In the second act of Shakespeare most famous romantic tragedy, the young Juliet, having just learned that the charming masked boy she met at a masquerade party is the scion of her family’s mortal enemies, the Montagues, leans out her bedroom window, resenting the fact that a mere name could prohibit her from loving someone:
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
Her crush, Romeo, who has been watching and listening the orchard below, leaps from his hiding spot and swears he would ditch his own name if it meant being with her — “Had I it written, I would tear the word.” For Juliet and Romeo both, a name is merely a name.
Writing for Refinery29, Arianna Davis, a self-described “Black and Puerto Rican feminist,” has her own debate with names, namely the term Latinx. Davis addresses the enduring issue as a woman and a writer who wants to be more inclusive in her life and work, while avoiding linguistic fads which claim to lead toward more inclusion but really just add confusion and obscurity:
You’d think adopting Latinx would be a no-brainer for me, right? Yet reading my own writing with a word I’d never used — and had only really seen used around the Internet here and there — felt, somehow…wrong. As if I was betraying some part of my culture, or causing the very people who I wanted my article to reach to instead stumble over it, all in an effort to achieve political-correctness.
This seemingly small semantics issue quickly became a dilemma: To Latinx or not to Latinx?
As a progressive writer myself, it’s a question I’ve had to reconsider on ocassion. Back in December 2015, when I was the deputy editor for Latino Rebels, we ran a piece by Professors María R. Scharrón-del Río and Alan A. Aja in which they presented “the case for ‘Latinx.’ ” I dissented in the form of my own op-ed, on the basis that individuals, as mature adults, can use whichever labels they choose without feeling guilty, and that Spanish is such a gendered language that gender virtually disappears — two arguments made by Davis in her recent article.
Spanish, as with the rest of the Latin-based languages in the Romance branch, is highly gendered, but that doesn’t mean masculinity or femininity is literally implied. “When you look at ‘un libro,’ for example, the book is not a male book; that’s just the word,” Davis writes. “When the label for a group of women becomes masculine when a male enters, you don’t think of that as making the group male; the words automatically just take one form (yes, the masculine one) when there are multiple genders involved. That’s the way the language works.” Hung up on the way Spanish words sound, a lot of otherwise well-meaning progressive Latinos ignore the way in which words work, the way they give meaning.
The gap between form and function plagues political correctness overall. Most people, black or not, remain unconvinced of the various, appropriate uses of the word nigger; for them, it can have only one meaning: the historical one, originating in slavery and racism. They fail to see how language evolves over time as words lose their meaning or take on new ones. The reality that nigger, in some circles, has become not only a term of endearment, but a throwaway pronoun, drains the word of much of the venom with which it once threatened, back when it was used only to damage and degrade.
Some defenders of the new meanings, myself included, have attempted to separate the them from the historical meaning by altering the form and insisting that nigga isn’t nigger, but I’ve recently abandoned that silly quibble. Let’s face it: Nigga is nigger, only nigger now serves different functions; there should be no shame in making that point, no matter how the word nigger may make some people feel.
The term gay has received a somewhat inverse treatment, going from being an everyday word (meaning “overly happy and/or social”), to a stand-in for homosexual, and then finally taking on a third meaning: “awkward, stupid, or bad; lame.” Like the newer definitions of the word nigger, the newer meanings of the word gay remain widely controversial. I still remember the attempt made by my high-school alma mater to rid the student body of the offending third usage, and me having to defend my use of it against a creative-writing teacher whose lesbian sister was a classmate of mine — and a friend.
No matter how much the PC police wish people would stop using language however they like, the term gay now has three, distinct, and well-known definitions — 1) happy, 2) homosexual, 3) lame — which itself has various meanings, though in this case I don’t mean lame as in “crippled” or “weak, but lame as in “awkward, stupid, or bad.” Some people are just 1), others are just 2), and still more are just 3). Then there are people who are a combination of two definitions, while I suppose there are a rare few who embody all three, though I can’t see how anyone can be gay (3) and gay (1).
Language is complicated, if only for the simply fact that we humans are immensely complicated creatures. We think and feel complex thoughts and emotions, and these words we speak and write are the symbols of those thoughts and emotions. So it’s no wonder that the symbols themselves would get tangled up in our social baggage. I fully understand that the words nigger and gay have narrow meanings for some people — that nigger is always hurtful for them, and that gay is hurtful for others when its third usage is applied — just as I get how the term Latino can make some people feel excluded. I don’t think they should feel excluded by it, but I can see how and why they do.
Yet I also understand that some people are allergic to peanuts and have type 1 diabetes, hyperkalemia and color blindness, though none of those facts should keep me from enjoying a PB-and-banana sundae at the botanical gardens while the flowers are in full bloom. I allow people to eat whatever and speak however, and I merely expect them to afford me the same freedoms. Everyone’s different, each with his or her own needs and preferences — the kind of pluralistic teaching found on Sesame Street but which seems to have been forgotten by many adults, liberal and conservative alike.
I’m not in the least opposed to anyone using the term Latinx to describe others, much less themselves. Identity, after all, is personal, and if calling herself a Latinx makes a trans woman feel more included in the Latino family, then I’m as gay as can be. But to prescribe one usage of a word for all speakers and proscribe all other usage as ignorant or hateful is, for lack of a more authentic idiom, really gay.
Featured image: Soumyadeep Paul/Flickr