Friday, November 20, 2009

Ethnic slurs for Ethnicities that don't really exist anymore

TheCSO points out that using "Philistine" as an insult is technically an ethnic slur, it's just a slur against an ethnicity that has not existed in a long time.

As pretentious as I'm sometimes accused of being, I will confess that I don't really run around calling people "Philistines" much. As a term, it's a little "Look at me, I'm a bohemian with an expensive education" for my taste though I am sure it has its moments.

But since the whole "The Cubans CC knew growing up use 'boat people' non-pejoratively for people who took a self-help approach to get to America, but the Vietnamese consider it an extremely nasty ethnic slur and she will get yelled at if she uses it on her blog the way she always heard it used"* fiasco of '06, I generally assume that if I even have an inkling something could be construed as insulting to an ethnic background, I should never ever use it.

At the same time, there aren't any actual Philistines left to offend.

Thoughts?

CC

*For the record, the context was that anybody who had the brains and gimp to build a boat and sail hundreds of miles to get here deserved to be an American and probably had awesome genes our culture needs.

7 comments:

James said...

I think there are all sorts of words we should eschew out of common decency and care for those they might hurt.

But offense by proxy on behalf of populations that don't exist?

I think raising an abstraction like this is more about those who don't quite get why we should be careful about language.

I suspect this isn't you, CC...

Unless you're stirring a pot...

PS: As someone who now has expensive degrees, but came by them late, and well after his vocabulary was built, Philistine I think belongs to anyone raised with a Bible in the house...

Eve said...

"Look at me, I'm a bohemian with an expensive education"

As a person with ancestors from Bohemia, I'm gravely offended that you did not capitalize my ethnicity. ;)

About "philistine," are ethnic slurs bad because they offend/hurt individuals of that ethnicity? Or are they bad because they support the concept that some ethnicities are better than others -- "stars upon thars" and all that?

Satori said...

Technically, I believe the word "Palestine" is derived from "Philistine", so maybe a Palestinian could find offense? For most historical ethnicities, there's probably some modern group that have a claim to be descendants.

And, to play devil's advocate, are ethnic slurs wrong just because someone might be offended by them, or because in general stereotyping behavior based on someone's ethnicity is just inherently wrong?

PG said...

I think "Philistine" in the Anglo-American context is not at all racially or ethnically offensive. Whenever I have seen or heard it used, it was utterly detached from any ethnic meaning and was in fact the opposite of a stereotype; it was a judgment of an individual, generally one of the same ethnicity as the person making the insult.

However, I think the history of the word might make it more questionable in other contexts, e.g. if used by a Jew toward a non-Jewish Middle Easterner, since the pejorative arose in a historical text regarding Jewish people.

Strange Attractor said...

So Cretan is off the table, too?

Tom said...

Philistine (usually transliterated Filistin) is just the Arabic word for Palestinian. So claiming that the Philistine people don't exist will definitely get you yelled at in some quarters.

A lot of words started out as ethnic slurs. Words like "gyp" and "welsh" are, like "philistine", rarely used in English to insult people from the referenced groups. Two of my favorites are:

Fenugreek - Greek hay (old Roman slur) . Rotten hay makes horses sick. But if an unscrupulous hay dealer adds fenugreek, the horses will eat it anyway. What sort of scum would poison a horse to make little money. A Greek of course!

Bugger (old Roman slur) you can look it up.

PG said...

"Philistine (usually transliterated Filistin) is just the Arabic word for Palestinian."

Wiktionary claims it's Czech and Turkish.
http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Filišt%C3%ADn