." I also believed the students were wrong, but subsequent events caused me to take it down a few days before the Purge of April 3. I have put it back up minus the passage that makes at least one student identifiable so that readers can see an interesting set of comments by fellow bloggers on teaching etymology and on the correct use of the word "denigrate," that followed. I comment on those comments here.


undine said...

Am I alone in thinking that Ms. "my father is an English professor" is completely making that up?

Her objection seems spurious to me, based on the sound of the word (like the flap about the also-unrelated-to-n-word "niggardly" some years back).

The Combat Philosopher said...

I have also heard such silliness. However (and it was not with respect to this term) it came from a professor! It seems that there is a cadre of self-appointed 'experts' ('x' being the unknown, 'spurt' being a drip under pressure) who make up this tosh. They then teach it to the students, post it on their blogs and generally cause linguistic mayhem.

This kind also are 'expert' at detecting any kind of ideologically inappropriate thought, or deed and denouncing it at the top of their lungs at any possible opportunity. They are pains in the proverbial arse. I guess this gives these people something to do while not submitting papers (these 'experts' also seem to not publish on the topics upon which they like to pontificate, or anything else for that matter).

[TR, thanks for your comments -- what a freaking train wreck! We have to hope that the Provost shows sanity, but I am not holding my breath. Administrators wear ties. Ties are like nooses. Nooses constrict the flow of blood to the brain...]

The Combat Philosopher

Anonymous said...

Hi TR,

It's Prof. Z, your buddy at Zenith. OK: the etymology of denigrate is, as the OED shows quite clearly, racist in origin. That is, it is part of a system of highly racialized oppositions that came into play in the English language at just about the time of the first stirrings of the British slave trade, and that built on previous religious langauge.

But, more importantly, our whole language is build upon lost and forgotten figures, many of dubious ideological provenance. Take the word "fair": it first just meant beautiful (as opposed to foul) then came to mean light-skinned (and thus, by the logic of racism, beautiful) and only a bit later came to have the moral/ethical valence we tend to invoke when we use the term. But of course, it would be mronic to abandon the word fair on the grounds of some unattainable etymological purism.

I would recommend reminding your students (by providing some innocuous examples) of what we might call naturalized figurative langauge. Then you might suggest that while it makes good sense to steer clear of words whose racist meanings are still active (or recently active) --for instance, I tend to avoid the verbs "gyp" or "welsh" - words whose racist origins are so distant from active use as to be lost from all but the OED seem like fair game. In any case, I'd lay that out as my personal rule of thumb. Doing so might convey that the issue is itself not inherently stupid (what for instance do we think about the schoolyard phrase "that's so gay," which many students would claim--dubiously I think - no longer refers to homosexuality?). But it does convey that we don't need to sit around with the OED playing etymology-detective as part of some pointless linguistic purge.

anthony grafton said...

Hmm. My American Heritage dictionary traces denigrate back to the Latin verb denigrare. The word may well have come into use in English in the age of the slave trade, and reflected British views of the time. But its actual origin lies, apparently, in an ancient civilization--one that had its own ideas about nations, peoples, and colors.

I'm reminded of THE HUMAN STAIN.

neophyte said...

Gee, thanks, Prof Z -- while I was waiting for some steam to let off, you said what my brain was reaching for, and much more effectively than I possibly could have.

TR -- While I totally dig the cringe-effect of young white liberal arts students (hello, quite recently me) explaining to others what a given word makes African Americans feel, and while I'm 100% with Prof Z on the folly of attempting to purge language of all that is uncomfortable in it, and while I continue to believe that PC is the politics of disengagement... Something in me -- something that insists on recognizing the historical lives of words, teasing out their complexity rather than pronouncing definitions and having done -- squirmed when I read this post.

But I think (hope) we all realize that paying deep and close attention to language is not the same thing as uncritically policing it. That was an important part of my learning process as I radicalized in my undergrad years. I hope you'll be successful in helping your students to learn it.

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