Friday, April 20, 2007


Self -Appointed Word Cops

I don't mind being told or reminded that a particular word or phrase may be insensitive or oppressive but people who make such assertions ought to at least know what they're talking about. One is reminded of the case of ignorance run rampant in 1999 in Washington DC over the use of the word "niggardly." Recently, someone I know asserted that the word "gyp"--as in to cheat--is racist and that "rag"--as in to tease or berate--is sexist.

Now, it is commonly believed that gyp is a slur derived from the misnomer Gypsy--a reference to the Romani people--but, according to the six reference works I consulted during a recent visit to the local library, this is entirely speculative and there is no etymological evidence to sustain it. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the following usage from 1819: "My bed-maker, whom we call a gyp, from a Greek word signifying a vulture, runs away with everything he can lay his hands on." The Greek word for vulture is, in fact, γύπας--transliterated as gy'pas--and gyps is the name of a genus of vultures (by contrast, the Greek word for Gypsy is τσιγγάνος, transliterated as tsigga'nos). Other possible etymological sources and corresponding historical usages are given in the reference works but none are derived from Gypsy.

There is even less evidence that the verb "rag" is sexist, although the usage is of uncertain origin, the reference works don't even speculate upon a misogynistic etymology. Presumably, the word cop thinks "ragging" is akin to "on the rag," which I would agree is probably misogynist though I haven't checked the etymology (and don't have any plans to--it's not a phrase I would ever use). The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology suggests a relationship between rag in the sense of "annoy, tease, torment" with the Scottish word ballarag.

So, all you word cops out there, before you police someone else's language please make sure there is a good reason for you to open your mouth.

Labels: ,

Comments: Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?