Monday, June 22, 2009

Offensive Words

Should a racist word be dropped from a Malay dictionary?

Malaysia's High Court has dismissed an appeal from an Indian Muslim association to have the derogatory term keling dropped from its pages. In The Star S.S. Yoga looks at the colourful history of racist slurs in Malaysia and around the world.

Writers Kee Thuan Chye, Dina Zaman and Amir Muhammad are asked for their opinions and agree that the word should not be omitted from the dictionary but should definitely be flagged as offensive.

I agree too. We may not love all the words that are in a dictionary but to pretend that they don't exist is in a sense dishonest. It is important though that dictionary users know whether such words are acceptable or not.

The example of the word nigger in English dictionaries is a good one. My Oxford Concise Dictionary (the one I keep on my desk) has a special usage note which tells me that the word has :
... strong offensive connotations and is today one of the most racially offensive words in the language ...
Wouldn't something like this work for the Kamus Dewan?

15 comments:

Chet said...

In the research that I've been doing for Kam's new book (he writes about it in his "Talking Edge" column this week), I've come across the words "kling" and "chinaman" in the writings of expats living in the country in the late 1800s. In those days, the use of those words was probably not offensive. Wonder when it began to be so?

Examples from what we've found:

"A Chinaman named Chua Chin was yesterday charged before Mr Capper, with being in possession of some counterfeit 10 and 20 cents pieces made of lead, and also tools and implements for making the same."
Pinang Gazette & Straits Chronicle
3 July 1894

"For telling fortunes on the road, a Chinamam (sic) was yesterday fined $2.50."
Pinang Gazette & Straits Chronicle
4 July 1894

bibliobibuli said...

words change meaning over time.e.g. the word "nigger" now is using in an unoffensive sense, as a form of teasing between two people of colour.
sometimes you hear it in hollywood films, but i feel very uncomfortable about it.

but certainly the word kling has acquired derogatory meaning in malaysia.

as "mat salleh" can also be sometimes

Amir Muhammad said...

But you, Sharon, are a mek salleh!

Chet said...

Not "mak saleha"?

Yusuf Martin said...

What I was trying to say in between internet crashes was............

That Malay dictionaries are bad enough as it is, for not including many words which are spoken.

Do we really need to lose any more words.

The whole idea of a dictionary is to list the words in the language, give some insight into their meaning and usage.

Sadly I am yet to find a comprehensive Malay dictionary.

bibliobibuli said...

there are so many dialect words, Yusuf. my in-laws (from Panhang) seem to have a whole different vocabulary ...

Anonymous said...

"Pendatang" is also offensive.

Yusuf Martin said...

Absolutely right Sharon but isn't that an argument for more not less words in the dictionary.

It seems that English has about 1,000,000 words -

"The statistics of English are astonishing. Of all the world's languages (which now number some 2,700), it is arguably the richest in vocabulary. The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued. According to traditional estimates, neighboring German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, including such Franglais as le snacque-barre and le hit-parade."

Robert McCrum, William Cran, & Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin, 1992: 1

Walski69 said...

A dictionary, from my perspective, is like a repository of words for a given language - a database containing all the words that have ever been used, for as long as a given language has been used.

As you quite rightly pointed out, Sharon, some words that may have been socially acceptable in the past, may no longer be acceptable today. However, this is no reason to remove them from the database.

Rather than remove them altogether, perhaps how the words are presented can overcome their offensive nature. For example, a word like keling, which in today's context can be offensive, are labeled as such.

So, no. I don't agree that the word keling should be removed from the dictionary. It shouldn't be used, out of courtesy (unless there's someone you absolutely hate), but neither should we pretend that it never existed.

Walski69 said...

Oh, and as far as Dewan Bahasa is concerned, perhaps they should busy themselves in creating, maintaining, and updating a world-class Bahasa Malaysia dictionary, rather than going on Holy Grail quests of fighting imaginary dragons and act like knights of language supremacy.

Just my two bits...

Anonymous said...

There'll come a day when "Mamak" is going to be termed offensive as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the word by and in itself is offensive or derogatory, but the way it is used. People are basically rude; it is this innate rudeness that needs to be excised - not the word. I meet so many rude people every day in my work.

Anonymous said...

About rudeness at work - someone once said, people prefer to be deceived. If your boss says "I would like you to do this, that ism if you don't mind and have some spare time" would it be any different from "I want you to do this now?"

The implication would be the same. It would save time if he'd just used the latter, after all, your time costs the company money, his time costs the company more money.

katztales said...

I've just written a piece on rude language for a book, and there are some good papers online that discuss this issue.

Check out the BBC's research into rude words by reading Delete Expletives at http://tinyurl.com/mo5y3f

Anonymous said...

Good to see taxpayers money being spent to determine just how many people are being offended by swear words, and to what degree.