January 23, 2007

On the offensive language beat: use vs. mention, avoidance

Yesterday the New York Times reported on 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 on Thursday:

"No, I did not call (co-star) T.R. (Knight) a faggot," Washington told reporters. "Never happened, never happened."

The Times version has no direct quotes:

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 solemn.

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.

The Times'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 about fag (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 and fag, 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