Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Should Black be blacked out of the English language because of its derogatory racial connotations?

Dear Readers,
          In a letter to The Times Jackie Thom suggested that in South Africa Black Friday should in future be called “Happy Friday, Bargain Friday or whatever else the public will suggest.”
             She referred to the paper’s Facebook comments that the current name was not appropriate in our country. Somebody, she wrote had suggested White Friday. But her view was that any colour was bound to offend somebody.
          The shopping day after Thanksgiving was dubbed Black Friday in America because so many people caused traffic accidents and even injuries as they fought their way into stores to get the best bargains
          Should we then clean up the English language completely by removing all disparaging Black idioms?
"Happy Friday"

          In his book Of Black Servitude without Slavery - The Unspoken politics of the English language Agwu Ukiwe Okali began a campaign to do just that.
          He is a Nigerian, who held prominent positions in the United Nations before taking early retirement to concentrate on his writing and other interests. In the book he refers to the unfortunate global dominance of the English language for the black race.
          “Everyone knows that in English bad things are ‘black’ (black spot, black day and blackmail),” he writes. “By the same token, everyone knows that good things are ‘white’ (white knight, white magic, white lie).”
          He advocates the eradication of what in “effect is a racist mindset.”
          “It’s safe to say that the adjective ‘black’ came
from the natural,” says Indian writer Sandhya Ramesh, who has made a study of etymology.
          There are numerous expressions that include the word “black” but were they based on the colour of Black people or merely just the colour itself. Are Okali and Thom being unduly touchy and reading into this something that is not there? After all there are also ones that reflect badly on whites, although admittedly there are not nearly as many of these as there are black ones. Conversely there are a few that favour blacks like “in the black - not owing any money or making a profit in a business.”
 
          But when one looks at dictionary definitions of the words black and white Okali certainly has a very valid case because in the English language black and white have come to mean more than just a colour. They clearly refer to certain race groups. And these coupled with various characteristics attached to these colours paints blacks in a very unfavourable light.
          Webster’s Thesaurus lists the following under Black: 1. coal black, ebony, etc. 2. dark, murky, etc 3. Often Black. Negro, coloured, dark-skinned, etc. 4. gloomy, grim, etc. 5. sullen, hostile, angry, etc. 6. evil, wicked, bad, etc.
          White is defined as close to perfect. 1. snow-white, etc. 2. bright, light, sunny, etc. 3. white person, Caucasian. 4. optimistic, bright, happy, etc. 5. friendly, warm, pleased, etc. 6. good, moral, honourable, exemplary etc.
          It looks as though Okali and Jackie Thom should start with the dictionary definitions of these two colours and go on from there. But it will take some doing to eradication something so entrenched for centuries.
          Here are samples of the many Black idioms they and others might like to change to add to the ones mentioned by Okali above. Would such a purge also eradicate the disparaging White ones?
Black Market: Illegal trade in suspect goods. Origin: World War II - to describe the buying and selling of stolen military supplies.
Blackball: To ruin a person’s reputation so they become unemployable or get kicked out of an organisation.  17th Century - a secret ballot system in gentlemen’s clubs and organisations like Freemasonry where a white ball constituted a vote and a black one was the opposite.
Black Sheep: a person behaving badly in a family unlike the other members. 1822 - a black sheep was worthless because its wool could not be dyed.
Black Death: 1823 a modern name for the bubonic plague that swept across Europe from 1347-51.
Black Book: a list of people to be punished. In the 1300’s the Black Book of the Admiralty contained a list of laws and very harsh penalties like drowning, whipping or keel hauling for sleeping on watch.
White Elephant: something that is useless but costs money to maintain. 17th Century - white elephants were regarded as holy in Asia and very expensive to keep. If a King became displease with a subject he might give him a white elephant which would ruin him in most cases.
White Feather: sign of cowardice. 18th Century - a white feather was the symbol for cowardice in Britain and the countries of the Empire. It was used to shame men who did not join the armed forces in time of war. It dates back to cock fighting where birds with white feathers were considered poor contestants.
Whitewash: to hide something unpleasant by making it seem better than it is and in sport where the loser doesn’t score a single point. 1590 - to wash a building with a white liquid which figuratively became “to cover up or conceal.”
White Trash: poor uneducated white people. 1831 - Southern United States where the slaves regarded white servants as “poor white trash.”
White Man’s Disease: used for several decades in American basketball to describe the white man’s inability to jump.

Regards,
Jon, the Black Sheep in my family.

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