The subsequent chapters offer intriguing facts about words and language. I choose the word "intriguing" because it literally refers to that which is a secret. The original meaning of words is hidden behind connotations, and the author's work liberates us from such obscurity. Much of what I have read thus far is new information to me, as my schoolteachers and college professors did not make me privy to how words change in meaning over time. Thank goodness for etymology books that allow us to continue to learn and correct our concepts well into adulthood.
I have two favorite chapters out of the 14 that I have read thus far (out of 25 in total). The first is entitled Is English Prejudice?, and is a brief essay on the "pitfalls and pratfalls" of the English tongue. Lerderer states that "language is a window through which we look at the world...[it] reflects culture and in turn, influences culture", but acknowledges that English distorts reality due to "crack, smudges, blind spots, and filters." These linguistic hinderings both represent and affect how we view gender, race, and even left-handed people.
For example, English terms and their usages show the hyper-masculinity in the culture of its speakers. Lerderer asks the reader to evaluate the following word pairs:
- bachelor & spinster
- master & mistress
- sir & madam
- governor & governess
- poet & poetess
- major & majorette
What does the above analysis say about the culture of English speakers? I contend that it shows that women are viewed as secondary or an after-thought. Dare I say, it takes me back to the ideas of women being just a “helpmate” when she is really the mistress of the household (here, I use mistress denotatively, meaning a woman having power, authority, or ownership particularly in a home or a school). Many might argue that women are supposed to submit to men, and some might even say that women are the inferior sex, but history shows that women are able to start and maintain enterprises and organize movements, and thus are equally valuable members of society. Shouldn’t our language reflect this?
How about words pertaining to “race”? I place race in quotation marks because it is not a biological factor, but a social construct placed upon people for the purposes of of categorization and subjugation. Race pertains more to one’s status in society than one’s genetics.
Lederer points out that the terms black and white are used to describe things that are bad or good (respectively). Ossie Davis contended that the English language was problematic for “black” people, as he laments “Who speaks to me in my Mother Tongue damns me indeed…the English language- in which I cannot conceive myself as a black man without, at the same time, debasing myself.” Why would he feel this way? Let’s analyze his sentiment by looking at the following list of terms as positive or negative.
white lie, white-collar worker, white dwarf, white flag, white noise, white slavery, whitewash, whitewall, White Knight, white-glove treatment, lily white, white Christmas, white with rage, white of you
Speaking sinister and right, we also find that language is prejudiced against left-handed people. That word right means "straight or correct", while sinister connotes evil. But did you know that the original meaning of sinister is "left-hand", deriving from the Latin word sinistra (left-hand). The word meaning left-hand is associated with negativity, while right has a positive connotation.
Think that's all? What about the words dexterous and adroit, as in "He was a dexterous and adroit athlete." Here, the words are used to praise a man for his athleticism. However, dexterous comes from the Latin dexter meaning "right-hand"; adroit, from the French a droit, means "to the right." On the other hand (pun intended), the word gauche indicate clusminess and a lack of social grace, as in "Pringle is gauche in coctail conversation." Gauche comes from the French and means "left-hand", connecting left-handedness with awkwardness. In addition, we say something that is correct is right, and things that are problematic are associated with left. For example:
- You are right about the issue.
- His left hand doesn't know what the right is doing. (hiding the immoral or illegal acitivity from the the honorable members of society)
- Michael is my right-hand man. (someone that you would trust)