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 The + NOUN: This form is both offensive and outdated in modern English, although not in many other languages.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.