The Politeness Spectrum of Parts of Speech

English, like every language, often gives us a choice of many ways to say the same thing. The trick is, it’s usually not really the same thing.

For example, there are more and less polite ways to refer to a member of a group, using (mostly) the same root word but different parts of speech. I will illustrate what I mean with examples ordered from rudest to most polite:

1. The + NOUN: This form is both offensive and outdated in modern English, although not in many other languages. The definite article is not intended to refer to a specific individual, but rather the typified representative of the group as a whole. An example from Goebbels (quoted in Victor Klemperer’s book “The Language of the Third Reich”): “You could describe the Jew as a repressed inferiority complex made flesh.” I do not know whether the “The + NOUN” form became tainted through its use by racists, or whether racists chose it because it was already offensive, or whether C caused both A and B. In modern English it would sound much more odd and offensive to say, for example, “The Jew enjoys eating peaches” or “The homosexual enjoys eating peaches” than “Jews enjoy eating peaches” or “Homosexuals enjoy eating peaches,” but “the German enjoys eating peaches” sounds less odd and offensive, indicating that our discomfort stems at least in part from our knowledge of the derogatory uses of this form in the past. However, there was a time when the “The + NOUN” form had no offensive connotation: cf. W.E.B. Du Bois in “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903): “I turn from these well-tended acres with a comfortable feeling that the Negro is rising.”

2. NOUN(s): Using a noun to refer to someone’s membership in a group ranges from neutral to mildly offensive in modern English (although, again, this is different in other languages). “Some of my best friends are Jews,” “some of my best friends are blacks,” and “some of my best friends are gays/lesbians/homosexuals” may not actually sound offensive, but there is a hint of something there; in written English, or particularly in a speech or any kind of public address, this form would probably not be used, especially in the third example. It is possible that this slight discomfort with naked NOUN forms stems from its past derogatory use, but I am not so sure; the Nazis, at least, appeared to use the adjective “Jewish” just as much as the noun “Jew.”

3. ADJECTIVE: This is the standard, neutral way to refer to someone’s membership in a group in modern English. Compare the examples with naked NOUN forms to the following: “Some of my best friends are Jewish,” “some of my best friends are black,” and “some of my best friends are gay/lesbian/homosexual.” A note on this last example: for some reason, the use of “gay” as a noun (“gays”) sounds far less natural to my ear than the use of “lesbian” as a noun (“lesbians”). Furthermore, I think I would be more likely to use “lesbian” as a noun than as an adjective; I would probably say “I have x gay friends” or “I have x friends who are gay” rather than “I have x friends who are gays,” but I would also say “I have x friends who are lesbians” without feeling like I’d said something odd. My theory to explain this is that “gay,” like “black,” is an adjective with a general meaning (“happy” and “a very dark shade,” respectively) that becomes a noun only when used to refer to people. “Lesbian,” on the other hand, functions equally well as a noun and an adjective (the “-ian” suffix, like in “Canadian” and “vegetarian,” is both nominal and adjectival). “Homosexual,” of course, is slightly tainted by its use in anti-gay rhetoric(1).

4. PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES: In some cases using prepositional phrases to refer to someone’s membership in a group sounds neutral, while in others it sounds excessively delicate or politically correct. Examples: “25% of our workers are persons of color” (as opposed to “…are blacks” [vaguely offensive] or “…are black” [neutral but more casual]), “My friend is of Jewish descent” (as opposed to “…is a Jew” [neutral to vaguely offensive] or “is Jewish” [totally neutral]). Some other examples using prepositional phrases sound like the kind of thing that might be used to mock someone considered to be overly politically correct: “My friend is of the Jewish faith,” “This neighborhood is mostly populated by persons of homosexual orientation.” Note the presence of “persons” in some of these phrases; since in these cases “persons” is entirely contentless, you can tell it is being used for reasons of politeness (that is, in order to use a prepositional phrase rather than a naked noun or an adjective).

Questions for commenters: Can you see any signs of change in this hierarchy of parts of speech within your own lifetime? What processes might be behind these or earlier changes?

(1) The word “homophobic” scares me a little bit. I happen to agree with the worldview that produced it, the worldview that says there’s nothing wrong with being gay, but there may come a time when a group I don’t agree with manages to achieve a similar success in naming its opponents.  If, for example, there is ever a debate over whether to go to war in support of Mexico, and I am against the war, I do not want to be labelled a Mexicophobe.


