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A Mystery of Vocabulary



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Toward the end of today’s Impromptus, I ask, just as kind of an aside, “. . . when did it become evil to say ‘Oriental’? Why?” This is one of those mysteries of vocabulary, and there are many. One day, “Oriental,” as in “Eastern,” was perfectly common, and innocent. The next day, “Asian” was de rigueur — and if you said “Oriental,” you were a Bad Person. I remember a friend of mine — not particularly political; a golfer, actually — screaming at me, for having said “Oriental.” I had not quite made the adjustment. And, look: I was the nicest person I knew!

I’ve always been astonished at the speed with which such things happen. Often, there is no evolution. There’s no grace period, so to speak. One day, a word is okay — and more than okay: normal, standard. The very next day, it is screamingly radioactive — verboten. The language police can be irrational, dizzying, and merciless.

Anyway, in response to today’s column, a reader writes,

Dear Jay,

I first became aware of the phenomenon you describe in 2000 or so. I was working in advertising, doing website development. One of our clients had a commerce site, which, of course, had a “Contact Us” form. The client had a facility in Frisco, Texas. One afternoon, we received a scathing e-mail from a young woman, who apparently thought the name of the Texas town was “Francisco,” and that we were using a diminutive, “Frisco,” which was somehow bad. She concluded her rant by saying, “You’re the kind of racists who call Asians ‘Orientals.’”

We were totally stumped. Who can explain such madness?

Who indeed? I’m stumped too. I’ve said it a thousand times: People are very strange, never more so than in matters of language.

P.S. What’re we gonna do about Occidental College?

P.P.S. There are many, many Americans who don’t give a rat’s behind about China, or its gulag, laogai; who are delighted to fête the gulag-masters in the White House, as Lang Lang plays “patriotic” songs; but who will jump down your throat if you should slip and say “Oriental.” Measures of humaneness in America are absolutely cuckoo.



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