Words and History

A respected friend of mine told me, “Half-assed is a sexist term, because it refers to women riding side-saddle.”

Which I thought was pretty interesting – and plausible. It’s not hard to find stories about commonplace things with buried bigoted roots; one of those things where you don’t see it until you totally do.

Except my friend – and later myself in this blog – were completely wrong.

There are competing etymologies. Maybe it’s a corruption of “haphazard” or “half-adzed”. Maybe it refers to how many donkeys are hitched to your cart, or the height of your pants. But I couldn’t find a single reference to support what my friend said.

Sometimes things co-exist with their toxic variants. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” absolutely has a racist version in its history. But there’s also a lot of other variants that existed at the same time or earlier which do not have that racist bit. So does that make the current rhyme racist, when the only time the racist version is heard is in the article talking about the rhyme having racist roots?

It gets even more complicated when symbols that started (and continue to be) used in bigoted ways are wrapped up in a false history. Like the so-called “Confederate flag”, which isn’t actually the Confederate flag and has a strong history of only showing up when people of color want to have equal rights. In that case, even though there’s a lot of evidence showing its racist roots, and even though it’s currently being used in bigoted ways and use, the false history is used to shield something that doesn’t deserve it.

And that’s all before you had things like this:

[T]his loosely organized troll army inhabiting extremist corners of social media, 4chan, and Reddit has adopted a new tactic: claiming mundane objects like milk, the peace symbol, and the LGBTQ flag as symbols of white supremacy.

Wired

In many ways, that kind of logic bomb is horribly effective. It “works” even if it doesn’t fool anyone. If the deception is caught, it’s “for the lulz” – and people may later ignore actual things. If the deception is not caught, all the better. And it’s almost best if the deception is not revealed until after others have repeated it. If it’s believed at all, for any length of time, it undermines confidence and trust.

Not just personal confidence and trust. It erodes confidence and trust in communication itself.

And that’s terrifying.

Featured Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

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