January 18, 2007

People of color

I want to confess to a straightforward idiosyncratic personal linguistic preference — an aesthetic judgment, if you want to call it that. At the end I draw out a lesson from it. The confession is this: I simply hate the term person of color (along with its standard pluralization, people of color). I have never used it, and I never will. They can't make me. Fifteen years ago I was a graduate dean, running an affirmative action program and making speeches on the topic, and I didn't use the phrase then. I happen to be a firm defender of affirmative action legislation; and back then all administrators used the phrase as a badge of having the right attitudes concerning ethnic diversity, even if they were privately skeptical about affirmative action. But although I walked the walk, I wouldn't talk the talk. I didn't refer to African Americans and Chicanos and Latinos and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as "people of color", and I still won't.

This is a linguistic dislike I'm expressing, and it's not much easier to convincingly justify (though I will supply a little reasoning below) than any taste judgment in music or art. You may dislike split infinitives, in which case you will have winced at the foregoing sentence; I dislike person of color and people of color.

I speculate (unverified empirical claim coming up) that most other people who dislike or avoid using the phrase person of color are negatively disposed toward the aims and ideals of political movements focused on rights of ethnic minorities. They refuse to go along with terminological innovations that they scornfully associated with "political correctness". That, as it happens, is not to be the case with me. I have exactly the sort of attitudes that the haters of "political correctness" generally despise. I not only believe in legislative and social action to ensure rights for ethnic and racial minorities, I also fully accept the right of ethnic and racial groups to decide how they would like to be referred to. Except in the case of this particular phrase, which I happen to I hate.

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to note that if my life involved interaction with Yup'ik or Inuit people, I would probably use those terms when talking to or about them and their people, rather than calling them "Eskimos", if they didn't like the latter word. ("Eskimo" has often been said to have an insulting etymology involving a word meaning "eater of raw flesh" in some Athabaskan Indian language. That turns out to be a myth: the real source word means something like "snowshoe weaver" [thanks to Jesse Sheidlower on this point].) I do in fact use the word Eskimo (and occasionally get criticized for it), but my uses of it are either references to the Eskimo branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language family, where the word is a technical term in English as used in comparative linguistics, or else they are repetitions of those hundreds or thousands of people who have asserted that the "Eskimos" have many / dozens / scores / hundreds of words for snow. They never know which exact language they are talking about, so in that context we are talking about all the indigenous Greenlandic, Arctic Quebecois Inukttitut, Central Canadian Inuit, Alaskan Inuit, Alaskan Yup'ik, and Siberian Yup'ik peoples; restricting to one of those would make no sense. But I definitely accept that if the indigenous people of Greenland want to be called Greenland Inuit rather than Greenland Eskimos, that is their right, just as it is their right to have Greenland called Kalaallit Nunaat, and to have the former Godthåb called Nuuk. My point is that I don't use Eskimo because of a dislike of the words Yup'ik or Inuit; I use it as a technical term in language family classification.

In the past four decades I have willingly shifted from using "negro" to using "colored" to using "black" (or later "Black") to using "Afro-American" to using "African American", all for the single ethnic group that the conservative British linguist Geoffrey Sampson has (astonishingly) carried on calling "negroes" throughout four decades.

Generally people with political views like mine (positive about people of other ethnicities and strongly negative about racism) unhesitatingly use the term people of color, especially in public pronouncements. But I don't and won't.

To the extent that I can do anything to provide rational argumentation to support my dislike of the term, I would say that its semantic looseness is one problem. The phrase seems to function more as a badge of political progressiveness and racial tolerance than anything else; but to me it seems like an unwholesome capitulation to the old apartheid idea that there really is some meaningful division between people who are white and people who are not — it seems to presuppose and endorse the stupid idea that there really is some way of determining whether some random Armenian or Azerbaijani or Albanian or Afghan or Argentinian or Ainu or part-Aboriginal Australian is or is not a legitimate claimant to the label "person of color". I genuinely think it is nonsense to true and draw such a line. At one time under apartheid, South African law treated Chinese (who didn't have a lot of economic clout back then) as non-white, but Japanese (increasingly important to the economy) as white. Gives the whole game away, doesn't it? I say that hunting for the line between those who are white and those who are not is a fool's game.

Even setting this aside (after all, there are many other highly vague predicates), the quasi-archaic syntactic weirdness of the phrase makes my teeth itch. The phrase seems mincingly awkward to me in syntactic terms. The idea is to have a syntactic work-around so that the notion of not having pale pink-colored skin can be expressed without any appearance of going back to the 1960s uses of "colored". So colored person is replace by person of color. But there is no regular process that yields the pattern person of X for X-ed person: if you try the same thing with other -ed adjectives it sounds utterly insane: you can't refer to someone who is freckled as a person of freckles, or a person who is dazed as a person of daze. Batman, the caped crusader, is not a person of cape. [Update: Coby Lubliner tells me: "the process by which 'colored people' (which in US English has historically referred only to black people) became 'people of color' is through a retranslation from the French gens de couleur, at a time when the writings of Frantz Fanon et al. were popular." This is interesting. So is the fact that Jesse Sheidlower tells me the Oxford English Dictionary people have found a use of the phrase from as early as 1781. But of course these facts do not alter my aesthetic dispreference at all. That's what aesthetic dispreferences tend to be like.]

Even with adjectives of the form X-ored where X is a noun stem, it doesn't work: a person who is censored is not a person of censor; a person who is visored is not a person of visor; a person who is monitored is not a person of monitor; a person who is sponsored is not a person of sponsor.

This argument from failure of pattern is not adequate to say that there is really something wrong with person of color. There are, of course, such things as entirely idiosyncratic one-off constructions. But it really doesn't matter, because my confession is not that I have discerned a syntactic failing; it is simply that I hate the phrase. It irritates me.

So let me now stop with the whining and make the spinoff point about this confession (I did say at the start that there would be one, and there is).

I do not believe that there is anything wrong with having personal dislikes here and there, whether in the linguistic sphere or in fashion or in any other domain. I have them too. When we argue against prescriptive grammar here on Language Log, we are not saying people shouldn't have strong likes or dislikes on matters of English usage. We are saying those likes and dislikes should not be confused with objective facts of correctness, and they should not be taught to schoolchildren as if they were facts.

When I say that the phrase person of color just irks me, and I refuse to use it, that's a fact about me. It's like the fact that I will never (I hereby pledge) write an academic paper with "revisited" (or its Latin verson "redux") or "whither" in the title, or write a blues song that begins with the words "Woke up this morning".

So when I say of the phrase people of color that I dislike it, I'm not saying anything about what is linguistically wrong. I'm not going to publish a usage book in which I assert that person of color is a vulgar error and not good English and you shouldn't use it, because none of those things are true. You can use it all you want, and you're right to do so.. I'm just saying it annoys me and I won't say it. See the difference?

Because if you can, then obnoxiously opinionated compendiums of subjective edicts like Strunk & White's The Elements of Style will not do you as much harm as they do to the millions of poor abused Americans who believe those edicts spring from something real and important — something independent of some ill-tempered individual's personal preferences. Although I will sometimes (because of my academic specialism in English) have something factual to explain to you that you might do well to listen to, you don't have to follow me in any of my personal or aesthetic preferences. And you don't have to follow the dotty old Will Strunk or the hypocritically grouchy E. B. White in their unreasoned preferences either.

To apply this to a particular recent case: if you hate the phrase "less than three years", then don't use it. Use "fewer than three years" instead if you like. Don't try to tell other people the former is "wrong", because that's not true. Just avoid it yourself if you dislike it. That's all.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 18, 2007 11:39 AM