Word Play

“Have you always had a black guy fetish?”

My co-worker’s face shone with entranced curiosity as she asked her question, her eyes flicking back and forth between my face and the wedding picture I keep on my desk. Despite her eyes being planted on my face for a full 50% of the minute I stared at her in stony silence, she did not seem to grasp that she had offended me. Gravely.

As I am not the type to run screaming to the HR office, I simply took in a very deep breath and informed her that I have always been attracted to men of all colors and I was sorry, but I had to get back to a very pressing task (a total lie). She stayed in the office for a few more minutes to talk to other people, still oblivious to how angry I was and how uncomfortable the other office occupants were with my very obvious anger. Finally she left, leaving me to take many more deep breaths in a failed attempt to smother the magenta in my cheeks.

As angry as I was, I know my coworker meant no offense. I know her closest friend is a black woman we also work with; as such, it is extremely unlikely she harbors racist and/or white supremacist views. She is also older, meaning interracial relationships still hold some measure of taboo for her. People my age and younger don’t even blink at them, but the older women still sometimes ask one version or another of the question: Do you like all black guys, or just this one in particular? Whenever I get asked the question, I always answer calmly and without offense.

So why was I so angry this time? Because of that word. Fetish. What a nasty way to describe my marriage, the love of my life. Leather is a fetish. Getting a sexual thrill from feet is a fetish. My husband is not.

Words are powerful. They are important. And yet so many people feel free to use them in whatever way they wish. Perhaps when she said fetish, she meant attraction or preference and felt it acceptable to substitute fetish for comic effect. Some of my husband’s family members, for instance, believe using that filthy racial slur staring with an N is acceptable and even complimentary in certain circumstances. It is not. The meaning of a word does not change just because of how you meant it. I have some friends who are liberal minded who feel free to throw around the word fascist in reference to some of our Republican lawmakers. When reminded of what fascist actually means, one liberal-minded friend actually told me, “the definition doesn’t matter. It’s the spirit of how you use it.”

No. It is not.

The English language, by virtue of our stilted and repressed British forbearers, is a very euphemistic and imprecise language. For instance, we have only one word for love. The Greeks have five. They understood you don’t love a warm plate of baklava the same way you love your wife, so they created different words to communicate different emotions—different intentions. Apparently in England, they felt no need for such nuance. This problem of imprecision is made worse by the woefully inadequate vocabularies of the majority of US citizens. In instances where there may be an appropriate English word for a given situation, there is no guarantee the speaker will know it. I have actually, on many occasions, been chastised by peers for using the most appropriate word. I received a dressing down for using “besotted” when apparently my listener thought “obsessed” would do just fine. Except they’re not exact synonyms and they don’t communicate the same emotion. Need a thesaurus? There’s an app for that.

Sometimes I feel sad that more people do not appreciate the power of words and the beauty of their own language. I, for one, do not believe Sarah Palin knew what a hornet’s nest she was poking when she used the term “blood libel.” She probably heard someone else use it and thought nothing of repeating it. A lot of us do that, which I suspect is how the common public came to believe irregardless was a word. But as our dear Sarah quickly discovered, using a word or phrase may get you in trouble if you don’t know its meaning and/or its history. Part of it is the modern media-driven outrage machine, but not all of it. Your words have power, even if you do not. Your words have the potential to wound, even if you did not intend it. I am not one to advocate censorship or for everyone to walk on eggshells for fear of offending someone (as previously stated, I did not confront my coworker or sulk down to HR). I only advocate you should know your language and how to use it. That way, if one day the words you speak offend someone—you can calmly assure them you meant every word of it.

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