We all know that the same word when taken out of context or even juxtaposed within a slightly different context takes on a different connotation. But recent developments in America have made me appreciate something even more subtle when it comes to words and their usage.
A word is considered offensive when a person belonging to one race uses it, but the same word can be seen as harmless when used by a person of a different race. And what’s more, it’s used in the same context in both the cases.
What am I referring to? Yes, the word thug. This word has made serious headlines in recent weeks.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thug as:
noun \ˈthəg\ : a violent criminal
Full Definition of THUG
: a brutal ruffian or assassin : GANGSTER, TOUGH
Seems like a straightforward definition, on the face of it.
However, the word “thug” used by Caucasians (like Maryland’s governor and others) and perhaps by people in power like President Obama and Baltimore’s mayor—who are both African American, incidentally—to describe the rioters in Baltimore incited anger and hurt in the black community. So much so that the word had to be retracted in some cases with apology. However, when the same word is used by someone within the black community, it isn’t considered objectionable. In fact, it might even take on a slightly positive and affectionate patina.
Here’s an interview on NPR if you would like to dig some more into the history of how the word got to be this racially charged. The Racially Charged Meaning Behind the Word ‘Thug’.
(An interesting aside: this word originated in India. In Hindi, the word thag means swindler or deceiver. It snuck into the English language as thug during the British-Raj time in India.)
Isn’t it fascinating, how the use or misuse of a single word—which might be harmless when it stands by itself—can muddy our perceived intentions?
Now, go to your bookshelf and pick up your favorite book. An average 300-page novel contains 75,000 to 80,000 words. Consider the care and caution that the writer has put into each one of those words so as to string them all together to get her point across to you, the reader. Don’t you love the book that much more now? I thought you would. :)