The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organization and Lexical Culture

The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organization and Lexical Culture

The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organization and Lexical Culture

The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organization and Lexical Culture

Excerpt

Let us hope that we will never grow so sanctimonious that we cannot listen to the mean things people say. They are our data.--Everett C. Hughes and Helen MacGill Hughes, from Where Peoples Meet, 1952, p. 132

Everyone knows that many terms of abuse for ethnic persons and groups have been used in the slang and other popular speech of American English. The existence and use of these words have been long and widely commented on, usually as evidence of prejudice and discrimination against minorities. Yet the substance of this vocabulary, as opposed to its spirit, has not been studied as a cultural response to an ethnically diverse society. Through the course of the nation's history, over a thousand names and hundreds of variants have been used for more than 50 different American groups. These words are abundantly recorded in scholarly records, particularly nineteenth- and twentieth-century dictionaries of Americanisms, but also in many other authoritative sources. The scholarly value of these terms is not self-evident. Their deservedly bad reputation has deflected attention from their usefulness as chronicles of social organization and change in American society.

In this study I use nounal epithets or generic nicknames for ethnic persons in American English as research data to address one of the oldest questions in sociology. How do objective demographic and ecological situations in communities generate culture and, in this case, a lexical culture? The vocabulary of ethnic abuse is a response to social diversity and it is elaborated by the effects of population size and density. While also a product of conflict in small towns and rural areas, as in the nineteenth-century South, name- making and name-calling proliferated in the close quarters and conflictful contacts of big-city life. The majority of the terms for European groups . . .

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