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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is "Gobbledygook" Racist?

I am about to tread where sane people in this society dare not go for fear of having their words twisted: Discussing race. Attorney General Eric Holder told us not to be cowards on the subject, so let's talk about whether non-racist cartoons or words can be twisted to create a false accusation of racism.

Exhibit A: The now-famous NY Post cartoon showing a chimpanzee being shot by two police officers, with the caption "Now they'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." The cartoon clearly was referencing the attack by a chimpanzee in Connecticut, in which the chimp went crazy with rage. The "stimulus bill" reference was to the trillion dollar (including interest costs) stimulus bill drafted by Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress, which eventually was signed into law by President Barack Obama. Put together, the reasonable interpretation of the cartoon was that the artist was mocking Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in Congress for acting like out-of-control primates in drafting the stimulus bill.

But others had a different agenda. The "Reverend" Al Sharpton, of Tawana Brawley (photo) hoax fame, had a beef with the NY Post, which had exposed an investigation into possible criminal violations by Sharpton in the financing of one of Sharpton's non-profit groups. So Sharpton seized on the cartoon as an excuse to accuse the NY Post of racism, asserting that the cartoon compared Obama to a chimp. So much for an honest conversation on race. Others, afraid of being accused of not condemning "racism," followed Sharpton's lead.

The word that jumped into my mind in thinking about the racism accusations against the NY Post was "gobbledygook." As described by Wikipedia:

Gobbledygook or gobbledegook (sometimes gobbledegoo, gobbledeegook or other forms) is an English term used to describe nonsensical language.
Other sources define "gobbledygook" as "wordy and generally unintelligible jargon" (Merriam-Webster); "language characterized by circumlocution and jargon, usually hard to understand" originating in the early 1940's as a "fanciful formation from gobble" (Dictionary.com); and "talk or writing that is wordy, pompous, etc. and largely incomprehensible or meaningless" (Yourdictionary.com).

I'm not sure calling criticisms of the NY Post cartoon "gobbledygook" is a proper use of the term, in light of these definitions. But clearly, nothing about the word carries a racist connotation.

Yet I hesitated to use the word, because the last four letters clearly are a racist term for Asians. Would I be subjected to an accusation of racism for using a word which itself is not racist, but if taken apart and out of context, could lead to such a charge? One has to worry about these things, as witnessed by controversies over the word "niggardly" (which means "cheap" but sounds like a pejorative for blacks). Just like the NY Post cartoon, you could take a few letters out of a word, or take a word for what it sounds like rather than what it means, and create a false accusation of racism. Such things can ruin careers.

So I won't use the word "gobbledygook" because I am a coward. I'll just call the Al Sharptons of the world what they are: Race baiters.

1 comment:

  1. You know professor, this definition
    and "talk or writing that is wordy, pompous, etc. and largely incomprehensible or meaningless" (Yourdictionary.com). "

    Seems to describe Obama's speeches spot-on.