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Op-Ed: Taboo Words Serve An Important Purpose


And now, The Opinion Page. Many reporters and editors turn to the "AP Stylebook" to answer questions on grammar, punctuation and usage, so it's news when words are purged. Last month, The Associated Press announced the elimination of Islamophobia, homophobia and ethnic cleansing from next year's stylebook, a decision Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Clarence Page calls a linguistic blow for blandness. Now, there are a few words so offensive that they're beyond the pale: the N word, the F word.

But right below those fighting words lies another category of vivid terms that can grab your attention, but it can also derail a dialogue before it even gets started. So tell us: Is there a word from your experience that can stop a conversation in its tracks? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Clarence Page's column "Words with Negative Power" ran last Wednesday. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

CLARENCE PAGE: Thank you. Glad to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And let me offer one possible conversation stopper, the word Nazi.


PAGE: Right. There you go. You know, we've got to watch words that can take us off the air too but...

CONAN: Yeah. Exactly.


PAGE: But even in your previous segment, somebody made the reference to Hitler that democracy brought us Hitler. You know, there's another word, name that gets overused, shall we say, to a point that that it crosses the line of appropriateness in a lot of circumstances.

CONAN: Interesting to see a letter I think in The New York Times today protesting the use of the nuclear option, that phrase to describe the situation in the United States Senate. Hey, we're not that far away from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

PAGE: That's right. That's right. But you know, this is where I'm on defense about a lot of words, but, you know, on the one hand, I know the "AP Stylebook" folks, they — their heart is in the right place, and I certainly understand why in a news story where you're trying to be as objective down the line as possible why you might want to advise people not to use words like Islamophobia or homophobia. But for us opinion writers, we get dispensation here because...


PAGE: ...I'm fighting against blandness in our language as well and we - sometimes, we can overdo politeness to the point where we take away a lot of effective words or language. So even the N word you mentioned earlier, how do you refer to Dick Gregory's autobiography, you know, which used that in its title? Richard Pryor, his first hit album used that as a title. But in 2004, the rapper Nas tried to use that word to title his CD, and Warner Brothers wouldn't let him do it because Wal-Mart wouldn't sell it, right? And so you get censorship in the commercial marketplace as well.

So this says a lot about our society. I think it's sort of a marker each year as to where we stand with our sensibilities.

CONAN: Part of the AP's reasoning was that phobia raises questions about psychiatric - a clinical psychiatric term.

PAGE: Yes.

CONAN: It means fear of, and it's often used, you know, agoraphobia to describe various psychiatric conditions. It's also widely used in the general parlance to describe fears of lots of things.

PAGE: Well, that's exactly right, and I think, you know, the AP editor who was quoted in regard to that himself was trying to dance around the hardcore truth. The fact is homophobia and Islamophobia to me are like the word racist. They're legitimate words that have specific definitions but are oftentimes used as epithets, either directly or to imply if there's something wrong with your character over your criticism. Now, you know, there are people who innocently believe that Islam says certain things in the Quran and blah-blah-blah - we don't really know, but they've heard this, you know, and they believe that that's the truth.

And to me if somebody doesn't mean to offend you, your first reflex should be to educate them. If they're willing to listen, then help them out. You know, let them become more knowledgeable about the world. On the other hand, if they're deliberately trying to provoke and to offend, that's a different matter. But that's why...

CONAN: And you can have any choice of words that can still be offensive. The other point you made in the piece, homophobia. This had a very specific origin and a very specific definition and may be irreplaceable.

PAGE: Yeah. You know, I use the Advocate magazine as my source. The psychologist George Weinberg, who is given credit for coming up with homophobia and has used it, I guess, for 10 or 20 years in arguments for gay rights and all, said that, you know, the effectiveness of the word, whatever it's implications and all, is such that it really generates dialogue and gets people's attention. I think you could say the same for Islamophobia. And certainly, I'm all in favor of opening up dialogue.

I'm concerned about when a word shuts it down though, because you know, if somebody calls you a name, your first reflex, well, I don't want to talk to them anymore or maybe I want to punch them in the nose or something. But, you know, it's not constructive dialogue. So I can see, you know, again, words like this should be used judiciously I feel, but I wouldn't necessarily, you know, strike them altogether from the usage.

CONAN: Right. Interesting. We've asked you to pitch in, of course. From your experience, what's one of those words that sort of stops the conversation in midstream? Bearing in mind the licenses of all of our member radio stations please. And here's Tammy(ph) in Florida, says fascist.

PAGE: Fascist, yeah. That's another one, you know? I think people come up with fascist because they get tired of being called socialist, you know? Because socialist has been used so much, you know? You want to come back with something, like, oh, yeah, well, you're a fascist, you know? And in fact, I think that people on the left feel a little bit shortchanged because they don't have epithets that bite as well as socialist or communist or Marxist, (unintelligible) that clashes. Lot of folks don't know what a fascist is, you know?


CONAN: They're too young, thankfully.

