143: Racial Terms

Can offensive terms be reclaimed by the people they’ve been applied to? Or are some words best left alone?

In a related issue, sports teams are facing pressure to change their racially-charged names. Should they?

Linguist Daniel Midgley looks at some touchy issues on this episode of Talk the Talk.

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Talk the Talk keeps growing to include more bits and pieces. But this time they all came together on one theme: how do we use language to refer to groups of people? Lots of words have become less taboo in recent years, but here’s a group of words that are becoming more taboo.

Rock group the Slants are having trouble trademarking their name. The Washington Redskins are under pressure to change theirs. Is there a better term than ‘feminist’? It’s all in today’s show. Also, candy.

Show notes

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is going to try repealing the law regarding racial vilification.

He said he would do this in a speech to the IPA back in April, along with getting rid of a lot of other things. All part of the plan, folks.

The Slants

The US Patent and Trademark Office is knocking back the name of the Slants, an all-Asian band.

Interview with Simon Tam, bassist and founder.

Simon also comments on this Language Log thread.

John Gumperz explained how language communities use language as a way of defining themselves as a community.


The word isn’t often used as a compliment.
Google Ngram Viewer link

Newspapers are abandoning it.

The DC City Council is against it.

The APA recommends discontinuing it.

The full APA resolution (PDF)

But guess who supports it: sports fans and the team owner.
Loads of Americans support the use of ‘Redskins’

Money quote: ‘“Everybody protests about everything. I think we should all just forget it and have fun,” said a fan.’http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2013/11/09/native-americans-weigh-in-on-washington-redskins-controversy/

The psychological consequences of stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans (PDF)

A clinical psychologist speaks out.

Eastern Washington University, my hometown uni, used to have a Native American mascot: The Savages. They ditched it in 1973, but for years, the sports center had the old logo stamped into its bricks.

The Utah Utes use the name with the express support of the Ute Tribe.

The N-word

If they can say it, it doesn’t follow that everyone can.

But why not? Christopher Hitchens explains.

Beat poet Julian Curry is not a fan of the n-word, even as reclamation.


Joss Whedon’s speech at Equality Now, in which he recommends genderism over feminism

The term is currently in use, though.

Show tunes

‘Ongaku’ by Señor Coconut
from the album Yellow Fever!

‘Red Dust’ by Calexico + Iron and Wine
from the album In the Reins


  1. Hi chaps (if I may call you that): you asked for feedback on sensitive issues in this podcast, and I thought I'd raise one that you didn't get to, probably because it's not related to race – fattism. At one point Ben talked about some people being 'big fat jerks', and while I'd certainly agree that the people in question probably are jerks, I try to avoid implying that someone's weight determines their personality, and vice versa. I wouldn't normally have mentioned it, but since you asked for feedback, I thought it was interesting how stereotypes can hang around in phrases without even someone as sensitive and informed as Ben noticing it. Love the show, logofascinated creature that I am.

  2. Thanks, missjane. That's a great point, and I'm just about positive I've used that term, too. Just shows how easy it is to slip into a cultural script, even when you think you're language-aware.

    I'll be watching out for a way to work that into a show. Thanks for listening, and for commenting!

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