This is a guest post by H.S. Cross, the author of the novels Grievous (FSG, 2019) and Wilberforce (FSG, 2015).
Americans are familiar with the word fag as a gay slur, but across the pond, this is not necessarily the case. When I first encountered the word in English boarding school novels, I was shocked, but I soon learned that there was more to fag than ugly insults hurled on Christopher Street. The word has a long history, stretching back to the early 1300s, but it was not until the 1920s that it began to be used in the context of sexuality. For seven centuries, fag and faggot were not strong language but instead commonplace in schools, government, work, agriculture, and sports, chiefly in Britain.
I write fiction set in an English boarding school between the World Wars, so I have to deal with the word fag all the time in one of its non-derogatory usages. A reviewer once praised me (I think?) for my “unflinching use of the word fag,” as if there were a way around the word in the English school context. There isn’t. Continue reading
Following hard upon Iva Cheung’s delicious food-based ethnic slurs post, we turn to disparaging and sweary food truck trademarks.
First, a recent and timely controversy over food service-related branding. Local officials in Keene, New Hampshire were dismayed when signage popped up for a new Vietnamese restaurant, PHO KEENE GREAT.
I’m lucky enough to live in a multicultural city where I can walk a block to a restaurant advertising “poke sushi burrito,” so a lot of food-based ethnic slurs seem almost quaint to me—though that’s not to diminish the hurt they’ve caused. I thought I’d dig into the origin of some of these slurs and look at how their power has shifted.
By food-based slurs, I’m not referring to words like banana, used to describe people of Asian descent in Western countries who are “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” I’m focusing on expressions attacking foods that people choose to include in their diets.
Food is an integral part of culture, yet it seems to be one of the easiest, most accessible ways to cross cultural boundaries. Othering cultures based on what they will and won’t eat certainly still goes on, as we see from perennial jabs at Asian cultures as dog eaters and White nationalists’ bizarre obsession with milk, but with our access to a greater variety of ingredients than ever before, insulting someone based on what they use to nourish themselves comes off as especially lazy. It’s the ill intent and the othering that causes the harm, but food-based slurs feel particularly flaccid because their primary effect is to shine a light on the unworldliness of the speaker.
What food-based ethnic slurs do you have in your culture? Share them in the comments! Continue reading
One of the stranger items to surface so far from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury—whose sweary account of the Trump White House I recently covered—is the curious case of jumos.
On the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a group of Russians, Wolff writes that Bannon said: “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these Jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.”
Putting aside Bannon’s explosive implication that Trump himself met with the Russians, despite White House denials to the contrary, Bannon’s statement had many scratching their heads: What is a jumo? Specifically, it had Maggie Serota wondering in her January 3rd Spin article: “Did Steve Bannon Invent a New Slur?”
“Strong language” covers a lot of speech, from profanity to racial and ethnic slurs. The slurs got a big boost on 17 June 2017, in a United States Supreme Court decision. Until then, the Lanham Act of 1946 — which governs American trademark law — prohibited use of derogatory terms like slurs in federally approved trademarks. To quote the Act, trademarks may not “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” The Court unanimously decided instead that trademark owners can disparage with abandon and bring others into contempt or disrepute deliberately or with disregard.
In the words of Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, Simon Tam — founder of The Slants, the first all Asian-American dance-rock band — applied “for federal trademark registration of the band’s name […]. ‘Slants’ is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent, and members of the band are Asian-Americans. But the band members believe that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they will help to ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office refused the application because slant refers to the disparaging stereotype that people of Asian heritage are “slant-eyed.” The band hoped to “‘take ownership’ of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity.” The USPTO obstructed that re-appropriation. Continue reading