6 Responses to “The Politeness Spectrum of Parts of Speech”

  1. Another phenomenon is the decline of the gendered noun — e.g., “Jewess,” “Negress.” I think these would now be considered offensive, although I’m not sure exactly why (although, of course, the word “Negro” itself has fallen ot of use). This seems to be spreading now to less loaded words like “waitress” and “actress,” which are being replaced by “server” and “actor” — although I don’t think anyone would find “waitress” or “actress” offensive.
    On a lighter note, I’m reminded of a joke (Woody Allen?): “I’m not really a Jew, I’m just Jew-ISH.”

  2. I’m not so sure that the naked noun form has any real negative force. It is a little loaded to use as an example the “Some of my best friends are . . .” context, because that context seems to me to be offensive, regardless of what form is used. Is “Some of my best friends are Jewish.” any more/less offensive than “Some of my best friends are Jews.”? And there are many examples where there is clearly no negative effect: “Italians have produced some of the world’s great operas.” “The incidence of rufosity in Jews of Eastern European descent is high.” “Approximately __% of African-Americans voted for candidate X.”

    Isn’t this whole issue dependent on the context? A sentence that appears to report a fairly neutral, empirical result (“A recent study has shown that [Jews] [African-Americans] [Italians] . . .”) seems to have less negative force than a sentence that baldly ascribes a characteristic to people, especially if that characteristic has a racist or negative history. If the context is negative, then either “Jewish people” or “Jews” is going to sound negative; if the context is not negative, then both will sound neutral.

  3. Grouchette-
    It is true that nouns marked for gender are giving way to unmarked nouns, and in fact it could be said in general that nouns marked for characteristics that are no longer considered as relevant are giving way to unmarked nouns. For example, in the Hemingway story “Fifty Grand,” the main characters, all boxers, repeatedly refer to other boxers by their ethnicity, using “Bohunk” (for Czech), Irishman, etc., in a way that seems antiquated and offensive–not because they mean any offense by it necessarily, but because it gives more attention to race than we do today.

    Yes, it’s certainly dependent on context, and there are contexts that render all or none of the forms offensive. But my contention is that there are contexts where only some of these forms are offensive, and in that case the politeness hierarchy applies. For example: “It was created by a bunch of Jews” vs. “It was created by a bunch of Jewish people.” Doesn’t the former sound a bit more dismissive or generally negative?

  4. I take your point, and I think in your example “a bunch of Jews” sounds just a little more negative than “a bunch of Jewish people.” But I think it is also true that there is a semantic difference between the noun form and the adjective form, such that in many contexts the noun form is required (regardless of offense?). I am thinking of examples like: “Italians have written some of the world’s great operas” or “Jews trace their ancestry back thousands of years to the people who lived in ancient Israel.” In those contexts, which seem neutral and non-offensive, the adjective forms just don’t work. “Italian people” or “people of Italian descent” or “Jewish people” in these examples seem unduly delicate or just express a different idea than would be expressed using the noun form. Still, your basic point still applies: As you say, in contexts in which only some of the forms are offensive and in which either noun or adjective could be used with little semantic difference, the ones that are offensive are the nouns rather than the adjectives.

    I think my more general reaction to the politeness hierarchy is that economy and simplicity is a virtue (for me). Since the noun form is simpler and has a more straightforward feel, as a general matter, I would like to resist saying that it is impolite.

  5. I think the word “epithet” could be useful here. Although it has come to mean “an abusive insulting word or phrase” (=first definition in useless Encarta Dictionary), its original/real meaning is “a word or phrase expressing a quality or attribute of the person or thing mentioned” (=thank you, Compact OED.) That is, exactly, Vicente’s example #2.

    Is there any better illustration of epithets’ becoming insulting than the word (epithet) itself coming to mean “insult”? Probably not just an epiphenomenon, right?

    (And on the side: is it really just the oppressed who get their own epithets? Consider the “racist”:

    1. “…in the popular vocabulary, the racist is not so much an actual person but a monster.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates in Slate
    2. “Who are you, a racist?”, for example.
    3. “What are you, racist?”
    4. “Many of my friends are of racist persuasion.”

    (There is also “What are you, a racist?”, but that’s a line–from one of last spring’s movies–that is beyond my understanding of this topic.) )

  6. […] Noun as Insult About a year ago, I wrote a post titled “The Politeness Spectrum of Parts of Speech” in which I argued that, in modern English, some parts of speech have more polite or offensive […]

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