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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: discrimination

plus one

(2000’s | journalese (society page)? | “date,” “guest”)

Now a staple of the younger set, “plus one” is a companion, usually temporary, for a social event, such as a wedding. No particular connection is implied; in fact, the term may suggest casual relations at best, maybe even just the only person you could scrounge up. (But it’s also possible to have a regular plus one who becomes a reliable escort, or to bring a good friend to an event they would enjoy.) Occasionally the phrase is used when a stronger connection is understood, and that related but distinct meaning may be gaining ground gradually. It bears some relation to “arm candy,” but whereas arm candy has to be attractive, the plus one has no particular attributes. Arm candy is a plus one, but a plus one probably isn’t arm candy.

“Plus one” could easily devolve into meaning any companion for a social occasion; the implication of the ad hoc acquaintance, sufficient for this party or that bowling night, may disappear into a broader, sloppier term. Another usage note: “plus one” is used sometimes to refer to an accessory (as in make-up or jewelry) — in that case, the connotation changes and the plus one becomes more of a sine qua non, required whenever you’re out in public.

The phrase may be a Briticism, but I can’t tell. The earliest example coughed up by LexisNexis is from 1998, in a British source, but it turns up in both U.K. and U.S. press, and I couldn’t trace a distinct origin. Some early uses suggested a different meaning in context — something like a ticket or pass that one is granted so that one can bring a friend — but it is not plain to me that that was ever a true definition of the term. There’s something frustratingly inconclusive about this expression. Can’t tell where it came from or isolate variant meanings. Some nerve.

plus size

(1980’s | businese (fashion) | “full-figured”)

Not present in the mainstream press in 1980, but definitely there by 1990. “Plus-size” has become a relatively neutral way to refer to women (as far as I can tell, the term is applied invariably to women) who are normal-size Americans or larger, or their apparel. For decades, we are told, designers made clothes only for thin women; anyone bigger than size 6 had to settle for cheap sweaters, or dowdy stretch pants, or spend the money to have their outfits custom-made. (Lane Bryant was a pioneer in selling clothing designed for such women, and it’s still around. The male version of that is the “big and tall store.” But “plus-size” doesn’t modify “store.”) Somewhere around 1980, couturiers noticed that a lot of women fit that description, and decided to see if they would pay for designer clothes. There is still some bias toward skinny models in the fashion industry, but plus-size women have come a long way since 1990. That’s an old American story: for decades, centuries, we’ve discriminated against this or that group of people for whatever reason. One day, someone notices that those people have money. Then the gold rush begins, the market is cultivated, and a few decades later, it is no longer o.k. to discriminate against that group. Groups that don’t have money, of course, remain on the shit list.

The plus-size revolution isn’t only a matter of business. It has gone along with a movement encouraging women to accept their bodies without guilt or mortification of the flesh. Part of that is finding expressions that are not off-putting or down-putting (if that’s a word); it’s difficult to think of older terms that did not bear at least some condescension. Customers will spend more freely if they feel welcome, reason the advertisers, who more adeptly than just about anyone else avoid offensive language or imagery, not out of civic motives, but from a desire to keep the income rolling in from as many wallets as possible. The hypersensitive left is generally blamed for the ascendancy of political correctness, and the righteous right uses that story very successfully for fundraising purposes. But advertisers have a lot more power to drag society in one direction or other than a few thousand professors, foundation heads, activists, and politicians.

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people of color

(1980’s | officialese? academese? | “non-whites,” “non-white persons,” “dark-skinned people OR races”)

The expression feels old because it is. “Free people of color” was ordinary in the first half of the nineteenth century to denote descendants of white Europeans and Africans, particularly around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. (As opposed to descendants of white Americans and Africans, who were enslaved people of color, but no one called them that.) The phrase did not disappear altogether after a sharp decline in the mid-nineteenth century, but it needed well over a hundred years to regain, and surpass, its former strength, according to Google Ngrams. Although the phrase was not used generally (as far as I know) under apartheid in South Africa, it recalled the racial designation “colored” — of mixed race, somewhere between white and black. “Colored” was a respectable term in the U.S. well into the twentieth century — almost always referring to African-Americans — but lost legitimacy during the civil rights movement.

When late twentieth-century Americans finally adopted “people of color” — which took a while because “colored” had become a thoroughly retrograde word — they took a concept intended to do harm and turned it into an honorific or at least neutral term, a common enough process, as I have noted elsewhere. According to Safire in 1988, the phrase received a definitive boost from Martin Luther King in a 1963 speech; the corpora offers little doubt that the first to use the term regularly and revive it were, in fact, people of color (“person/persons of color” is not used nearly as often). Jerry Brown said it in 1979, by which time more advanced white people had begun dropping it into speeches. It has been and remains a polite term, acknowledging the sort of difference we can’t help noticing while avoiding insidious older expressions, and it is intended to cover everyone who does not count as white in U.S. culture.

