June 04, 2010

The shifting shape of the slur

Words used to insult – whether racist, classist or sexist – can change meaning over time, morphing from hateful to silly and vice versa

Racist language evolves like every other kind. Modern racists have the added pressure of being forced to use code words, to avoid being obvious and unpopular, and so their language is perhaps mutating at an accelerated pace. You’ll notice this if you watch the chilling video The Guardian just put up of an undercover journey into some meetings of the English Defence League (EDL), an anti-Muslim hate group. They use the word “paki” a lot, but it seems to mean any Muslim, not just Pakistani. Similarly “Asian” seems to mean, to them, Muslim, and is similarly considered an insult.

Another thing you’ll notice is a new use of the verb “sort,” as in, “we’ll get them sorted.” This has been a common idiom in Britain for many years, and its meaning is flexible but generally friendly: “Sorted?” means “Did you get what you needed?” or simply “Are you okay?” It obviously derives from “sorted out.” But it also has an association with drugs: If you’re on your way to a dance club, and you say you’re sorted, it means you have connected with a dealer and you are in possession of some pills or herbs. “Did he sort you?” is the British equivalent of the American expression “Did he hook you up?” By extension, “I’m sorted” has come to mean I’m high on drugs, particularly ecstasy. And, by general extension for all of that, sorted can be used to mean generally good or cool or sexy, as in, “That bird’s sorted, she is.”

But when the skinheads of the EDL promise to “sort” the inhabitants of a council estate in Bradford, they do not intend anything so pleasurable. They are talking about giving out beatings. The Guardian video includes a recording of hysterical telephone threats made against an anti-racist activist that promise, “You come to Birmingham, mate, you are going to get sorted.”

It seems strange at first that the verb has gone through such a 180-degree rotation in meaning, from helping to assaulting, but it can be explained by the fact that the thugs think that they are, by administering violence, setting things right – sorting – in some way.

There’s a bright side, an optimist might say, to changes in distasteful language: Sometimes it shifts the other way, from hateful to silly. As the neutral word Asian has come to take on, in fascist parlance, a negative connotation, so inversely do some hateful racist terms become diluted.

The most recent example of this came from last year’s best actress, YouTube one-hit wonder Clare Werbeloff, also known as Clare the King’s Cross Bogan. In case you missed this troubling piece of improvisation on Australian TV news (and subsequently all over the Web), this 19-year-old model/actress was interviewed by a TV crew moments after a shooting in the red-light district of Sydney. She claimed to have seen it all happen, and famously described the altercation as being between “a fat wog and a skinny wog.” She then went on to imitate the accents of the quarrelers as she recounted their exchange: “Oi bru, you slept with my cousin, eh? And the other one goes, ‘No man I didn’t for shit eh?’ The other one goes, ‘I will call on my fully sick boys!’ And then they pulled out a gun, and just went chk-chk, boom!”

She became famous largely because her story was entirely made up, and because her impersonations were so colourful, but also because her use of a notorious racist term shocked the rest of the world. Australian commentators had to explain – and argue and argue about – what she meant by “wog.” It turns out that in Australia the word doesn’t mean dark-skinned person, but a person of Eastern or Southern European descent – it means Romanians, Balkans, Turks, Greeks and Middle-Easterners. And it is commonly used there, even in TV comedy, and even by self-parodying European immigrants themselves (google Australian videos with the word in it and you’ll see what I mean). Werbeloff herself insisted there was nothing racist about it.

That doesn’t make the word any less offensive here, of course, or even in Australia, where many people were still disgusted by it, but the general public seemed to shruggingly accept that, offensive as it may be, it’s less offensive when used toward white people, and at any rate it has entered everyday vocabulary and probably cannot be eliminated at this point.

Paradoxically, Werbeloff’s most furious detractors made a point of calling her a bogan – Australian slang for brash working-class person, similar to the British chav. This is a classist term, which is undoubtedly hurtful too. And, predictably, anonymous YouTube scribes triumphantly point out that her name is Jewish, too, proving that the miasma of racist name-calling is a deep, dark, confusing and inescapable one, a sort of shifting fog that we all hope to avoid falling into.

The Globe and Mail

Thanks to NewsHound for the heads-up


Anonymous said...

From the film "Lawrence of Arabia"


British Officer.."WHO HAVE?"


And lets not forget the infamous Labrador dog in "The Dambusters".......

Giles said...

The word 'wog' actually comes from the time the British controlled Egypt.
It was an acronym for 'workers on government service'. These were locals employed in the military administration.
British soldiers brought the use of the acronym back to Britain.
So it was originally used in regard to Arabs without any offence intended.

ex-fascist said...

Also IIRC Lawrence was being ironic, reflecting on the fact that "the wogs" were fighting and winning our battles yet were not considered good enough by some of his feelow officers to mix with white company.

Anonymous said...

I can remember many years ago, when part of your christmas box from parents was a new outfit, mum bought the pattern for what she thought was a stylish suit, then she went shopping for the material.

I will never forget her description of the colour as "N......r" brown, to say I only wore the suit once was enough.


B31 Antifascist said...

Tulip - Both my mother and grandmother were NF members, which consequentially made me an anti racist. I too remember an untidy net curtain in a house as looking like a 'woghouse'. Even now, my uneducated next door neighbour still speaks of 'going down the Paki shop for a packet of fags' despite the fact the family who run our local shop are not from Pakistan!