Back to the Race Track

As I write this, I’m wearing a face mask.

I’m in my own room, at my own desk. And I’m sitting more than six feet away from anyone. So why the mask? I’m just trying to protect myself (and you) from any political pollution.

I used the bland phrase protect myself after I dismissed sheltering in place because it is already a viral cliché.

I thought of another corona era phrase, but Ben Zimmer wrote in his Wall Street Journal “Word on the Street” column that hunkering down “originally referred to squatting down on the balls of one’s feet, keeping low to the ground but still ready to move if necessary.”

If I ever tried that, my wife would have to call Hatzolah EMTs to get me up off the floor.

Then I thought of circling the wagons. That comes from the defensive tactic of placing wagons in a circle to form a makeshift fortress. The tactic goes back to at least 101 BCE, when the Cimbri tribe tried to hold off the Romans in the Battle of Vercellae. Because of media mythology, it later became associated with protecting the wagon trains of settlers in the Old West. Then it took on a figurative meaning of people uniting in defense of a common interest.

But how could I circle one wagon? I’ll leave that mathological problem to others to solve. I had a bigger problem that fixed my wagon.

Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian and founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, alerts writers and publishers to microaggressions — subtle, often unintended prejudices. Reese wrote that “circling the wagons is a phrase widely used to say that someone is taking a defensive position. … The phrase is rooted in stories about ‘brave pioneers’ who were ‘under attack’ by ‘hostile savages.’”

But the real good guys weren’t the ones wearing white hats. The “hostile savages” were actually Native Americans defending their homeland from white invasion.

So what do you do when the language itself is littered with the debris of centuries of bigotry? Whom do you complain to? Who’s in charge of the English language?

The short answer is: No one. Neither England nor America have any official body like Israel’s Academy of the Hebrew Language, whose decisions are binding on all governmental agencies.

In The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, Jack Lynch quoted a news item about Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s defining a vile racial epithet you or I would never think of using. Merriam-Webster said, “We have made it clear that the use of this word as a racial slur is abhorrent to us, but it is nonetheless part of the language, and as such, it is our duty as dictionary makers to report on it. To do less would simply mislead people by creating the false impression that racial slurs are no longer a part of our culture; and that, tragically, is not the case.”

That made it all the more surprising when recent tabloid headlines proclaimed that Merriam-Webster has “changed the definition of racism.”

Merriam-Webster does not judge right and wrong. In their own words, theirs “is a descriptive dictionary in that it aims to describe and indicate how words are actually used by English speakers and writers. Generally, the descriptive approach to lexicography does not dictate how words should be used or set forth rules of ‘correctness,’ unlike the prescriptive approach.”

So how could M-W issue a decree to “change” the meaning of a word?

The answer is that they didn’t. The media were hakn a tshaynik — knocking a teakettle. That’s a Yiddish cousin to a “tempest in a teapot.” Or much ado over nothing.

So what did happen?

Kennedy Mitchum, a 22-year-old student at Drake University in Des Moines, discovered that the mouse is mightier than the Molotov.

She wrote to Merriam-Webster requesting that they change their definition of racism to include “prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”

The key word is system. Protesters have long argued that racism in our society is systemic.

That’s an interesting word. The more common term is systematic. That means planned and organized. Systemic is a medical term meaning something that affects the entire organism. It has also become a metaphor for the social organism.

M-W replied to Ms. Mitchum that they intend to update the definition to more accurately reflect how the word is used.

In other words, M-W didn’t change anything. They will simply do what they always do — add an update for a current use of a word.

But they handled it with diplomatic savvy that our politicians could learn from. And, in the process, they turned a 22-year-old student into a culture hero.

There’s a word for that: win-win.

Does it change society? If only …

It seems to me that things haven’t changed much since Leo Rosten used to tell this story:

An old Jew sits down on the subway next to a Black man and sees that he’s reading a Yiddish newspaper. After a while, the old Jew asks, “Excuse me, mister, but are you Jewish?”

The Black man glares at him and saiys, “Dos felt mir noch! — That’s all I’m missing!”


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.