MAXWELL:  Common sense and language

2/26/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Linguists are warning that increasing numbers of the world’s 6,000 languages are fast going the way of the dodo.

Michael Krauss, a professor at the University of Alaska, argues that between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s languages are no longer being learned by young people in tropical regions of the world and in Alaska. “I call this a catastrophe _ the rate of loss of mankind’s linguistic diversity,” Krauss said.

The good professor is to be admired for caring that many small languages are dying. But he also needs to know that, right here in United States, many of the most useful, colorful words and expressions in American English are under attack. Some are fading. Others are dying under the onslaught of gender and ethnic hypersensitivity. Ironically, Krauss himself could be accused of being sexist for uttering the term “mankind.” Many important women have cast an evil eye on “mankind” and want to limit its use.

Please understand that I do not believe that we should say everything we please, anytime we please. Given their history, their context and other variables, some words and expressions, such as racial epithets and references to genitalia, are unnecessarily hurtful and should be avoided by intelligent people.

Still, we need to examine our words with a measure of common sense. One expression to recently make the list of linguistic expendables is “pure-vanilla.” Its use has made a group of otherwise intelligent African-Americans lawsuit-mad. On the cover of the January issue of its magazine for company employees, A.G. Edwards Inc., one of the nation’s most prestigious brokerage firms, displayed the image of a bottle of vanilla extract under the headline “A.G. Edwards Pure Vanilla.” The story inside discussed the company’s vaunted reputation for being old-fashioned, simple and wary of fly-by-night schemes and other risky investment packages. “We’ve been called “plain vanilla’ by the principal industry analysts, meaning that we are bland and not exciting,” board chairman Benjamin Edwards said.

Even after this rational explanation, many black employees are still demanding an apology. “This is an affront to us because it implies that people of color have no place in the company,” the employees wrote in a petition to the chairman. His rejoinder: “My goal at A.G. Edwards is that we be completely colorblind. Being afraid to say something that is common usage, however, is a step backward.”

Benjamin Edwards is right. The black employees goofed, portraying themselves as uninformed. That perception is indeed a big step backward for these employees. A few moments with a standard dictionary would have shown the black employees that “plain” or “pure vanilla” does not refer to race. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition: “Plain-vanilla: lacking special features or qualities: Basic.” Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition: “bland, plain, or basic. . . .”

Benjamin Edwards should stand firm. The company is squarely in the area of good taste by referring to itself as “pure-vanilla.”

Gender-consciousness generates almost as much language conflict as race. This fact was made clear in a Feb. 19 letter that two University of Florida professors, Nancy E. Schoenberg and Mark A. Swanson, wrote to the Gainesville Sun complaining that a caption referred to a UF junior as “one of 14 girls who made the cut. . . .” The rest of the letter is worth quoting:

“Two questions immediately come to mind: First, would the caption have read “one of 14 boys’ had the athlete’s name been Daniel rather than Danielle? And second, how old does a female have to be before she is considered an adult? As anthropologists, we are very aware of the importance of language in reflecting, if not actually shaping, public attitudes.Surely a college junior deserves to be considered a young woman, just as male UF athletes are seen as young men. We urge the Sun to be more aware of the careful use of language.”

Initially, I thought that Schoenberg and Swanson had overreacted to a harmless caption. On reflection and after talking to colleagues, however, I realized the Sun’s use of “girl” was sexist, underscoring society’s view that female sports are frivolous, inferior versions of men’s sports. That view, of course, is derived from the low status we assign to women in other important areas.

The above charge of sexism is legitimate. Schoenberg and Swanson are informed and present their arguments cogently. But too many other complaints of verbal insensitivity, like the “pure-vanilla” flap, are the result of ignorance and a desire to politicize speech that we consider insulting to our group.

Several years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Florida, an article appeared in the Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, describing the music of black gospel choirs as “joyful noise.” A group of black students wrote a letter denouncing the paper as racist “for poking fun at Negro spirituals by calling them “noise.’ ” The paper’s ombudsman replied, pointing out that a “joyful noise” is a holy celebration as expressed in Psalm 95: 1-2: “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving: Let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise!”

Every black student I knew at Florida was embarrassed. Only after they saw the silliness of the accusation of racism did they also see the wonderful humor in the affair. In fact, “joyful noise” jokes circulated for several weeks. My black schoolmates and I were buoyed by our ability to laugh at ourselves.

We should not dismiss all verbal indiscretions. Some should be denounced. But many of the words and expressions that we find offensive are, in truth, integral parts of common usage, archetypal utterances whose meanings should be preserved. First, though, we must educate ourselves on the rich nuances of American English _ including our wealth of slang, colloquialisms and idiom.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.