Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Richard Lederer

 

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: A question has come up concerning the origins of expressions that are considered racist. Have you run into any controversy about red tape being offensive to Native Americans?

At a seminar I attended recently, the presenter told a roomful of businesswomen that red tape is racist and not to be used, even though she wasn’t able to cite any source when I asked her. She said it came from a cultural sensitivity training session she had attended.

Is this a phantom etymology, and where does it come from? Are there many of these newly-prohibited words?

Also, has the rule of thumb story about wife-beating been authoritatively disproved, or not? I am all for avoiding racism and sexism, but I think the arguments against certain expressions have to make sense before we start censoring. -Maureen Gerarden, Oconomowoc, Wisc.

I’m all for political correctness applied in truly caring and careful ways, such as the substitution of homeless as an appellation for the “bums” who used to live on the streets when I was a lad. But when a presenter teaches that the phrase red tape is racist against Native Americans, that is a monstrous abuse of the teacher’s role.

I’m not at all surprised that your seminar honcha offered no citation to support her position because none exists, at least not in any reputable elbow book. Red tape descends from the use of reddish tape to tie up official documents, a practice that began in 17th-century England.

Political correctness run amok at SUNY Albany resulted in a clash over supposed political correctness. Publicity for an April picnic planned to honor Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in major league baseball was attacked by a student group who wrongly claimed that picnic stems from pickaninny, a disparaging word for African Americans. The actual derivation is from the 17th-century French picnique, and has nothing to do with race.

Organizers at the State University caved in anyway and decided to call the event an “outing.” That’s when a gay student leader voiced strenuous objections. In the end, the event was publicized without any title.

And guess what? Despite what you may read on the internet, rule of thumb has nothing to do with any law enjoining a husband from using a stick thicker than his thumb to beat his wife. The expression harks back to days of old, when rulers of the measuring kind were uncommon and people used the length of the thumb from the knuckle to the tip as an approximate measure of one inch — inexact, but better than nothing.

Here’s the other side of political correctness:

We live in a house of language, and our words are the windows through which we look at the world. Could it be that our window on reality is paned with glass that distorts our view. Could it be that the window through which we see life is marred by cracks, smudges, blind spots and filters?

Women make up the majority of the population in the United States and almost every other nation in the world. Yet concern has been growing that the English language depicts women and girls as a group of human beings less significant than men and boys.

Berkeley, Cal., will soon do away with manholes, not literally but linguistically. The city with a long history of progressivism is moving forward with a plan to remove all gendered language from its city code. Soon, Berkeley will formally refer to manholes as maintenance holes.

The City Council will soon replace all instances of he and she in the city code with the gender-neutral they. Firemen in Berkeley will become firefighters, policeman will become police officer, man-made will become artificial and all instances of men and women will be replaced by people.

***

Early this week, Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and one of America’s best loved writers, passed away at the age of 88. I share with you an excerpt from her 1993 acceptance speech:

“Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

***

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: My husband Tom is a space exploration buff.  His response to your column last week about lunar words is: Buzz Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name is Moon. His wife’s maiden name is Archer. Apollo is the god of archery -Arleen Hitchcock, Tierrasanta