Grammar Moses: When is something 'offensive' and when is it 'anachronistic?'

  • Wheaton College has temporarily removed a plaque honoring missionaries who were killed in Ecuador because of "concern about language on the plaque that is now recognized as offensive," school leaders say.

    Wheaton College has temporarily removed a plaque honoring missionaries who were killed in Ecuador because of "concern about language on the plaque that is now recognized as offensive," school leaders say. Photo courtesy of Wheaton College

 
 
Updated 7/4/2021 5:00 PM

Pardon my interruption of your birthday party, America, while I get philosophical.

"I've begun to find the word 'offensive,' well, offensive. It seems like so many things that are outdated are called 'offensive' unnecessarily," wrote regular reader Bob Kopp.

 

"When I looked up the synonyms for 'offensive' I got more of a flavor of intentionality from them. Now I know I can be offensive, but it's usually more about impulsivity than intent. I found a word new to me -- 'anachronistic.' I like that word, although I don't expect to see it in the newspaper five times a week."

Bob cited a news story about an old plaque at Wheaton College about which some at the school objected.

It commemorated five young missionaries who died at the hands of "savage Indians" in 1956.

Bob, who is familiar with many people at Wheaton College, is sure there was no offense intended in using that trope, making "savage Indians" anachronistic (belonging to a different time) rather than offensive.

Not to Native Americans, it isn't. And not to me.

Calling it "anachronistic" is just a euphemism for something that makes us uncomfortable.

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I agree "offensive" is overused and should be used with care, relegated mostly to opinion pieces.

In news stories it should be used primarily in quotations that explain other people's assessments.

With that point I agree. What's "offensive" is generally in the eye of the beholder. I'm sure my choice of cinema might offend some of you.

That said, to refer to Native Americans as "savages" -- whether today or 64 years ago -- is prima facie offensive. My parents hadn't even met when that plaque was made, but I can tell you as soon as I was capable of thought I would have winced at that.

So is the N-word spoken by anyone who isn't Black. As is using a four-letter word for the Japanese, which newspapers did pretty freely in headlines during WW2 when Japan was the enemy. You don't see slurs used to describe enemies in newspapers today.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Today, these words are inarguably offensive. I think to call them "anachronistic" underplays the hurtfulness with which those words were -- or are -- used.

Back when that plaque was given to Wheaton College, during WWII when we gave the Japanese that horrid nickname and when people freely used the full N-word, those words were used with belittlement, derision or hatred. That's quite a range, I realize, but I challenge you not to find an emotion attached to that word choice. There was nothing benign about the intent of the word. It fit somewhere on that scale.

I like to think many of us today better understand that words and actions do hurt.

Cheers to Wheaton College for realizing that, embracing the concern and updating the language and messaging.

Many of us today care more about the effect of words than people used to.

It's why the Washington Football Team is now called that. It's why the Atlanta Braves backed away from the tomahawk chop.

Yes, our definition for what is offensive today is broader than what many of us felt was offensive back then, but that doesn't mean they were innocent and merely out of step with modern times.

A Model T Ford driving on the expressway is "anachronistic."

Calling someone a "savage" is something entirely different.

OK, off my soapbox for now.

M is for Million

"Does 'M' when used to denote an amount of money represent 'thousands' or 'millions,'" reader Gary Carmichael asked. "If 'M' is being used as a Roman numeral, then 'M' represents a 'thousand.' However, I've seen it used both ways. Your paper uses the 'M' today in the headline: 'Winning auction bid to fly in space with Bezos: $28M.' Reading the article I learn here the 'M' is 'millions.' Shouldn't the headline have been, $28MM?'"

Long ago, we spelled out "million" and "billon" in headlines. Then, as has happened with just about every newspaper in the world, we shrunk the size of the sheet. And that required us to get inventive in terms of writing tighter headlines.

"M" became a common way to refer to "millions" in headlines.

When you consider we use "B" as an abbreviation for "billions," it follows that "M" would mean "millions." Guys with mallets and chisels would not have relished carving B's.

In Roman numerals, the "M" represents 1,000. An M with a line over the top of it represents 1 million.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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