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May 6, 2013
This week's theme
Terms that appear offensive but aren't

This week's words
queer street
tar baby

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with Anu Garg

Language is meant to communicate and offending someone is also a way to communicate, though not a very nice one. There are plenty of offensive words in a language, any language, and this week's words may appear offensive, but aren't.

They may sound, look, or feel like they have something to do with well-known distasteful words, but they don't. This similarity may cause some to take offense if the words are used in conversation. So should they be?

A dictionary meaning of a word tells only so much. A word in a dictionary is inert. It comes alive only when we use it and give it real meaning. A word can take multiple meanings depending on the speaker, listener, tone, and the context.

Take an everyday word like boy, for example. An adult man wouldn't think twice about his mother calling him a boy. But chances are he'd resent a store clerk or his boss, even an older boss, calling him thus. And that may also explain to folks who wonder, for example, why blacks use the N-word amongst themselves, yet are offended if people outside their community say it.

One might say: Words don't offend people, people offend people.

So should you use this week's terms? Technically, these are perfectly agreeable words, but technically is not how life works. It all depends on the context. For example, I'd avoid using the term queer street if I knew the person I was speaking to was gay.

What do you think? I invite you to discuss this in our online forum Wordsmith Talk.

queer street

(kweer street)

noun: A state of hardship, especially financial hardship.

The origin of the term is not clear. Carey Street, site of the bankruptcy court in London, has been proposed, but the court came decades after the term. It's also been suggested that traders put a query mark against customers suspected of having financial difficulties. Earliest documented use: 1811.

"Mike Bessey said: You can't really make a case that UK farmers are on queer street as a whole -- on average they are surviving and starting modest investment."
Caroline Stocks; £25m Aid Won't Help Struggling UK Dairy Farmers; Farmers Weekly (UK); Jan 22, 2010.

What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness. -Leo Tolstoy, novelist and philosopher (1828-1910)

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