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September 11, 2016 / Congau

Magic Words

Why are we so afraid of words? Words have no magic power. They are arbitrary symbols and it shouldn’t matter what they signify as long as there is agreement among the users of the language. If we all agree what something means and there is no ambiguity, there is no reason to wish for another name of the thing. Language is communication and its purpose is effective understanding.

But words are given magic power and this superstition is widespread. Time and again people insist on things being called something else, and they are always ready to feel offended and upset if they think themselves hit by the wrong hocus-pocus.

A classic in this quarrel is the indication of race.

There used to be something called the Negroid race and a person of this race was a Negro. This word means nothing else. It is a combination of five letters that only refers to such a person and no other object in the universe, and therefore it shouldn’t cause any misunderstanding or insult anyone. But someone must have sensed the magic power of the word and felt offended. They demanded that from now on the race was to be called black and the people should be black.

Black! That word already existed in the language. It signifies the darkest and saddest color and is often used in rather unpleasant circumstances. A black outlook doesn’t bode well and black magic should certainly be avoided. In any case, no one really has black skin anyway, but brown, so why insist on calling it black?

Whatever, who cares, a word is just a word and if you want it to be black, then let it be black. No? No. After a while this had also become offensive and a new expression was invented: African American. A long and awkward term that was supposed to make someone happier.

As a designation of race it is hopelessly inaccurate. If you are in America and see a person who looks like an African American, you can’t know if that’s really what he is. You see that he is a Negro or black, but maybe he’s not an American. What would you call him if he was a Brazilian or a Nigerian?

“African American” has a logical reference that is different from what it was supposed to refer to. It was meant to be a designation of race, but seems to indicate citizenship. What should a person of African descent be called if he is not an American? Is he still black? African Brazilian? African Nigerian? (A Nigerian is probably African regardless of skin color, one would think.) Or how about an American with Egyptian parents and Arab looks. Isn’t it reasonable to call him an African American?

No, what was needed was a word that only had a racial reference and such a word existed from the start. Only “Negro” could mean nothing else.

There are a lot of similar examples in modern public parlance. One insists on changing words and thereby imagines reality to be changed.

If this obsession is motivated by an innocent wish to make the world a better place, it is completely misconceived. The world remains the same, but the human communication process is made more complicated and that leads to nothing good.

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