The Subtle Art of English Ethnic Slurs


Ryanair, a cut-price airline, made serious managerial errors in predicting pilots’ leave time this fall, and had to cancel scores of flights. Here’s how the story was introduced, under the headline “Ryanair chief forced to grovel over cancellations,” in the tabloid newspaper Metro (front page, September 19):

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has promised compensation after the airline decided to cancel flights for up to 400,000 passengers over the next six weeks.

The Irishman made a frank apology yesterday for the ‘mess’ that saw some customers given just hours to make other plans.

The Irishman? Why not he, or O’Leary, or the CEO, all shorter than the Irishman?

O’Leary’s national provenance (like that of Ryanair) is widely known, but is totally irrelevant here. Yet the same gratuitous noun appeared again on September 22 (Metro, Page 5):

Michael O’Leary admitted to being a ‘clown’ yesterday but said he would not resign as Ryanair boss.

The controversial Irishman faced questions at the budget airline’s AGM …

Can’t they mention him without adding “Irishman” somewhere? I see only one conceivable purpose: to invoke your prejudices about the Irish. What would those be? Feckless, clownish, stupid, drunken, unreliable? I don’t know, but you’ve heard all manner of Irish jokes. The Metro is tapping into whatever stereotypes those jokes may have implanted in readers’ minds.

This is how the gentle, casual, deniable racism of the English works. Ethnic slurs can be subtly implied without benefit of tabooed words. Who could object to “Irishman”? The CEO is indeed Irish, after all. It’s not like the Metro called him a Paddy or a Mick. Unnecessary. Just slip in a nationality reference where it’s not relevant; job done. Ethnic slurring with perfect deniability.

I once sat with a senior University of California administrator at a dinner for the Board of Regents. He was frustrated over the views of one board member, and grumbled: “The man should be in a pub on the banks of the Liffey.” I was mystified for a moment, but soon managed the decoding. The Liffey flows through Dublin. The regent was American, of course, but had an Irish family name. And my dinner-table companion was born and raised in England. His first instinct when frustrated by a man with an Irish surname was to ethnically stereotype him. (As a cheery piece of bonding humor his remark was a remarkable failure: A quarter of a century later I still recoil at the memory of it.)

Decades ago I saw a story on the society page of a respectable British newspaper about a family of minor English nobility whose daughter had just married. Her new husband was a successful lawyer from Lagos. I’ve forgotten her name, but let’s call her Caroline. The headline said: “Caroline marries her Nigerian.” The sneer was unmistakable. That genitive pronominal determiner her, which has unambiguously possessive sense, is exactly what you would use if referring to a pet. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is married to a woman who was born in Taipei, but would anyone today dream of referring to Elaine Chao as “his Taiwanese”? It’s unthinkable. I hope.)

There is a tendency for people to equate racial or ethnic slurring with the use of certain very familiar and highly inflammatory slur words. Much of the current interest in slurs within philosophy of language focuses on the use and semantic analysis of these terms — the ones that newspapers tend to mask out rather than expose to view. It is as if people think of slur words as like radioactive material, inherently harmful to everyone in the vicinity, context and intent being no defense. (Nor etymology: Recall the fascinating case of the word niggardly.)

Even when mention of such words is crucially relevant to a news story, they are concealed behind their lead shield of asterisks. I don’t think this is a sensible practice (see Geoff Nunberg’s intelligent arguments against it here), though it is so well entrenched now that it probably won’t go away. The Wheel-of-Fortune brain-teasers created by the masking impel us to try and reconstruct the words anyway, so the supposed psychic damage is not averted; and the practice can inhibit our right to know what people in the news actually said. (I saw a newspaper reference to someone talking about “p**** power” the other day, and had to puzzle out from context whether the vulgarity attributed power to the male or the female sexual organ.)

But whether or not it is sensible to attempt policing of offensive language through bans on specific words, it certainly will not be sufficient. Tabooed slur words are not a necessary component of racist speech or ethnic aspersions. A skilled English journalist can put even innocent demonyms like “Irishman” or “Nigerian” to work in the service of slurring.

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