Sunday, April 11, 2021

Are The Things We Can't Say or Write Getting Out of Control? By Karla Stover

Visit Karla's BWL Author page for details and purchase information on her books

Near the turn of the last century, the swastika was a hugely-popular lucky charm and one much-loved by the Russian royal family. It graced the family's limousine, was stitched on the czarina's last diary, and Alexandra, herself, had drawn it on the window frame of their final prison. In 1920, the Völkischer Beobachter became the official newspaper of the Nazi party and had an "explosive story about the Czarina's swastika." 

Other symbols are gone but words and expressions linger and are often worse. For example, in today's paper, I learned that calling someone a "Karen" is bad. Apparently, it's "a term used by some to insult and stereotype white women." I sent the clipping to my cousin Karen suggesting she go by her middle name. Nor should anyone ever be called a "basket case." The term came out of World War I and was used to describe quadriplegics because they'd lost all their limbs and had to be carried in a basket.

"No Can Do" insults the Chinese; "Eskimo" insults the Inuits. "Long Time No See" is offensive to Native Americans, as is "Off the Reservation. When I was a kid, "Indian giver" was a common insult. Not anymore, no can we refer to a "Mexican stand-off."

"Spinster" and "Hysteria" go after women, and "Cat Got Your Tongue" is rude because the English Navy disciplined using a whip called the "Cat-o'-nine-tails and the pain was so bad, the victims couldn't speak.

A lot of expressions insult black people: "fuzzy wuzzy", for example. In the 1800s, British colonial soldiers referred to the people of a specific East African nomadic tribe as "fuzzy wuzzies" due to their dark skin and curly hair. "Mumbo jumbo" comes from Maamajomboo, a west African god. Tribal men, dressed like the god and tried to solve domestic disputes which included spousal abuse. "Tipping point" is supposed to mean when too many black people have moved into a white neighborhood. And no one refers to a black man as "boy" anymore.

One of the big no-nos is "Sambo." 

It started with the word, “zambo,” which the Spanish and Portuguese used during their Empire periods to describe a person who appeared more black than white, although there are also claims that it meant bow-legged or knock-kneed. In the 1852 book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, "the character of Sambo was one of the slave overseers" who worked for the cruel slave owner, Simon Legree. Then, Helen Bannerman, daughter of a Scottish minister who married a physician / officer in the Indian Medical Service and lived in India for thirty years, started writing stories for her children about "an Indian child navigating an Indian landscape" and called him Little Black Sambo. Sadly, her "text placed a narrative born out of Britain’s imperialist presence in India firmly within the landscape of U.S. civil rights activism and racial politics," and the rest is history.

"Honky" may be "a variant of hunky which came from Bohunk, a slur for various Slavic and Hungarian immigrants, but it could have come from a West African language known as Wolof where it means "red-eared person," or from a coal mining area in West Virginia where white miners lived on Hunk Hill, or from Honky -tonk music.

Most of these I never say or use in my writing, however, "basket case?" I have to plead guilty. 

But I think we're all trying. 


  1. Interesting study of words not to be used. Keep writing

  2. The forbidden words are definitely growing. Thanks for the interesting study on the reasons why.

  3. oh goodness I think I'm about to get 'writer's bock'. What an interesting piece. And my teenage granddaughter, when I was talking about changing my hairstyle, told me that the one I favoured was far too Karen!!! Who knew. I'm not having it though:)

  4. Navigating the pitfalls of political correctness in our vocabulary is getting more and more difficult. But knowing the origin of the slur helps understand why it is unkind. Thanks for doing the research.

  5. Wow. Who knew? Thanks for sharing.


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