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The Word

The Word

There’s a word in the English language that’s so taboo that it is only ever referred to by its first initial, and even then it stands in a class by itself alongside other initialed words casually dropped: F-, C-, etc. Unlike these other initialed words, this is the only word that, among most people, can never be spoken in public or even private life. It’s a word that destroys reputations and careers, makes headlines and ends friendships.

It is, of course, a word with a despicable racist past and carries with it a weight and power that is unmatched in the English language. It’s a word that everyone knows but almost everyone is afraid to say.

You know the Word, so I don’t need to write it here, but I have written and said it elsewhere on very few occasions. I’m sure most people of all races have, whether they admit it or not. When I have used it, it has only ever been in reference as a refutation of the power falsely ascribed to language and in defending my very strong belief that words are not, in themselves, evil, but depend on a context and a speaker (and even using the Word in making that point has caused trouble). I have never used the Word against someone or in hate or used it casually as an epithet, and most of the time when I have heard the Word used in this manner—fortunately not on many occasions—I have found it obligatory to say something to the person using it. So I have participated, willingly and non-willingly, to the aura of power ascribed to this Word.

I don’t believe any word should have this power. It’s a scary thing to think that uttering one word has the potential to cause so much damage, both to the listener and the speaker. Therein, I suppose, lies the essence of taboo: something that presents itself as so unthinkable that it beggars belief why anyone would cross it.

I think I understand. Taboo is toxic to human brains. Humans hate to be prisoners, and nothing is worse than a prison of your own mind. In many ways we are wired to challenge convention, to be independent, to break things. To me, the taboos of everyday life are like desperate parasites clawing at the inside of my brain. They are sometimes all I can think about—not because I want to break them, but just out of a desire to unburden myself from thoughts I am not allowed to have.

When I hear people using the Word, I sometimes think that they’re doing it because they simply can’t accept a world where they don’t have the freedom to say something they want to say. I wonder how many people out there use the world without any malice but simply out of a desire of expanding their expressional arsenal?

I bring this up because recently I had an experience at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants. I had become friendly with the GM there, but nothing more than casual pleasantries when I patronized his restaurant. This one time I was there with some friends and he came and sat down at the table toward the end of the evening. The conversation ranged, but eventually he found a way to steer it to his favorite topic: how much he hates, well, you know.

It was weird. The last time I had—in the words of a friend—”put a quarter in a racist” was in South Africa, but that was a different experience altogether. I’ve written about South Africa’s frank and refreshingly honest ongoing conversation about race before. At first, it was shocking to an American ear, but after a while you start to realize that South Africans are far closer to the racial discussion than we are. They say what they’re thinking outright and it is probably even cathartic for them. But here in San Francisco, to hear this sort of prejudice is quite surprising, and offensive to say the least. And it was made more offensive by the fact that he didn’t think about how his usage of this word made us dirty by comparison; he made us listen and be complicit in his prejudice.

One of the things the GM at this restaurant said, even as we tried to change the subject and leave the restaurant awkwardly, was that the Word “is my favorite word because I’m not allowed to say it.” That struck me as an odd thing to say. Obviously he had no problem using the Word (although he checked around to make sure there was no one else around when he said it), but the reason he liked using it was its taboo power. Because he’s not allowed to say it. He may have even felt justified saying it, being an immigrant and surely himself a victim of prejudice.

I often have wondered if we ascribe too much power to the Word, and here I received some confirmation. It was, indeed, a powerful word, and made more so by its forbidden nature.

(For the record, my friends and I now boycott this restaurant.)

Here is the strangest thing about the Word. It is perhaps the only word in the English language whose usage carries the privilege of being casually acceptable to some and brutally unacceptable to everyone else. In fact, the Word’s most frequent practitioners are in two diametrically opposed camps. In one, you have some of the worst kinds of people, whose determination to hate, cause pain, oppress, de-legitimize, and fear makes them a fearsome silent minority. The other frequent practitioners of the Word are those people whose livelihoods, freedoms, hopes, dreams, property and fortunes are frequently under real or implied threat by a society borne of the history and culture represented in the Word itself.

Thus, ironically, the Word is likely the only major commonality between how these two groups communicate; yet one group’s usage of the Word represents the past, and the other, the future. Herein lies the power of the Word to unite rather than divide.

