Relearning Our Terminology

A few weeks ago I was talking with a violently Italian old friend of mine. I was telling her about a nice meat shop in my hometown. “They make the best Hot Dago sandwiches!” I said, casually. She balked for a moment, then proceeded to explain how ‘Dago’ is an ethnic slur that was used on Italian-American immigrants hired straight off the boat and paid “as the day-goes.” I was horrified. She hadn’t taken offense, explaining that I had no way of knowing, but I was shaken to my core. I had just used a racial slur to describe a sandwich. Clearly something was amiss.

The whole exchange reminded me unpleasantly of another experience I had in Alaska several years ago. I was listening to an old Innuit man talk about traditional hunting methods at a state park. Being young and foolish, I raised my hand and asked if Eskimos really lived in igloos. I remember the old man laughing. He explained to me that, though many Inuks still referred to themselves as Eskimo, the word had its origins in the language of racist, non-native colonizers. He told me that the word meant ‘eater of raw meat,’ and since he didn’t eat raw meat, he didn’t consider himself to be an Eskimo. Reminded of this experience, I hit the internet. As it turns out, Eskimo probably came from the Latin excommunicati, meaning ‘the excommunicated ones,’ and is widely regarded as a racial slur. I remember reading picture books about ‘Eskimos’ as a child! That got me thinking, how often do we accidentally use racial slurs?

Before I could get some good answers, it happened again. I was talking to some friends about the future, and I mentioned how I really wanted to live ‘like a gypsy.’ Now, apparently it was common knowledge to everyone else in the room that ‘gypsy’ is a racial slur against the Romani people. I had never been more embarrassed in my life. Not even when I stalled my truck in the middle of a roundabout on a first date had I been that embarrassed. I wanted to shut my hand in a panini press.

The worst part? I had no excuse for not knowing. Nobody should be ignorant of the words they use. When people think about slurs, they rarely consider words that people use on a daily basis. The word ‘uppity’ was used by white southerners to describe blacks who ‘didn’t know their place.’ The phrase ‘paddy wagon’ used to insinuate that Irish-American immigrants were unruly and likely to be arrested. We use phrases like these every day, without a second thought to their entomological history. It's our responsibility to know the hidden meanings in the words we use, because they may not have quite the meaning we intend.