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Language can be a minefield

Date: 7/2/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

The issues surrounding celebrity cook Paula Deen's remarks using the "n word" is a reminder that American English can be a minefield.

I'm not justifying Deen's use of racist language at all. I'm just saying that what constitutes racist language can be difficult to assess if you pay attention to popular culture. Frankly, at the very least, Deen was simply stupid to ever use such language and that her attempts to apologize or explain have fallen far short of the mark.

I think from the testimony that has been released so far, it may be safe to say that Deen has some issues with race.

As a 59-year-old white guy whose American heritage reflects English, Swiss and German heritages, my basic rule of thumb is not to use any potentially offensive terms to describe any ethnic group.

The use of such language can instantly color a conversation and propel it into another direction. I want to communicate with people, not insult them.

My dad, who grew up in Alabama, did not use the "n word" in front of my brother and I when we were kids. In fact, he used no slang term to describe African-Americans that I can remember. That may have not been the case in his own childhood, but that's how he and my mom raised us.

The "n word" polarizes people. There are black people who use it freely and those who see it as a word of hate and division. There are plenty of other words today that have common usage but are offensive to other people: the "f word" and the "c word" are two that readily come to mind.

It is tough sometimes to understand though what is acceptable speech today. If a black hip hop artist uses the "n word" in a song is he racist? If an Italian-American comedian uses words that I was taught to be derogatory in his routine, is it OK for me to laugh? We laugh when Joan Rivers has a joke involving Jews in her act, but is that actually OK?

Would it constitute the creation of a "hostile work environment" for me to tell a co-worker about the joke, even if I explain its origins? Can the negative aspect of a word be blunted by context?

I would like to think that context would explain most circumstances in which disputed language is used, but by experience I know this is not the case.

These are thorny, complex issues. All I know is that by using such language the probability of offending someone grows.

And Paula, if you or your management is smart, you will say and do things to show you're not a racist. I'm not too worried, though, about the fate of a multi-millionaire.

We all don't sound the same

Speaking of language, have you seen the Dunkin' Donuts (DD) commercial in which an apparent group of people in California are attempting to mimic a "New England" accent in order to appear in a DD commercial?

Talk about stupid. First, there is no such thing as a "New England" accent. There are a number of accents from various parts of New England – Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, eastern Massachusetts, to name several – and while some of them have similar sounds, they are not all the same.

Of course, perhaps this commercial is illustrating Californians as stupid or ignorant. Neither message is very effective in selling coffee and donuts.

Nothing changes

I'm currently assembling a number of the interviews I've conducted with celebrities for a book called "Fifteen Minutes With." and I recently found a piece I wrote in 1975 when the late Edwin Newman appeared at the Big E.

Newman, a veteran newsman for NBC, had written a best-selling book on modern language called "Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English." The book is about how jargon had taken over common English usage to the point that it has obscured communication.

I wonder how Newman would feel about using a noun as a verb. "Gifted" is one of my least favorite words and Merriam-Webster says that is it an adverb not a verb although I hear it used as a verb all too often. "Impacted" is not a verb either, but an adjective meaning "packed or wedged in."

I doubt he would have approved such "evolution."

Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.