The Lawlessness of Language
Disclaimer: This post may contain certain words that people conventionally find offensive. Rest assured they are being used purely in the context of description and not with the intention to offend. So, sue me I guess.
The release of Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to lead came with a glitzy campaign to ban the word “Bossy.” In a video that featured. some feminist icons of our times (including Beyonce and former Secretary of State of US, Condolezza Rice) they made the point that hearing the word “Bossy” discouraged women from assuming leadership roles and pointed to the dismal number of women in the upper echelons of the corporate work force. Not withstanding the fact that it is bossy to tell people that they can’t use the word “Bossy”, the campaign has found it’s share of detractors. Ms. Sandberg’s intentions may be good but “Bossy” is a gender neutral word, what happens if you meet someone who is genuinely bossy? Maybe it’s not about making the word an insult, but using it correctly. And let’s face it, banning the word “delicious” will not curb the obesity epidemic, will it? This begs the question, is banning a word really the best way to go about bringing change?
Words emerge because they allow us to classify and create patterns in our understanding of the world. And in a similar fashion, disappear because they are not needed anymore. As long as there have been words there has been someone who’s been trying to ban them. Language is like a religion, you can freely judge people for the one they practise, but you can’t change it unless there are legal consequences to it. Recently, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs proposed that anyone using the word “Chinki” to refer to people from North Eastern India would be booked for 5 years under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. This would leave about 30% of my childhood playmates from my building, who were called Chinky, with an identity crisis and their parents in jail for half a decade. This would put a “just had a 4 course meal” kind of pressure on our already constipated courts. (No fast track option here plz).
I spent a large part of my childhood thinking that the man with the kind eyes that gave me a free Pan Pasand every time mom went to buy bread from the Kirana shop was a “Baniya.” When someone called me that as I asked them to pay me back some money they owe me, the word “Baniya” took on a whole new meaning. They’re the Indian “Jew” – another word that American sitcoms have told me is a strict no-no, but to anyone else might just be the word to describe people who practise the Jewish faith. Bollywood, our “mirror to society” reflects a murky image- from “hum kale hair to kya hua dilwale hai” to incredibly offensive Aakhri Pasta.
One of the standard ways to deal with a troublesome word is to make it your own. That’s why, the N-word, one of the most complicated words in the American lexicon might be horrific enough in it’s implication, but is still liberally peppered in the lyrics of most rap songs and used in parlance by young African- Americans’. At age 16, someone called me a “Bitch”- a word that I personally find foul but, I was assured, was a compliment. As a woman, we were taking back the word bitch, adding things like “fabulous” and “sexy” before it and making it our own. Either that, or she made an idiot out of me. But note how I have not launched a campaign to ban the word “bitch” yet.
In the ultimate “If you can’t beat them, join them move,” no one has a better sense of humour than the Oxford English Dictionary. They should know, they’re documented words as society has mixed and mangled them for decades. Every child across generations has written an essay that begins with the line “As the Oxford English dictionary defines it….” for a reason. My favorite new one to make it to the 2014 edition is the word “Twerk” which I venture is a combination of “Tweak” and “Work”, but has nothing to do with putting the finishing touches on that Excel sheet you’ve worked all afternoon. Instead it is a dance move by pop singer Miley Cyrus which I leave you to Google.
As is human nature, banning something only makes it more desirable. (Does anybody else DESPERATELY want to smoke a cigarette while they watch tar being squeezed out of those lungs in anti-tobacco PSA’s? I feel HORRIBLE admitting this.) Historically, a BAN on words has achieved little in terms of “banning” but serves the function of making a speaker more aware of their usage of the word, the context and effects of it. Unfortunately, there is no constitutional right to NOT be offended, but the truth is, words are too fickle a friend and even a foe to wage battles for.