On the offensive language beat: use vs. mention, avoidance
Yesterday the New York Times reported
the "Grey's Anatomy" flap, in which an actor got into hot water
for what he said during a backstage meeting with the press after the
Golden Globe award ceremony. The story begins:
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 21 -- Executives at
ABC and its parent, Disney, are mulling the future of the actor Isaiah
Washington, a star of the hit series "Grey's Anatomy," after Mr.
Washington last week publicly used an anti-gay slur for the second time
in roughly three months, a Disney executive said Friday.
Two remarkable things here.
First, Washington didn't actually use the slur; he mentioned it, in
denying (on Monday, January 15) that he had used it on the previous
occasion (back in October). Despite that, some people (including
the president of GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation) were deeply offended that he had uttered the word at all,
and on Thursday Washington issued an apology asserting that the word is
so toxic that it shouldn't ever be uttered:
I apologize to [co-star] T.R.
[Knight, the object of the October slur], my colleagues, the fans of
the show and especially the lesbian and gay community for using a word
that is unacceptable in any context or circumstance.
Second, the Times
, in its
usual modest fashion, managed to print a story of about 24
column-inches about this word without telling its readers what it
was. Instead, it's referred to as "the remark" and "the slur".
What Washington said last Monday was, according to a
(plain-speaking) AP article
"No, I did not call (co-star) T.R.
(Knight) a faggot," Washington told reporters. "Never happened, never
version has no
Mr. Washington moved to the microphone
and denied that he had ever used the slur to describe Mr. Knight, at
the same time repeating the word. Fellow cast members who were
with Mr. Washington appeared shaken, quickly going from jubilant to
On Wednesday, GLAAD president Neil Giuliano issued a statement in which
(according to the AP) he
said he had contacted Washington's
representatives in hopes of meeting the actor to discuss "the
destructive impact of these kinds of anti-gay slurs."
"Washington's repeated use of it on-set and in the media is simply
inexcusable," Giuliano said in the statement.
(GLAAD has a very, very thin skin. They do not speak for me.)
ABC followed the next day with its own statement, calling Washington's
behavior "unacceptable", and Washington issued his apology
's modesty isn't
news, though in this case it's particularly annoying. What is
notable, though, is the assumption that some words are so bad that they
can't even be discussed (even to be repudiated), and the claim that faggot
is one of those words.
Here on Language Log, where we're willing to discuss anything having to
do with language, no words are off-limits. I've talked
(as wielded by
Ozzie Guillen), for instance. I'm even on record (in Out
magazine, June 2003) as
believing that there's nothing wrong with faggot
, in the right contexts, though
I'm sure that insulting T.R. Knight is not such a context.
Surely Washington was wrong to let himself be drawn into talking about
the October incident (which he apologized for at the time; Knight's
response to the incident was to come out of the closet), and I can't
imagine what possessed him to deny having insulted Knight then.
But if he was going to issue a denial, the natural way to do it would
be to specify the alleged offense. (Ok, he could have issued a
blanket denial, like "I never insulted T.R.")
Still, I can't see that mentioning the word faggot
(as I did myself just above,
and as the AP story did in quoting Washington) is offensive in itself.
Believing that some words are so intrinsically offensive that they
should never be uttered, even to describe their offensiveness or to
report on offensive uses, is believing in verbal magic. We try to
steer clear of verbal magic here on Language Log, so we're willing to
discuss uses of any word, right up to and including nigger
, as in Geoff Pullum's
provocatively titled posting
"Nigger, nigger, on the wall".
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 23, 2007 02:19 PM