A euphemism is a substituting of a mild or inoffensive word or phrase for one that’s unpleasant or offensive. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine commented on one of my blogs (“African and American?” of 9/18/2011) in which I questioned the use of the phrase (moniker, epithet?) “African-American”. She had some interesting comments about terms we use, mostly in a political sense. I’m not a politician nor do I want to get into a political discussion, but I have always wondered about some of the terms we use to refer to ourselves, and “African-American” was one of those terms. So many of those terms seem exaggerated.
For example, in the US, races are differentiated by two terms thrown around like rice at a wedding. Caucasians are referred to as “white,” regardless of the real color of their skin, which can be anything from albino (which is really a pinkish white), to very dark brown. Those of the Negro race are referred to as “black,” again regardless of their skin color which can be any of various shades of brown. An American Indian (that is to say, Indians whose heritage is in the Indian nations of the United States) is termed “red,” and persons from China are considered “yellow.” Where did we get these colors? There’s some brown and some white in the skin color of every human on this planet, so I can see the general use of those terms, but they’ve gotten out of hand and are so often used to justify racism. “Red” and “yellow” I don’t get at all. They sound more insulting than descriptive.
In a similar vein, what about “Redskins”? That’s the equivalent of the “n” word for a “black” person. Don’t the people in Washington, DC get the message? You’d think a sports team in our nation’s capital, where political correctness is a way of life, would understand how offensive that name is. “Indians” isn’t so bad; it’s more descriptive than insulting, but still, I wonder.
Then there’s the term “American.” Where did we get that? An American is now defined as someone from the United States of America, and in many countries that’s offensive, too. But “America” is a much larger area than that one country. The term includes two continents and one rather circuitous land mass that connects the two. There’s North America, Central America, and South America, so an “American,” in the most basic use of the term, is someone from any one of those areas. But we don’t use it that way. Consider, if you’re from Canada, you’re Canadian. If you’re from Mexico, you’re Mexican. If you’re from Bolivia, you’re Bolivian. (Note how the last vowel is dropped and the suffix “-ian” is added.) But if you’re from the United States, there isn’t any good equivalent term. Would we be referred to as “United Statesian?” That’s no good. Or, “United States of American?” Don’t be ridiculous. Perhaps that’s why we adopted “American” because there isn’t anything else. (That’s conjecture, not justification.)
This just goes to show how terms and designations can change, getting away from their original meaning, taking on context that can be far from what we first used them for. Be careful how you use them. An innocent term can be an insult anymore.