Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Sticks and stones…

Some time ago, while sitting in my favorite pub with a poet friend, I made a remark to the bartender (we'd normally use the term 'barman' but we are much too advanced for that now) that caused a rather perplexing reaction. I had never seen Brigid with her hair pulled back and commented on it by saying that it made her look "quite fetching." She threw me a look that would cause children to weep and marched off in a huff. I then asked Bob if I had done something wrong. He assured me I hadn't and we ordered new pints.

When she'd returned her demeanor would have chilled the pints without the aid of refrigeration. In hopes of diffusing the tension, I asked her what was wrong to which she replied, "You know damn good and well what it wrong." Apparently, the dumfounded look on my face impressed her that perhaps I did not know what was wrong. "Why did you call me 'fetching'?" I replied, "It is a compliment. You are quite fetching." It was right there that I realized she had misunderstood the term 'fetching'.

A dictionary was produced (if you are asking what a dictionary is doing in a pub, well, they also have the collected works of William B. Yeats – the Irish!) and the definition found – "attractive; pleasing". She had taken it as a pejorative on her status as a server. I then made a joke about the serving wench being fetching, with the point being that "fetching" would mean the same in either context. Perhaps it was a little archaic, but a fitting sobriquet nonetheless.

This led to a great deal of thought about the misappropriation of language. In my last post I used the title, "Calling the Kettle Black" to which I received a couple of puzzling comments (and several kind compliments, thank you) regarding the use of this aphorism or cliché. Being new to this forum, I searched around a bit to find the subject in "Random Thoughts and Pointless Conclusions" (which, by the way, I highly recommend) dated August 4th. It concerned using the phrase "Look who's calling the kettle black" or "That's the pot calling the kettle black" and its possible racial overtones.

I have been on this planet nearly fifty years and in all that time I have never heard this particular phrase used in a racial context. Believe me, I've heard plenty of racially motivated speech in my time, Black as the ace of spades leaps to mind. (Although I must confess, I thought being called a spade was, in a way, kind of cool, implying something hip and dangerous.)

The pot-kettle issue is another matter. It has more or less kept its original meaning and that being someone being hypocritical about a behavior that reflected their own. In fact, I would be hard pressed to even think of a way that it could be used racially. It wouldn't surprise me that the phrase probably predates racial issues. It has the feel of being a very, very old folk saying. (Perhaps some enterprising etymologist or folklorist could enlighten us on this matter.)

In fairness, Dreah dismisses the idea that every time the word "black" is used it is used in a racial context, but that sometimes it is and that we might give some thought to what might be hurtful and what may not.

In closing I have one more story to tell about the misunderstandings that can
arise from language. When I first attended a public school at age seventeen, it was the first time I had African-American classmates in any number. One day, one of them called me a "honky" which wasn't a term I was familiar with at that time. I knew the ethnic slur for Hungarians was "hunky" and thought I hadn't heard properly. I then replied, "No, I'm Irish." I'm sure to this day, he thinks I am the dumbest white man he ever met.


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