Being an equal-opportunity essayist, I invite any ladies reading this to speak up if they feel insulted by what follows.
Well, never mind what follows – in the eyes of some, that opening sentence itself contains an insult.
Word came recently that in Easthampton, Mass., the school board rescinded the hiring of a new superintendent because in an e-mail to the board chair and executive assistant, both women, the candidate used the salutation “Ladies.”
The chairlady (forgive the expression) termed use of the word a “micro-aggression” and said most board members felt the salutation was “extremely unprofessional” and carried “a familiarity that he had not earned.”
That’s a dustup I’ll stay out of, since, like beauty, insults can sometimes reside in the eye of the beholder.
My Jewish forebears were masters of the insult, even coming up with some that masqueraded as compliments. The best of these: “May the next child born be named after you.”
Sounds great, yes? However, it’s tradition in Jewish life to name newborns only after the dearly departed – so you catch the drift.
If you think that’s hysterical, watch out – like a number of our words, hysteria was also once an insult, and mainly to women. It derives from the Greek word for womb, and was once regarded as a malady confined to women caused by a disorder in the uterus.
If that sounds like mumbo-jumbo, also take care. The phrase doesn’t raise eyebrows today, but some language sources say it came from a corruption of words in a West African ritual depicting a grotesque character, and once harbored racist overtones.
If you think Fuzzy-Wuzzy was only a bear, think again. The name originated as a racist term describing Black people by the texture of their hair.
We toss off other phrases that today have lost an originally toxic meaning: Paddy wagon, with its diminutive use of the Irish-oriented name Patrick, insinuated that the Irish were criminals. Peanut gallery, so familiar to a generation of Howdy Doody fans, originally referred to the cheap seats in a theater where the “rowdy poor” were said to eat peanuts.
Phrases like Long time no see and No can do were 19th Century renderings of Chinese and Native American pidgin English that for most no longer carry their original intent of mockery.
Regarding the kerfuffle in Easthampton, one does wonder if the board was a tad too hard on the guy.
Whoa – “guy?”
Another word that once carried disparaging connotations. It reportedly stems from a failed 17th Century plot to blow up England’s House of Lords. One of the wannabe perps was Guy Fawkes, who got hanged for his treasonous ideas. In later annual observances, the English burned effigies of Fawkes, using ragged figures representing his wickedness and calling them “Guys.” Common usage over generations scrubbed the word of its disparaging elements.
As for Easthampton, officials assert there was more to the conflict than just that single word. Still, the issue produced some stage worthy verbal theatrics. In fact, I’d ill-advisedly be tempted to call it a squabble between “guys and dolls” – but 2023 being what it is, for sure I’d be run out of town.
Gerry Goldstein (firstname.lastname@example.org) a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.