PAGE: Yeah. And in our society, we're not really conditioned, most of us, to grow up to be afraid of fascists. But, you know, being a Cold War baby, we all were raised to be afraid of communists.

CONAN: Well, yeah, but nevertheless, if you've ever met a real socialist, his name is not Barack Obama.

PAGE: Well, this is exactly right. And here's where we do need some dialogue because a lot of folks obviously are using it as an epithet just like, you know, the whole birther thing, the Hawaii birth certificate. People who know better bring it up anyway just out of frustration because it's some way to take a dig at Barack Obama. But it's also a roundabout way of saying, well, he's alien. He's somehow foreign to real Americanness. And, you know, words could have a lot of power that way.

CONAN: Let's see if we get a caller in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Tom(ph) is with us from Los Gatos in California.

TOM: Hey, good morning, gentlemen. I'm really enjoying the program. The real word that stops conversation is called - I think in society, whether it's talk radio or newsprint or any other media, is the word - the newly coined word truther, that anyone who questions, you know, the true origins of 9/11, you know, like, Ahmadinejad, you know, gave a speech a few years ago in the United Nations. Everybody walked out because that - when he was - as soon as he started talking about 9/11, that was a complete conversation - I mean, for professional diplomats to walk out shows not only that they were afraid of that word and afraid of any kind of discontent with the official policy or explanation of 9/11 but extreme racism, which brings up another word, apartheid or apartheid. We can't use that word, apartheid - we can't use that word in association with our own social policies, even though we have more apartheid or apartheid than South Africa ever had. Like the city of San Francisco, for example, incarcerates four times the number of African-Americans.

CONAN: There's a difference between a policy that is in law as apartheid was in South Africa and one you calling a de facto apartheid in San Francisco. And I think there's quite a distinction there. And - but it was Jimmy Carter who got into great trouble, Clarence Page, and he applied the word apartheid to Israel and the Palestinians.

PAGE: Right. Which shows you how - in fact, the Hitler issue, the use of certain words in certain situations. Is it appropriate or not? And that can have a politically volatile edge to it. I don't know if my answer would be satisfactory for the caller, but I had experience with people getting offended by truther because I compared truthers and birthers, saying that they are - to me, they're the two sides of the same coin just from different political extremes in regard to either the Obama or the Bush administration because I've checked out both, Neal, as all of us good journalists do, checked out all these theories about 9/11. I checked out the theories about Obama's birth certificate. I find them both to be equally unconvincing, shall we say. So I think it's a very fair comparison to make and sorry if people get offended by that, but let's have dialogue.

CONAN: So you didn't drink the Kool-Aid.

PAGE: Didn't drink the Kool-Aid.

CONAN: Rob in Virginia Beach writes, let's kill drink the Kool-Aid.

PAGE: Don't drink the Kool-Aid. Thank you.

CONAN: Unless referring to a horrific incident in Guyana, of course, the People's Temple.

PAGE: Well, yeah. Well, yeah, absolutely. And I wonder about the folks at Kool-Aid. They're not too happy about that either, you know? It's just been - their brand has been pulled into this awful tragedy. And, well, what more can I say about it?

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Sally(ph), and Sally is with us from Nampa, Idaho.

SALLY: Hi. I really appreciate this conversation. It's kind of fun.

CONAN: Well, go ahead.

SALLY: Thank you.

CONAN: What's the word in your experience that's a conversation stopper?

SALLY: OK. So the word is housewife.


PAGE: Oh, my wife will appreciate that.

SALLY: What does that (unintelligible) for you? I mean, seriously, in a conversation, housewife is negative nowadays. Society, you know, society tends to think of a housewife as some slob who's sitting at home, doing nothing. There's no production in that life, you know? And so that word...

CONAN: I think bonbons may be involved.

PAGE: Oh, yeah.

SALLY: Yeah. Right. Right. Sitting around bonbons, nothing - no production in that life.

PAGE: I got to hand it to Sarah Palin, for example. You know, she sometimes has been referred to in the past the Alaska housewife who became governor, you know, et cetera. And, you know, that's not an easy job, folks, you know? And women tend to get the sort and I'm willing to admit because my wife is listening, especially. But no question about it, though, that so often, the wife in the family gets both ends, you know, earning money outside and managing the household as well. So let's give them props.

SALLY: All right. So nowadays, you know, it's really - it's more elaborate or acceptable to be a stay-at-home mom if you're still raising children or, you know, domestic engineer, right?

CONAN: Well, the fact is once you hear that word housewife, people stop listening because they think they know everything.

SALLY: That's right.

PAGE: I remember Roseanne Barr saying - domestic goddess was her title, I remember.


CONAN: Sally, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

SALLY: You're very welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Clarence Page on the Opinion Page this week. You can find a link to his column at npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This tweet from Suzie(ph): Redneck.

PAGE: Yeah. You know, that's - what, you might just be a redneck. Look at Jeff Foxworthy. Yes, he's made a career out of that, you know? But it's one thing if Jeff Foxworthy tells that joke, but it would be another thing if I got up and get a whole monologue about it.

CONAN: It might be just...

PAGE: Which on the flipside, by the way, reminds me of Chris Rock and his N-word versus black monologue, which is a classic. But on "The Office," the - and I'm blanking on his name now. The star of "The Office."

CONAN: Steve Carell.

PAGE: Thank you. Steve Carell, it was this brilliant episode they had where he tells that joke in "The Office" and is greeted with silence by everybody for obvious reasons. And it says a lot about, you know, it's not what you say, it says who says it.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jennifer(ph) in Charlotte: What a coincidence. I'm grading my AP language in composition class definition papers, in which they are defining labels such as racist, nerd, gay, jock, atheist and the like. Several students have recognized that labels can be used negatively and are harmful to civil society. I'm going to have them follow up on this conversation. Thanks. It does matter what words we use. And that was one of the great points in your piece that words matter.

PAGE: Words matter. Words matter. And I'm a word man, you know? Right? You know, you're a word man, too, of course, you know, and talking every day on live radio.

CONAN: I'm more of a yoga(ph) man, but that's...

PAGE: There you go. Right.


PAGE: But words do matter. And that's why I feel - and a lot of my readers do too. I just got an email from someone who questioned my use of the word further. He said he heard that time - farther was distance and further was time. Well, I was taught that further is further than farther. Simple as that.

CONAN: Simple as that. Well, boy, you can get into a long conversation about that.

PAGE: Absolutely.

CONAN: Interesting. There was another term the AP decided to no longer use you didn't mention in your column, and that is ethnic cleansing.

PAGE: Right. Right. And this is something, too, that has been misused, you know, here I think it's more in the euphemism category, as you could say. Ethnic cleansing is too mild. It doesn't evoke enough of a powerful response. I think that was the AP's objection that it's used so often as a euphemism for what is essentially a very, very brutal practice outlawed by the U.N. for a very good reason. And we tend to make it sound so benign to say, you know, ethnic cleansing, as if they're just peacefully but forcefully moved, whereas Islamophobia and homophobia...

CONAN: Oh, I think it's a pretty ominous sounding term that aptly describes what's going on which is a form of genocide.

PAGE: Yeah, exactly. There you go. Now, genocide, now, that's a powerful word. That's what we're talking about with ethnic cleansing.

CONAN: We should note Congress recently voted to rid the federal code of the word lunatic.

PAGE: Right. Right. That, you know, lunatic goes in the category with retarded, you know, that these are words. I think we're talking - especially we've seen a lot of controversy around that.

CONAN: And we had the young man who wrote that letter in response on the air a couple of weeks ago as he explained his objections to the use of that term to refer to him and others with his condition.

PAGE: That's right.

CONAN: And what an insult it is.

PAGE: That's right, you know? And that's the kind of word that kids use and we need to tell our kids, no, don't use it. That is not a nice word, not a proper word to use. And it's like when my son was about 7, he and his buddies were talking about, well, that's so gay, you know?

CONAN: Yeah.

PAGE: It's the same kind of thing here once again that the - I certainly grew up with don we now our gay apparel this time of year, you know, but it has a whole different meaning now.

CONAN: Bridgette(ph) from Johnson City, Tennessee, writes in with the word feminazi, which I think is a Rush Limbaugh-ism.

PAGE: It is a Rush Limbaugh-ism. He has to take credit and blame for that.

CONAN: And this from Roxie(ph) in San Antonio: Schizophrenia, schizophrenic and any overt reference to medical or psychiatric diagnosis. As the child of a schizophrenic mother, I find it particularly divisive and supports the stigmatization of mental illness. And that, I guess, goes along with what the AP was talking about.

PAGE: It goes right back to the same thing with phobias, you know, that - and, you know, I've been nailed for the use of schizophrenia by readers. I don't do it anymore. The other problem with schizophrenia is a lot of people don't even use it right, don't really understand what it means. They use it to mean split personality, for example, as we used to call it. And it's something much more complicated.

CONAN: And this email from Sega(ph) from Durham, North Carolina: A word that stops the conversation is anti-Semitic.

PAGE: Oh, yes. Like racist, you know, same kind of thing there.

CONAN: And this from Claire(ph) in San Francisco: Hipster. They hate this because, by definition, hipsters don't allow themselves to be categorized.


PAGE: Hipster is today's hippie, you know? Like the '60s hippie could be either a compliment or an epithet, and hipster's the same thing now.

CONAN: And, Clarence, I have to say you look great with those flowers in your hair.

PAGE: (Unintelligible). You got my generation.

CONAN: Clarence Page joining us here in Studio 3A. He's a syndicated columnist with The Chicago Tribune. His piece, "Words with Negative Power," ran last week. And again, if you'd like to read it, there's a link to it at our website, npr.org, and may not see you again before the holidays, so Merry Christmas.

PAGE: Thank you. Same to you, Neal.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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