Words which have become rude

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What’s in a word? Depends who’s writing and reading it. The 1861 ink-splodged and messy manuscript of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations gives insight into the illustrious novelist.  It shows how Dickens constantly returned to his text to change words and nuances and alter sentences. In politics and history, texts and words are most often changed not for literary reasons, but convenience. What’s in a word?

WHAT is a ‘location’? To most people, it’s a place. But in South Africa it was once an area inhabited by mainly desperately poor black people; when many South Africans used that word, it suggested a dirty, unsafe area, where poor people cooked pap outdoors.

The dictionary can never be an unbiased book. Every word that appears in it is coloured by history, politics, connotations and context, and is fuelled by fashion. South Africans are no foreigners to how words are poisoned and meanings changed by politicians. During apartheid, the word ‘native’ was used pejoratively for blacks as an official government term; there was even a ‘Native Affairs Department’ under the authority of the Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd. Actually, the apartheid government struggled repeatedly with coining euphemisms referring to blacks. Terms such as ‘natives’, ‘bantu’, ‘non-Europeans’ and ‘plurals’ all had their day; the latter was called ‘hilarious’ by the Sunday Times in 1978. There was once a ‘Department of Plural Relations and Development.’

But the shoe always tends to slide to the other foot eventually: Many black South Africans and politicians today are too easily tempted to call a white person who disagrees with them about anything a racist, often without cause. And despite losing power, Afrikaners are still famous for using the ugly k-word to refer to blacks, although doing so publically might be called hate speech and get them into serious trouble.

Slippery, politicised meanings of ordinary words are not a South African invention, however. Is the word ‘Zionism’ an ordinary word? Not so long ago, the ideology had to be inherently part of an Israeli government’s platform for it to succeed. But what about an Arab government party? It would be absurd to expect it to call itself Zionist.

Zionism is a particularly loaded word in South Africa, where the ANC, trade unions, leftist academics and NGOs are intensely hostile to Israel. Among politicised activists in black communities, it provokes awkwardness even among people who accept Israel’s existence. For the more extreme, Zionism is akin to a four-letter word. Every word has an implied back story: Many South Africans who use Zionism as a pejorative, are veiling anti-Semitism.

Ever since Theodor Herzl’s day in 1897, the word Zionism was the most central expression of Jews’ fight for a state. Israel now exists, but ironically amongst Jews, the word is being reconsidered amidst the hurly-burly of Israeli politics. Ask Israelis if they are Zionists: many might say they aren’t, Israel is simply the Jewish country where they live and will fight to keep it secure. Increasing numbers of American Jews, alienated from Israel because of differences in world view, would not describe themselves as Zionists.

In Israel, the prospect of an Arab party joining a minority government with Benni Gantz’s Blue and White party, allowed PM Benjamin Netanyahu to attack him using the word Zionist. He derided the possibility that Blue and White might form a government supported by the predominately Arab Joint List; instead, Netanyahu would form ‘a strong Zionist government’ excluding Arab parties.

Is the word Zionism just a term which was once important, but now isn’t? Some people will angrily reject this, saying that discarding the word is a betrayal of people who gave lives for it. But did they fight for something that existed then, but has changed now, and they must change too?

Words are always a weapon or tool: it depends who uses them. What would happen if the ‘z-word’ became forbidden in contemporary society? Or fell into disuse, like ‘plurals’? Would that anti-Semitic thread simply be expressed through a different word?

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za

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