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The vocabulary of a society

The OH and I were watching the Ken Burns documentary Unforgiveable Blackness today. (Recommended.) It's about the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. It's also about the horrific racism in American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The film describes how Johnson was reviled for dating and marrying white women. There are frequent references to the term "miscegenation" and one reference to "octoroon." I kept thinking, "what kind of society is it that takes concepts like those so seriously that it actually assigns words to them?"

There are bazillions of other examples of questionable concepts reified by having words assigned to them, of course. And it can work the other way around too - important concepts can be promoted in society by having words assigned to them.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 22nd, 2007 01:43 pm (UTC)
It's not precisely the same thing, and it's not really so surprising, but some of the terms for the female version of something are like that to me. Aviatrix, executrix, poetess, authoress, etc. It's one thing to know those words exist, but especially when you see or hear an old document or movie clip where they actually USE the words, it makes you wonder why it mattered so much. Is the fact that the poet is a woman so very important?
Sep. 22nd, 2007 04:54 pm (UTC)
In a way, it is pretty much the same thing.
Sep. 24th, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)
Oh yeah!

And concepts that we can't think about because we have no language for them.

You might like this:
Sep. 24th, 2007 02:51 pm (UTC)
After recoiling in horror about the coinage of terms like "quadroon" and "octoroon," one might want to consider what fraction of mixed-ethnic ancestry qualifies a person in contemporary America (read mid-1970s and more recently) for checking-off a minority box on the Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity form.

Nothing like a bit of bureaucratese for balance.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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