The boundaries of whiteness have changed quite a bit over time. (For some purposes, the category now includes those of East Asian descent, which would have unthinkable 150 or even 50 years ago, when Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid might still be encountered in anthropological texts.) They still matter because we have not freed ourselves of the framework of white vs. everyone else here in America, which makes it useful to have a single term that covers everyone else. That seems to be the primary purpose of “people of color,” which at least does not include the word “white.” The phrase betokens resignation in the face of racism that persists regardless of all the cogent and powerful arguments against it. Maybe because of them; one response to proof that you are an idiot is to press the idiocy harder than ever. It may be a luxury we cannot afford much longer. If China keeps growing and Russia keeps threatening, even our most benighted white-ists may conclude that we need contributions from everyone, and may go so far as to admit that people of color are needed to keep the nation afloat. If so, that would be a historically unusual though not unprecedented development, one that runs counter to current trends.

I did a little experiment in LexisNexis, searching the phrases “men of color” and “women of color” at roughly ten-year intervals starting with 1989-1990 and ending with the past year. In each of the four searches, “women of color” outnumbered “men of color” by convincing margins, usually four or five to one. That agrees with my own observation; I’m quite sure that “women of color” is more common. To me that suggests that we use “of color” (I distinctly remember Jimmy Breslin’s striking use of the phrase with no noun in front of it, back in the nineties) when we are focusing on discrimination and its victims. In one sense it is a neutral term and applies perfectly well in stories of uplift or empowerment. But “people of color” are people who suffer because they are not white, and women of color suffer more because they are neither white nor male. Fairly or not, “of color” harbors a touch of victimhood; the more oppressed a group is, the easier it is to use “of color” when talking about their non-white members.

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(2010’s | therapese? academese? | “little thing,” “insult,” “slight,” “dig”)

Now that Jim Crow is no longer legal (not that it has disappeared), we are left with microaggressions: words or actions directed at members of a minority group that appeal to negative stereotypes, intentionally or not. They do not violate any law, sometimes not even social convention, and in some cases the oppressed person can’t even explain why he is offended. But they can have a powerful cumulative effect, causing people to feel as degraded as their forebears felt under more immediately threatening conditions. To such victims, the microaggression is only a more subtle means of keeping women, African-Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, Jews, the homeless, trans- people, et al. in their places. It’s not just white men who commit microaggressions, though we do it more than anyone else, partly because we have the biggest pool of people to commit them against. But pecking orders are observed here as elsewhere, and each group looks for another group to feel superior to. In U.S. culture, everybody gets to pick on African-Americans, but African-Americans get to pick on LGBTQ people. Men lord it over women; the sharp mulct the dull. There must always be a way to define yourself such that there exists a class lower than you. As long as we seek such imbalances of power, we will have fertile fields for microaggressions, among other things.

Many sources attribute the coinage to Professor Chester Pierce, ca. 1970, an African-American professor of psychology at Harvard. The New York Times also pointed to a 2007 article by Professor Derald Sue that pushed the term out of the academic ghetto into wider use. (I certainly don’t recall hearing it before then.) To this day, the word is used far more often at universities than anywhere else. We have a lot of “micro” words now: microfiber, microloan, microblogging. “Microcephaly” has reared its ugly head recently thanks to the Zika virus. Two more examples sometimes seen near “microaggression” are “microinequality” or “microinequity.” I can’t help but hear an echo of the medical term “microabrasion,” which has little semantic connection but a strong phonological one. The word “aggression” does get people riled up, but the reason “microaggression,” despite its technical, academic sound, has some punch and poignancy stems from the fact that such acts occur only in situations when both the aggressor and aggressee are in direct contact, normally in a public place; they cannot be committed remotely, except by telephone, but even there you have two people engaging each other. Personal interaction is required.

Microaggressions have emerged as the latest fodder in an old debate: Are the oppressed overreacting to unexceptionable behavior, or are the oppressors using any means available to remind everyone else who the boss group really is? The more fundamental question — who gets to decide? — may be shunted aside. Straight, well-off white people are quick to suggest that microaggressions are symptoms of hypersensitivity or political correctness, a means to make us feel guilty even after we’ve made the reforms we were asked to make (well, most of us). But SWOW’s likewise dismissed much more brutal and intimidating means of subjection, from segregation of public amenities to lynching. You know, “They don’t have it so bad. Look at all the nice things we do for those people.” Not much comfort when you’re hauled off to jail for sitting in the wrong place or getting killed for an imagined offense against some white man’s code of honor. That old feeling of domination, whether backed up or not by formal legal sanction, counted for a lot. Treating as equals those you have been discriminating against for generations is a hard pill to swallow, and lots of people are tired of trying. It’s easier to say, “Wait a minute. I’m a victim, too!”

The rise of the microaggression may be taken optimistically: Except in a few extreme cases, physical and economic violence have gone out of the practice of racism, etc., leaving only petty snubs and well-meant gaucheries, which do much less real damage and will in turn become unacceptable in another generation or two. Or pessimistically: There’s no end to it. We get rid of one layer of abuses, and there’s another below that, and another below that. Microaggressions definitely damage some individuals, and that will ultimately hurt the larger society. My two cents: I haven’t thought this through, and it may be untrue, but it seems to me that if a half-concealed sneer can cause significant harm, then small kindnesses may also have an effect greater than their magnitude. It would be awfully nice to think so.

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