Nearly every day at Yale, I walk past Sterling Memorial Library, where there is a swastika carved into the facade. It is part of the display of diverse intellectual traditions that graces the front of Sterling, so it does not offend me, even though I am Jewish and lost family members to the Holocaust. I know, from context, that it is simply an ancient Sanskrit symbol.
Recent decisions by Princeton and Harvard to abolish the title “master” in their residential colleges will likely reinvigorate efforts to do so at Yale. To be clear, if Yale decides to follow suit, it would be fine with me — there is nothing sacrosanct about this title. But, the conversation ignores other more useful applications of political correctness, or to employ a more neutral term, linguistic mindfulness. Although I cannot know how it feels for an African-American student to say this word, especially given the stark contrast in the past and present treatment of African-Americans in this country, the swastika example is the best approximation I can relate to. In both cases, they are unconnected to the actual symbols or words that are offensive. (Others before me have already discussed the deep roots of “master” in academic settings, coming from the Latin “magister” for “teacher.”)
Rather, there is derogatory language that deserves greater attention in the effort to promote linguistic mindfulness. In the earlier part of the 20th century, it was okay to say, “I jewed him down to a cheaper price.” Hardly anyone today would use “jew” in such a way that reinforces ethnic stereotypes, yet many people continue to use “gyp” as a synonym for “swindle” or “cheat.” According to Merriam-Webster, this is probably a reference to the term “Gypsy” and is therefore demeaning to the Roma people. (Far more disrespectful, I might add, than having a graduate bar called GPSCY, which is simply an acronym for the Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale.)
Pernicious words don’t magically go away. At my high school, there was a campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word,” which attempted to eradicate the use of “retarded” as an insult. It was remarkably successful. Happily, the words “gay” and “cripple” are also now uncommon insults, at least at a place like Yale, but this has been the result of concerted efforts.
On the other hand, some words that are fairly obviously denigrating are still in widespread use. “Lame” is interchanged with “uncool” (in the same way “gay” had been misused) even though it disparages the physically disabled. “Crazy” and “insane” are common words whose use degrades the mentally ill. “Slaving over a hot stove” trivializes the plight of slaves.
Other words may require a greater awareness of etymology. Calling a joke “hysterical” or reporting “mass hysteria” denotes stereotypically effeminate impulses, as the root word is shared by “hysterectomy.” Explaining that a regulation “grandfathered in” previous companies, as I have heard several political science professors say, refers to grandfather clauses that disenfranchised African-American voters. In the Jim Crow South, these laws exempted voters from literacy tests if their grandfathers could vote — an example of literal white privilege. Even insults connoting stupidity, such as “dumb,” “moron” and “idiot,” were all once words to describe the verbally or mentally disabled.
I think the reason no one has called for many of these words to be consigned to the dustbin is because people don’t know where they come from. Perhaps such words have lost their pejorative status and we can use them freely in modern parlance. Still, I would be more enthusiastic about a campaign to stop using these words than the efforts to abolish the term “master,” though I reiterate that I don’t mind if it is changed.
This discussion is directly related to another important debate on campus. John C. Calhoun’s foremost legacy was the oppression of African-Americans; we should rename the college because his name has everything to do with slavery, and like the Confederate flag, his portrait belongs in a museum, not a dining hall. The word “master” in academic institutions has nothing to do with slavery. Let’s focus on other cases where linguistic mindfulness will make our campus and society more welcoming and tolerant places.
Jonah Bader is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .