Language is powerful, people imperfect. Often, we weaponize words against others. Exhibits A and B: Karenand George.

Karen is hurled at white women accused of using their genetic, economic and social status—often termed privilege—to verbally and even physically assault African Americans. Karen accuses a mass of people and denies their individuality. I know two wonderful Karens. But what’s new?

A century ago, white train passengers addressed black sleeping car porters as George. Sleeping cars had been created by George Pullman. George enabled and encouraged white travelers to avoid humanizing the Black men who attended them. Of course, white passengers retained an alternative. They could always call out, Boy!

Exhibits C and on: Some people use little when speaking of Jews. In America, little often serves as a pejorative. Once, a client’s husband referred to a little Jewish man in my presence. Remembering who I was, he backed off. Was he accurate?  

Not all Jews are tall. But better diets have produced the Israeli basketball player Deni Avdija (Washington Wizards), 6-9. The Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, who played when I was a kid, 6-8. His son Danny, who spent 17 seasons in the NBA, 6-11. I’m only an average 5-10. My youngest son is 5-11. My father was 6-0. My oldest son is 6-3. 

The N-word has a long history in America, Britain and elsewhere. African Americans struck back, referring to whites as Ofay (foe in Pig Latin), whitey and peckerwood. Some African Americans remove the sting from the N-word by using it. For non-Blacks, it’s taboo.

Jews turn the tables—we’ve been called kikes and sheenies among other names—by referring to Christians as goyim, Christian culture as goyish. In the Bible, goyim translates to nations apart from Israel. It later became an oppressed minority’s tool for striking back verbally when physical retaliation proved dangerous. 

Jew itself often indicates a negative connotation among non-Jews. The word was often replaced by Hebrew as in someone of the Hebrew faith. Today, Jews use Jewing—another gentile pejorative—and doing Jewishto describe living Jewish lives.

Denigration on various levels continues with words like soccer momshipsters, and hillbillies. LGBTQ folks co-opted queer. The comedian Jeff Foxworthy forged a successful career by joking about rednecks—his people. Foxworthy can do it. He understands the context.

 “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” says the work camp warden in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke. Often, that failure screams. 

The rationale behind defund the police is understandable, but the term makes murky the intent to better train law enforcement while providing additional resources to minority communities. People in high-crime neighborhoods want police around to do to their jobs but with more professionalism and even-handedness.

Black Lives Matter could have been better thought out—not because it doesn’t make an important point but because it separates out African Americans and enables opponents to denigrate the term. Black Lives Matter, Too would better recognize universal humanity. Being first with All Lives Matter would have made opposition to the sentiment difficult. 

Like arrows, harmful words once spoken can’t be recalled. Perhaps we can retire Karen, as we have George, and the host of words and phrases that divide rather than unite us. I hope, at least, I’ve made myself clear.

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  1. Joan Sutton on January 29, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    Remember that old saying – “Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you”? It’s incorrect and you are correct. Words do hurt and can be very dangerous.

    • David Perlstein on January 30, 2021 at 7:51 am

      Agreed, Joan. Which of course brings up questions. Exactly how do we handle this matter? What limits to speech are acceptable? But the power of words to heal as well as hurt remains.

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