Have you ever wondered how words are born? As a writer who has thumbed his fair share of thesauri, I am surprised almost daily by the kinds of words that we accept into the American lexicon. Take the word “lickspittle.” Who in their right mind thought that one up?
“Lickspittle” describes a person who is excessively obsequious — so sycophantic, the word suggests, that the subject displays a willingness to lick up the spit of the person they serve. Just thinking about the word is like fork tines scrapping down a chalkboard’s surface for me. Imagine the first person to use “lickspittle” in mixed company. Yuck.
Few of us get to have a say in which words are valorized. We read or hear an offensive word and we decide then and there whether we personally will play a role in its propagation. But by the time most of us encounters a word, it has gained so much currency that there is little we can do other than to choose not to use it.
In the late 1980s, then presidential candidate Jesse Jackson led an effort to replace the word “black” with “African-American.” Black had taken on so much negative political baggage by that time that he wanted to replace it with something less charged. To a degree, he succeeded, but 30 years later, “black” is still in common use. What Mr. Jackson failed to recognized at the time was that “black” was far too deeply entrenched in American culture for anyone — even a man of his moment and influence — to quash completely. The proverbial horse was out of the barn, and the barn had burned down long ago.
There is another politically charged word gaining currency today among academics that, were it to enter the lexicon of popular use, could further debase a rapidly degenerating public discourse by further marginalizing huge swaths of already marginalized groups. That word is “minoritized.”
It’s a deceptively sexy sounding word — “minoritized.” It tumbles over the lips with the Nabokovian charm of “Lo-li-ta.” It’s the sort of word a thoughtful person might use in a spirited debate to assert his intellectual bonafides. We may not know exactly what it means, but it doesn’t matter, we think we do.
And, that’s the problem.
“Minoritized,” a verb that is only one careless op-ed away from becoming an adjective, refers to a so-called dominant class subordinating a person or people. Some enterprising academic, most likely, has taken the word “minority” — a word that is already condescendingly and dismissively offensive — and found a way to make it even more so.
“Minoritized” is a violent word that makes the user look insensitive, suggests sinister intention by its subject and assigns an insulting lack of agency to its object. It is the sort of word that reflects poorly on everyone associated with it.
Unfortunately, the way word usage works, it’s only a matter of time before rock stars and fashion models are using it to sound informed and socially aware. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of academic word that slides easily into vogue — charmingly evasive and deceptively familiar.
In the age of Donald Trump, when many of us have become desensitized to the damage words can do, we must sometimes remind ourselves that a person’s political concept should not be another person’s oppression.
We can decide today, before this word gains currency, not to use it. There is power in choosing not to normalize, as an objective descriptor, something that is not objective.
Words are powerful things. If we are not careful with them, they can lead to shootings and bombings and the building of walls.
K. Ward Cummings is a former senior congressional adviser and the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.” Email:firstname.lastname@example.org; website: kwardcummings.com, Twitter: @kwardcummings.