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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Being Offended

A number of years ago the term “honkey” was coined and intentionally used to be insulting to Caucasians.  It did not achieve its intended goal because “white” people simply did not accept the insult.

So what really makes something offensive?
1.   The intent of the user or
2.  How it is perceived by the target (person or group) of the word or phrase or
3.  (and I am not being cute here) How it is perceived by one person on another person’s  behalf

I think most people would agree that calling someone from Poland a "Pollack” is unacceptable but do I also have to stop using the word “gypped”?  The list goes on.


  1. That is a good question, and one to which I can't formulate an answer. However, in the case of "honkey" I think the answer is that (a) it is meant to express "uncool" more than it is something truly negative and (b) I don't care how mean you are or how viscerally you try to say it, the term "honkey" is more likely to come out sounding silly than it is to sound truly insulting or incendiary.

    1. Perhaps the silly factor applies to the term "cracker" as well.

    2. I suspect the same is true of "cracker" as well.
      I apologize for responding originally so as to sound like I misunderstood your question. However I have always thought that way about the term "honkey".

      Probably each of the three you mentioned is responsible; sometimes in conjunction with one another and sometimes not.
      My mother used to say that my father was good at 'jewing-down' the car salesmen. She would never offend anyone on purpose, and it was mostly just a word to her that she had picked up through hearing it. That term falls into the same category as "gypped" no doubt. These days it would probably fall into your category (2) and (3) more than it would (1).

      I remember when I first heard the term 'differently-abled'. It caused me to roll my eyes.
      Good grief. They all refer to something sad, and no matter what term you eventually use for it, that term will eventually mean that sad something; at which point its use could eventually be thought of as possibly hurting the feelings of someone when they find that they have been categorized by the speaker of the term as being not like the majority of us. I suppose that one could call this a 'chicken-or-the-egg' offensive term.

      I was really surprised to read of the action of the US Patent Office regarding the Redskins trademark. I was ambivalent about the use of the Redskin trademark and the whole fuss caused me to wonder just what "Redskin" meant. My thinking was that it had been used by the team to connect themselves with Native Americans in a way that would connote "tough" or "strong", and the worst offense of the term itself was to refer to a whole group of people via a trait as weak as a skin-color...sort of diminishing, in a way, but not of ill-intent. Based on this I thought that both sides were taking the matter too seriously. I looked it up in Wikipedia and found that I wasn't far off:

      ""Redskin" is a term for Native Americans. Its connotations are a subject of debate,[1] although the term is defined in current dictionaries of American English as "usually offensive",[2] "disparaging",[3][4] "insulting",[5] and "taboo." [6] The term has almost disappeared from common usage since the 1960s, except as a name for sports teams, although the number of teams using the name has also been in steady decline. The origin of the term is also debated, some stating that it derives from the use of "red" color metaphor for race following European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, others state that it was originally applied only to certain tribes that used red pigments to paint their skin.

      It is argued by sociologist Irving Lewis Allen that slang identifiers for ethnic groups based upon physical characteristics are by nature derogatory, emphasizing the difference between the speaker and the target.[7] However, Professor Luvell Anderson of the University of Memphis, in his paper "Slurring Words", argues that for a word to be a slur, the word must communicate ideas beyond identifying a target group, and that, slurs are offensive because the additional data contained in those words differentiates those individuals from otherwise accepted groups.[8] An example of the negative context of the term in popular culture is in "Western" movies of the 1940s to the 1960s, in which "Redskins" were often portrayed as savage enemies.[9]"

      So if 'Whitey" meant 'tough', and they were the Washington Whiteys, what would I think? I understand the point I think, but I can't really put myself in the right place to understand how would feel to a Native American. Regardless, I believe that the US Patent Office **way** overstepped its bounds; their action casts a negative glow on the whole Federal Government (along with the recent IRS action).

    3. Like you both, I try to be inoffensive to everyone, and sometimes it is a lot of work. Regarding your categories (2) and (3), it is difficult to account for just how sensitive someone is going to be or how sensitive somebody is going to be on behalf of another person/group. I think that the American Culture has become overly steeped in the principle of the 'Individual' and this has fractured us into 300 million loners who take too many things too personally. Exaggerated for effect: "The world now revolves around each of us and so every non-positive event is a slight directly against "you" or "me" rather than just a random or incidental event."
      Thus, while your category (1) should be the operative one, things have moved beyond the point where that is likely to be accepted.

      I didn't look to see what people responded to the post about the Patent Office's ruling; I really don't have time to read much or post at all. However, over time I have built up a 'connection' to Tom and I felt a little rude in dropping my comment about the silly factor, so I decided to weigh in for real and ended up going on and on farther than I had time to do.

    4. Emptyset – nice comments. I think we see this pretty much the same way.

      I have heard that the term “honkey” was originally used to denote the nasal quality of speech that many white individuals possess. i.e talking through your nose. Since it was used almost exclusively by the black community about a quality possessed by the white community it would meet Irving Lewis Allen’s criteria as a slur. I think I reject his definition since it would make simple statements of fact such as you are black and I am white a slur.

      Actually I had not considered the silly factor and it has merit. Whether it is a disqualifier (for being offensive) I am still thinking it over. Towel head or camel jockey sounds pretty silly too, but I think both are perceived as incendiary.

  2. Good questions, Tom. My take is this - of course, words are symbols and we are the ones who give them their meaning. I tend towards allowing people to be offended by whatever offends them and then trying to pattern my speech accordingly.

    1. Dan, I try not to intentionally offend others as well, but as I mentally flag words or phrases “not to use” it gets harder every day. Occasionally, when talking to a particular individual that is or might be easily offended the effort to “not offend” becomes so tedious that I am tempted to simply speak reasonably and let “being offended” be their problem.