Political correctness and linguistic improbability

I can’t wrap my tongue around ‘African-American’. I usually end up with ‘Afro-American’, which is apparently somehow more remarked upon as a mistake than ‘black’. So I think I’ll stick with ‘black’. If you insist on my saying ‘African-American’, I will make you call me ‘Eastern-European Caucasian’. Because if I suffer, so should you – it’s more politically correct that way.

I’m generally against removing random terms from a language just because somebody might find them bad. Sure, some terms are meant to be slurs and those should be avoided in polite conversation – but if a term is used both politely and impolitely the problem is obviously not the word’s.

But this isn’t about that. It’s about linguistics. PC terms can be quite the annoying little buggers because they’re long and unnatural and they’re fighting a losing battle against a basic principle of any language: common words tend to be shortened (where possible). Maybe it’s laziness, maybe it’s economy, maybe it’s practicality, but whatever the reason may be, common words are usually short.

Now, I live in Romania where there are very, very few black people. It doesn’t really matter what we call them because we won’t be using the term too often. I can say, “Oh, yeah! The last supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-African-Romanian I saw was in a pharmacy in Cluj a few months ago.” Do you know why? Because I’m likely to mention a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-African-Romanian only once or twice per year. I can dedicate him/her 21 syllables when I do. It’s like honorificabilitudinitatibus – how often am I going to mention the state of being able to receive honors? I don’t know. (and I’d call it ‘the state of being able to receive honors’ then, but that’s another story)

Americans, though?… They actually have a black population in which people don’t know each other by name and occupation. They might actually need to refer to black people every once in awhile. Trying to take away a short word and replace it with a long one isn’t really that great of an idea. Actually, it might be begging people to have two ways of speaking about blacks: one in public, where they pompously call them ‘African-Americans’ and that can be a way for them to feel like proper citizens or whatnot… and one in private, where they’ll use something more comfortable. It doesn’t dissolve tension, it creates it. It’s unequal treatment – yet again! Whites gets to be called ‘white’, which is comfy and straight and never really questioned, while with blacks you have to watch your tongue and learn how to avoid both being a stuck-up idiot and somehow impolite (although you never meant to be).

The term also has another issue: it mostly refers to black people who’ve been there awhile. It’s charged with the need to describe citizenship and race at the same time – but since Africa is a location as well, it implies that black people in the US are necessarily connected just to Africa and America and that’s all there is to it. But what if a French black couple emigrates to the US? Presuming that they are African and American alone might offend their French roots.

It’s a term that just makes things more complicated than they really need to be.

P.S. If you somehow managed to ban the word ‘black’ from use, you’d probably have people start using ‘Afs’ or some other such word to save time and effort. Just saying.

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