Once upon a time I worked for a manager named Marvin. At the time he and I had known each other for close to a decade and worked together previously as peers in a different city where we first met. As friends we got along well and our work relationship was a good one.
Marvin hired me in my early 30’s as a middle manager in Denver and things were going well. I was able to make a difference in the business, enjoyed working for him and was shown appreciation regularly. One day I was very excited about the great deal I had gotten for the company and hurried into Marvin’s office to tell him about it. What had been accomplished was described in animated detail and I ended the story with “I jew’ed ‘em down pretty good didn’t I?”. I watched Marvin’s face turn to pale and then red and to this day I remember vividly his reaction. He said “don’t ever say anything like that in front of me again. If I did not know you so well I would have come over my desk at you. I know you meant no offense, but that phrase is extremely offensive to me”. I imagine you sorted out that my friend Marvin was Jewish.
For a good while I was embarrassed by what I had said and my apologies to Marvin were numerous. Being the good man that he was, he told me to forget it and meant it. It took me a good bit longer to forgive myself. In my introspection then I realized I had grown up hearing that phrase in an area where there were no Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons or any faith outside of traditional Christian ones. All I knew was those folks were people like me, but went to a different church just like Methodists and Baptists did.
At nineteen I had a buddy who was a Jew and attended synagogue with him. I did not understand the service exactly, but respected its traditions and those attending. The same was true in my when I attended church with a girl I dated who was Catholic.
After the incident in Denver I began to take inventory of other things I said from time to time that I really did not know the meaning of. I discovered there were a few other pejoratives in my vocabulary. First there was use of the terms “gyped” (verb) and “gyp” (noun) that referred to being ripped off or the person who ripped one off. With a little work at a library I discovered that the use of these expressions was a racial slur against Gypsies. Lacking a population of Gypsies in the Deep South, this had honestly never occurred to me. As far as I knew there had never been an occasion where I had offended anyone with that term except possibly those who knew generally it was derogatory slang. Another term x’ed off my repertory of expression.
Later I heard my self make reference to a “black sheep” in conversation one day. I offended no one (that I know of) but mentally caught the phrase and a little homework later educated me on its meaning. I found “black sheep” is a derogatory colloquialism meaning an outsider or one who is different in a way which others disapprove of or find odd. The term originated from the fact that the occasional black sheep will be born into a herd of white sheep. Black sheep were considered undesirable because their wool cannot be dyed, and there weren’t enough to make black wool. I feared before doing research that is was a slam against people with dark skin and was relieved that in general it wasn’t. However, I felt it could be construed that way by some and another expression was removed form my usable list.
My personal standard is to never speak words offensive to people of any particular race, creed, background or color. Now I am working on deleting “redneck” from my vocabulary. Considering I think of myself as being descended proudly from a long line ofAlabamarednecks progress on complete elimination of that one is taking a lot longer than the others. “Redneck” is a historically derogatory slang term used in reference to poor white farmers in theSouthern United States. In more recent times the term has had its meaning expanded to mean bigoted, loutish, and opposed to modern ways. While I am the former (descendant of poor white farmers), I mean no disrespect by using the derogatory meanings. So that one has to go too!
I am still trying to sort out why we often use “right” to mean “correct”. Is that is some sort of a put down to people who are left- handed? Any input on that one would would be appreciated.
This line of growth all began with my boss back in my young executive days that I innocently, or rather ignorantly, indirectly slammed because of his faith. My restitution has been to seek to eliminate all such words and phrases from how I speak. As we all are a combination of bits and pieces borrowed from others stirred in with our unique self, I will always be grateful to Marvin R. for being a good boss, an understanding friend and for bringing to life an awareness that is with me still today.
It’s better to keep your mouth shut and give the impression that you’re stupid than to open it and remove all doubt. Rami Belson