I should hope that we all can agree: one day, we want to live in a universe where the racial prejudice and hatred bottled up in the Word have been forgotten to history, and the Word has been stripped of its undeserved power to outrage and offend.

October 7, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

Saying “Hello” in Limpopo

I was reading my friend Luca’s blog post today about language and memories of our home stay in HaMakuya, Limpopo way back in 2009.  It was an awesome experience, and I have many fond memories of our host family and the various escapades of the children, who shall forever remember me as the white dude with the beard who couldn’t get the drum rhythms quite right.  But speaking of language, in Venda, the word for hello is different for men and women.  The women say Aa, which means “hello,” but the men declare Nda!, which literally means “I am a lion.”

This his how it usually happens:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

In my time in HaMakuya, I witnessed the interplay between Nda! and Aa several dozen times.  Sometimes the interaction was between two men, sometimes between a man and one or several woman, but interestingly enough, never from one woman to another–the household where we were staying was made up of mostly women of several generations, and they did not exchange Aa‘s as far as I could tell.  But as soon a man entered the conversation with the declarative “Nda!,” the women would always respond with “Aa,” accompanying it with a floor-level bow.

It is a challenge to modern notions of gender justice when you witness an old woman cowtowing to a young boy in casual conversation.  It is also difficult, as a foreigner, to let this situation play out without any judging the society based on moral incongruity.  One situation I saw that was particularly memorable was a boy who was just hitting puberty–maybe thirteen years old–walk into the household full of women, and without breaking his stride declare “Nda!”  The women, in response, all hit the floor with “Aa.”  What was striking about it was the level of bravado in his greeting: chest puffed out, chin lifted, with his voice intoned with confidence.  It was surprising to see this level of arrogance, especially in light of his smallish frame.  But for men and boys, the experience of Nda! must be imbued with an extreme level of self-righteousness, as it is always an opportunity to assert one’s dominance at the beginning of every conversation.  I suppose you have to give the men some credit; Whereas most men around the world must assert their masculinity in more subtle ways, the men of Limpopo can directly and forcefully declare their lion-hood to all company present without social awkwardness or shame.

The women, of course, are not ignorant to the peculiarity of this custom, and thus when a man walks into a room and declares “I am a lion,” it is not unusual hear the voices of the women dripping with irony as they assume their bows, often elongating their greeting with a sarcastic “Aaaaaahhhhh.”  At one interaction, I could have sworn I heard a woman say “Uh huh,” and she might as well have.  The tradition of Aa is clearly not taken very seriously by the women of HaMakuya.

So while a man hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  And a good day to you too, Sir.

A woman hears:

Man:  I am a lion!
Woman:  Sure you are, big guy.

That this very basic greeting, probably the cornerstone of conversation, can be used wildly differently depending on the gender of the speaker, speaks volumes about the role of language in society.  Words are the building blocks of ideas.  So when an entire Venda-speaking population communicates everyday greetings with this type of built-in sexism, one has to euthyphroically ask:  is the culture sexist because people say hello in this manner, or do people say hello in this manner because they are sexist?

When girls are taught at a young age to bow and submit to their male peers–when they see their grandmothers doing the same to their little brothers–they learn to assume the position of inferiority in a quite literal manner.  There is no ambiguity in the deep bow, no question of whose authority is present in a room when the first speaker declares he is a lion.  And as far as I can find, Aa has no correlative meaning (such as “I am a dove”).  It just means Aa.  The persistence of this tradition in the face of modern gender liberation is fascinating–especially since the women of Limpopo are no strangers to gender liberation.

For in HaMakuya, the women attend school and take night classes in business (we talked to a group of them coming home from school once).  The women run the households and educate their children.  The women do all the farming and cooking.  The men, as far as I can tell, have very few responsibilities.  They have political power in the community, they handle the cattle and fetch firewood, and in the rare case where employment is available, they work, usually in the nearby city.  When it comes to household finances, women make purchases for house and home and education, whereas the men, far as I can tell, spend their money on beer.  It was very apparent in our household who was in charge and who wasn’t.

Yet when the men arrive late at night from the bar and declare “I am a lion,” they are greeted customarily by all the women of the household, who put down their cooking spoons and brooms and scythes and kindling.  “Aaaahh,” the women say, falling to their weary knees, bowing to the freshly swept floor, “We salute you, Lion.  Now we need to get back to work.”

June 20, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More