Words we no longer like

After seeing a great performance by Steve Hughes on TV earlier this year, I knew I had to see him at the 2011 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Steve was billed as ‘Steve Hughes: conspiracy realist’, and as expected he gave some darkly hilarious insights into some of the more disturbing features of modern Australia (and much of the Western world). One of his themes was thought crime – how insulting or offending people has become a criminal matter. What happened to ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me’? Steve pointed out that being offended doesn’t have any serious or long-term effects: it’s not as though hearing something that offends your beliefs is going to cause a limb to fall off or your bank balance to halve. He maintains the great Australian tradition of sending ourselves up, but does it in an unusually thought-provoking and intellectually challenging way.

Steve’s brilliant monologue reminded me of a conversation I had with work colleagues a couple of years ago, in which we discussed ‘wrong’ words – words once in common use but now regarded as too offensive. ‘Nigger’ came up early on, rapidly followed by ‘cripple’ and ‘spastic’, but I think I hit the jackpot with ‘Jewess’. I can’t remember where (possibly in a Somerset Maugham novel or at least a novel of that vintage) I saw a description of a young woman as ‘a beautiful young Jewess’ (surely ‘a beautiful young woman’ or ‘a beautiful young Jewish woman’ would have sufficed?) As much as I agree with Steve Hughes about the perils of thought crime, ‘Jewess’ seems a superbly offensive word and well worth avoiding. Using ‘Jewess’ to label the female members of a group of humans as you might animals (‘mare’, ‘sow’, ‘cow’, etc.) conjures up (for me, anyway) the image of packed cattle trucks trundling off to Auschwitz – the reality of the most offensive policy of the 20th century.

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