By saying 'Negro', Eric Abetz has revealed the complications of taboos
This article originally published in The Drum.
The lessons about which words are taboo have not been universally imparted. So when Senator Eric Abetz said "Negro", he was probably as surprised by the reaction as some people were by his choice of words, writes Susan Butler.
When Macquarie Dictionary was first published in 1981, the words labelled taboo were still the ones to do with sex and bodily functions.
I was still warning my child that if he used the f-word as casually as he did with his friends in front of his grandparents, they could quite possibly drop dead. He tried to argue that the f-word was not a swearword so I had to talk about changes in language, the random nature of the taboo status, how some people dropped dead and others were unfazed.
Coming back, of course, to the point that his grandparents would drop dead.
Over the years the dictionary has observed and recorded the shift in taboos from the old ones to new ones to do with stereotyping and social exclusion. As I said famously on a breakfast TV show before I was hauled off, you can get into more trouble these days saying that someone is fat than you would by saying that someone is a f**kwit.
The dictionary acknowledges changes in usage in a note at the end of the entry. So one of the first words to receive this treatment was black, used as a badge of pride by black Americans to the point where Negro became a word that was dated and could offend some who felt that the connotation it had was of second-class citizenship. It possibly even had a whiff of slavery.
Black American was a new beginning. It was an attitude quickly adopted by Indigenous people in Australia who have now refreshed black by spelling it blak.
At the same time the feminists were fighting their battles for equality for women, which included a reshaping of attitudes through deliberate language change. The word that caught the headlines then was chairman but there were other adjustments to be made. Feminists objected to women being referred to as "the girls" because it seemed to strip women of status and power. Girl became a word that could get men into trouble.
After that came the words to do with disabled people. One very recent addition to the dictionary is crip, a shortened form of cripple. It has been adopted with pride by people who are crippled but an outsider is not invited to use it. It has joined a set of words that have been reclaimed by the group stigmatised where permission for the mainstream community to use it has been withheld.
It is fine for people of immigrant background to talk about "wogs" and "wogball". Others need to be careful, although a certain degree of affectionate use is now permitted. While there are documented instances of some Indigenous people using the word "boong", this term is very much taboo in Australian English.* (See Editors' notes below)
So the situation is complicated.
There is general agreement that the speed at which language changes these days is, at the very least, more noticeable than it used to be. If we go back to the word girl, we find that it is now used to connote a modern, cool, sophisticated woman and there is no problem at all.
And so to Eric Abetz and his use of Negro.
People who enter the public domain need to be careful with their language. In the case of writers and presenters, there are style guides, either general or in-house, to give some warning on words that may offend. I think that we assume that any politician worth his or her salt will have a very finely tuned ear to public opinion.
Possibly we all listen more keenly when we are young and making decisions on what our personal language style is going to be than we do when we are older and our style is set. I think that Abetz is just a little bit out of touch. He was probably completely surprised by the reaction.
Also it is true, as I said to my son, that, depending on background, education, personal beliefs, and so on, some people are much more sensitised to taboo words than others. Taboos are carefully taught. No word has inherently the property to cause the visceral reaction that a taboo word elicits. Children have to be coached to respond appropriately by the shock and anger of their parents. The lessons are not universally imparted.
At the moment we are in a strange situation where the older generation is operating on the old taboos, and the younger generation is working with the new ones. There is scope there for everyone to be offended at some point!
*The Drum Editor's note (October 24, 2015): The wording of this paragraph has been changed to more accurately reflect the author's intended meaning. The use of the words "wog" and "boong" were not intended to refer to any groups but to illustrate her assertion that these terms are taboo. In addition, the term "Aborigine" does not comply with ABC guidelines. The Drum regrets these errors.
*UPDATE 26/10/2015 - Macquarie Dictionary Editor's Note
The usage note for the word 'boong' first appeared in the third edition (1997) and came from a reading of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody transcripts. Since then the general note in the definition with regard to the derogatory and racist use of the word has gained strength.
We now feel that the use of the word in Aboriginal English has also become entirely derogatory and that this use commented on in the dictionary was in the context of a social dialect which has changed since that time.
We will adjust the entry accordingly.
Thank you to everyone who brought this to my attention.