The American linguist Lauren Hall-Lew, currently living in Edinburgh, was musing on Twitter recently about how both Scotch and Oriental are considered offensive when categorizing people, but not offensive when describing alcohol or rugs. Her main point is valid and very important: as I’ve discussed before, emotions can run very high when discussing how to categorize people, this is because so much more is at stake.A bunch of us derailed the discussion by questioning Hall-Lew’s assertion that scotch was offensive, and I want to continue that derail here. I had heard that assertion, but never from my father, whose own father came from Dundee in 1909 and whose mother was descended from “Scotch-Irish” immigrants from County Antrim.
Hall-Lew provided links to Wikipedia, the Grammarphobia Blog and the Urban Dictionary, which all reported that “many Scots” objected to using Scotch to categorize them, sometimes on the basis that “scotch is a type of liquor.”
The Wikipedia and Grammarphobia articles are particularly intriguing, because they tell us that the taboo declaration for Scotch describing people has been contested for its entire life, beginning with Robert Burns who said “The appellation of a Scotch Bard, is by far my highest pride; to continue to deserve it is my most exalted ambition.” While people in Scotland seem fairly united on declaring Scotch taboo to refer to people, people of Scottish/Scotch heritage living in North America have shown strong resistance to the taboo. Canadian politician Tommy Douglas referred self-deprecatingly to “my thick Scotch head.”
This controversy over Scotch reminds me of similar verbal hygiene practices among another group that I belong to, the transgender community. If you talk to certain people, as Jessica Roy of Open Source TV did, you can get the impression that we’re united in declaring transvestite and tranny taboo, and we love the word cis.
But just as with transvestite, nobody actually went around Scotland asking people if they agreed on this. There were simply some “community leaders” who decided that Scotch was bad, and convinced everyone who had any significant power in Scotland to go along with this. But they didn’t think to go talk to my grandfather, or Tommy Douglas, or any of the other people of Scottish heritage living outside Scotland.
Overvaluing the opinions of vocal “community leaders” can get you into trouble. For over a century “everyone knew” that if you were really from San Francisco you didn’t call it Frisco, you called it San Fran or SF or something. There was even a Don’t Call it Frisco Laundromat. But on New Year’s, Joe Eskenazi in the SF Weekly found that not only were younger residents embracing the name Frisco, but that it had long been popular among the city’s African American residents – it was primarily rejected by white people.
As I discussed in my post, you can’t have a vote of the transgender community because so many of us are in the closet or stealth. You could actually have a vote of the “Scottish community,” and in fact residents of Scotland will vote in September on whether Scotland should become an independent country again. There is some controversy over whether expatriates born in Scotland, including some 800,000 living in other parts of the United Kingdom, should be allowed to vote. They could even open up the vote to expatriates of Scottish ancestry like myself, but it doesn’t look like that will happen.
If you can have a vote on independence, you can at least have an opinion poll, based on a decent sample, on issues like the usage of Scotch. This might not have been feasible a hundred years ago, but it is certainly doable in this day and age for linguistic researchers to partner with opinion pollsters on questions of the acceptability of certain terms.
Over email, Hall-Lew clarified that by saying that Scotch “is offensive,” she didn’t mean to signal that she was accepting the word of “the community” on verbal hygiene issues. She was simply pointing to the existence of ideologies that mark Scotch and Oriental as offensive with regard to people. This kind of nuance is difficult to convey on Twitter, which is why I followed up with tweets and emails.
I actually believe that it’s very difficult, even among well-informed linguists, to say that something “is offensive” without implying that it’s a universally held opinion in the community. In public, it’s well-nigh impossible; someone will always assume that the group is united on this issue.
I’ve observed, particularly on Tumblr, that this is in fact how some of these ideas are transmitted: someone will declare that transgendered is offensive, and unless that is challenged it will be taken by others as a statement of community consensus. Even if, as with Frisco, the consensus leaves out the city’s black population.
For linguists (and grammarians and encyclopedia editors), especially those who try to be impartial observers, there is an observer’s paradox here. Just by stating that something “is offensive,” we can reinforce that ideology. We should be aware of this, and take care with our words. At the very least we should say “is considered offensive by some.” We can take steps to identify the most vocal opinion-makers. And if we’re really interested, we can verify the extent to which the population in question really agrees with a particular opinion or not.
The case of “Frisco” shows clearly that this is not a pedantic matter of crossing “i”s and dotting “t”s. It’s a matter of basic fairness. If people hear that “San Franciscans” don’t like Frisco, it excludes black San Franciscans and implies that they don’t matter. If they hear that people don’t like Scotch, they get a message that people in the Scottish diaspora don’t matter. That’s not right.