Clever wordplay seems to be in the news a lot lately – especially up here in the Northland. It has been written about several times in this space that words mean things. And, yes, certain words mean more in certain contexts. The phrase “call a spade a spade” dates back to the 1800’s and, naturally, refers to the shovel being the “spade.” Someone who calls a spade a spade is someone who gives you the unvarnished truth.
Spade, of course, also has multiple meanings. It’s the name of a card game. It’s the name of a terrible comedian. It’s also a term used as a racial epithet. And yet, calling a spade a spade is still generally accepted.
Language also evolves. I used to say “bitchin” and “rad” all the time. But now, if I say these things at a local high school, I’m looked at like my wheelchair is on order. These same kids can call something “wet” and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. There was a time when bad meant good and good meant bad.
But, in general, the context of these words defines the meaning. If I’m talking about a Michael Jackson album, Bad means good. If I’m talking about a David Spade movie, bad means bad. Pepper Balls is the name of a non-lethal crowd control device. Pepper Balls is also what editor Ivan Foley calls me on Valentine’s Day. The two phrases have very different meanings.
All this is a prelude to talking about THE most important word that is defined by context – the N-word. Rappers can say it. I cannot. That’s the way it is. The context of the usage of the word is not mine to define. It is also not definable by Caucasians the same way that African Americans are not able to define how good a David Spade movie is. This is the culture we live in.
There is a current controversy at Park Hill High School – the second racial issue this year in the school district – around a Caucasian teacher repeating the N-word after an African-American student used it. The teacher not only said it, but yelled it multiple times in an attempt to use some backwards logic to prove a word is just a word.
Only it’s not a word. It’s a symbol. And it’s a symbol that is protected and defined now by African-Americans. And we as Caucasians have to be okay with that. We don’t get to say it because culture tells us that it’s not okay and “we” all know that. Sometimes culture defines the rules and this is a golden one.
The teacher should’ve known better just like David Spade should’ve known better than to make any movies after Chris Farley died. At some point, the culture may tell me that I can’t call a spade a spade – and I’m going to be okay with that. Because I learned to adjust to not calling things bitchin’ and I can recover from this, too.
Words mean things. Culture defines rules. If you have respect for others, you have respect for those cultures and you’ll respect their rules. This was intentional disrespect couched in a flimsy argument about free speech. I’ll stop short of calling it racism, but clearly the intention was to disrespect the student.
Words mean things. Some of these things are bad, and others are bad. Pepper Balls has spoken, badly.
(Get more from our man Chris Kamler on Twitter, where he is the inimitable @TheFakeNed)