Welcome to the Rainforest

Copyright (c) 2002 by Kenny Felder

When I was a kid, I saw a series of commercials announcing that Master Charge was becoming Master Card. The commercials featured people saying "Master Charge is becoming Master Card!" in about a gazillion languages. The company put a lot of time, effort, and money into making sure that everyone used the new name instead of the old.

I was much older when the Amazon Jungle became the Amazon Rainforest. But I have no idea how that one happened. Was there a committee of academics, linguists, or botanists? Did they filter through hundreds of suggestions before settling on "Rainforest?" And how did they spread the word? I never saw any commercials or read anything about it. The word Jungle just slipped away, just as Peking became Beijing and Taco Sauce became Salsa. I don't know if the world is any better, but it is different.

Perhaps it was the same group that jettisoned "Oriental." Please think about this for a moment. When I was growing up, everyone used the word "Oriental" all the time. It wasn't an insult or a racial slur, it simply denoted people of a certain ethnic group. At some point (when?) some person or group (who?) decided that this word was offensive, and we should all say "Asian" instead. And somehow, this person or group was incredibly successful in spreading the word, in convincing everyone else that "Oriental" is bad and "Asian" is good. Master Card could have saved a lot of money if they had known that trick!

I should mention that, to date, no one has ever explained to me what was wrong with "Oriental." To me, "Oriental" is an ethnic group and "Asia" is a continent—they don't mean the same thing. The new terminology makes certain things very difficult to say. For instance, most of Russia is in Asia, but most Russians are not Oriental. In new-speak, I should say that they are Asian but they aren't Asian. On the other hand, most people living in China and Japan are Oriental—that is, they are Asian people who also happen to be Asian.

I do understand, at least a little better, why the official new-speak committee decided to get rid of the term "American Indian." OK, that word caused a bit of confusion—after all, we're not talking about people from India. On the other hand, lots of words have two different meanings, and I don't see anyone rushing out to fix all of them.

In any case, if I had been on the committee, I would have argued that the new term is even more confusing than the old. My great-grandparents were all Russian and Polish Jews. But I myself am certainly a "Native American"—third generation, thank you very much. When we call a particular ethnic group Native American, what does that make the rest of us?

Also what do we call a Native American who moves to China or Japan? Now he's a Native American who isn't an American. Instead, he's—well, Asian. Oops.

And then, since I'm on ethnic groups, there is that race that used to be Colored (as in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and then Negro (as in United Negro College Fund), and then Black (as in Black Entertainment Television). I would love to have been there when the official new-speak committee officially decided that the only correct term is African American. I would have pointed out that it's seven syllables long—which guarantees that even if people use it occasionally, they won't be able to give up the old words entirely.

I would not offend the committee by telling them what word the African American students in my high school use, consistently, when they refer to themselves. But I would have asked them, if I decide to always use the correct terms, what do I call black people who aren't Americans? Are they African-Mexicans, African-Germans, and Africa-Frenchmen—excuse me, African-FrenchPeople? If they move to South Africa, are they African-South-Africans? If I want to talk about all the black people in the world, are they African-Earthlings? Perhaps I could just say "People of African descent." But oops, we're all of African descent.

All joking aside—what is being done to our language should offend every one of us. A small handful of people (I suspect they are mostly middle-class white folks) are pretending to speak for the entire world. They decide one day that the word Oriental is incorrect—not only incorrect, but offensive—and we're all supposed to just believe them, and start saying Asian instead. Did they do a poll of all the Asian people in the world to find out what term they prefer? What gives them the authority to redefine words, and puts me on the defensive when I refuse to go along?

One person I know who visited a reservation said that the inhabitants always refer to themselves as Indians. The language police are not speaking for, or on behalf of, those people. They are not defending them or protecting them from anything. What they are doing is desperately trying to convince all of us that the old terms just flat didn't mean what they really meant. And if I dare to disagree, they pull out the ugliest slur of all, the one that has never lost its meaning or its power. They imply that I believe all kinds of prejudiced things that I don't actually believe, and hate all kinds of people that I don't actually hate, all by using the word: racist.

Just for the record, I prefer unreformed-vocabularied-American.

So now you know what I think. What do you think?


From: Rebecca Brent

I read your "rainforest" essay and poked around the internet a little on the use of "oriental." It seems that this particular word follows your instinct exactly—as in, some unknown person or force just decided to stop using it and start using Asian. Apparently a number of Asian people think it's silly and that it's a perfectly reasonable term—note "oriental rugs". But there is definitely a connotation of racism associated with the term now, so, crazy or not, if we want to not be perceived as racist, we shouldn't use the term. But I totally concede your point about it being arbitrary and confusing.

One place I looked talked about "Jap" having the same fate. It used to be perfectly acceptable as a short form of Japanese, but during WWII, it was used in a racist way, as in "No Japs allowed" signs. It holds that racist meaning today.

The African-American term is another kettle of fish. Here's a short article about how it came to be used:


There's a lot of discussion about it in the literature—much of it pointing out exactly the things you talk about in your essay. It's a cumbersome and not even very useful term. Iím hearing "black" used more and more again. The grant I'm on uses "Black Engineering Students" in the title and throughout the narrative. I think "black" is the preferred term in a lot of places now, so we seem to be re-thinking the whole thing as a society.

So I think what I come down to is that I care that people around me do not see me as racist. So that means, I'll attempt to use the terms that are more socially accepted. If I use a term and someone calls me on it, then I have a choice. I can keep using it because I like it, or it seems more descriptive, or for whatever the reason. But if I do, I have to be willing to have my views dismissed and my character impugned. It's not worth it to me. I think it's great to question these PC things and write wonderful essays (like you did) but not to keep using the term. My two cents, for what they're worth! You get to make your own choices.

P.S. Here's another interesting personal story take on the issue from NPR:


From: Rebecca Brent

One more thought...one reason I sent the P.S. story from NPR is that I think the use of words that have a lot of baggage or power can come down in large part to empathy. If I know something carries a hurtful connotation to a group of people, then I feel a responsibility to act on my empathy for them and not use it. In a related but not vocabulary-specific example, my cousin in Mississippi doesn't think there's any inherent problem with flying the Confederate flag. But a while back when the flag was taken down in South Carolina after a shooting in the black church there and there was a national discussion about it, she posted something on FB that basically said whatever my personal feelings about the flag, if it is painful and hurtful to my black friends and co-workers, then it should come down. People come first. Now I'm sure you could take that too far, but I think empathy does play a role.

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