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30 August 2012

"Dirty" Words That Soil Identities

"Jew" is not a bad word. I often have to remind myself of this fact when playing Words with Friends, a web-based, Scrabble-like game that is popular as a Facebook and smartphone app. Words with Friends uses something called the Enhanced North American Benchmark Lexicon (ENABLE) as its base for acceptable words. It purposefully does not include derogatory terms. Somehow, the folks behind ENABLE decided that "Jew" is derogatory. It reminds me of an episode of 30 Rock in which Jack (Alec Baldwin) and Lemon (Tina Fey) are confused about how to refer to Jack's girlfriend Elisa's (Salma Hayek) ethnicity in a politically-correct manner.

There is a great irony here. People are rightly concerned about perpetuating the use of harmful language. Thus, the prohibition of terms such as the N-word in everyday usage is laudable. However, when we extend that prohibition to words that aren't in and of themselves socially or psychologically damaging, like "Jew" or "Puerto Rican," we unintentionally stigmatize the identity of those who should otherwise proudly embrace those identities.


UPDATE (7/9/2018): See here for a new example of this phenomenon.

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