Saturday, June 11, 2005

It's the context, stupid

As I was composing this post a month ago, I felt a bit squeamish about typing what many journalists dare to refer to only as "the N-word" or "a racial slur." After all, the word "nigger" incites tremendous emotion in many people, including myself.

But words don't exist in a vacuum, and one must always consider the setting in which something is written or spoken. I become very uncomfortable when I hear someone being called a nigger, but there are occasions---such as when one is trying to explain the unrelated etymology of the word "niggardly"---when the word really is just a word. In interpreting class we're taught that we must render everything faithfully, even when someone is swearing at the judge. Yes, it's difficult for people who have been raised respecting the law to utter such words in a courtroom. But they are not our words or our sentiments. Context is important.

Nor is this notion restricted to emotionally loaded words. I still want to cry when I recall what happened to my very first technical publication. When I received the proofs, I found a note in one of the margins, "Physical Review discourages the use of words such as 'new' and 'novel'." Fair enough, in an environment where everyone wants to claim an original invention or fantastic discovery. But our statement was actually the following: "Previous workers have noted many features of the scattering problem, and we do not have any qualitatively new phenomena to add to their treatments." The mindless editor, however, simply crossed out the offending word, and the sentence was published as, "...and we do not have any qualitatively phenomena to add..."

My fantasy, which shall forever remain unfulfilled, is to track down this person, grab him or her by the neck, and yell, "It's the context, stupid!"

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