Headbloom Blog

Coded Language: How the Meanings of Words Become Twisted
My friends at Radio in Black & White, Skot Welch and Rick Wilson, recently invited me to join an on-air conversation with cleric/historian Ryk Stevenson. The topic: how words about race/etnicity can get corrupted over time.

RADIO SEGMENT #1: Download / Play
RADIO SEGMENT #2: Download / Play


As we begin, it’s important to keep three things in mind:

1. Difference between Denotation and Connotation
2. Language changes over time
3. Ability to label represents power

First, denotation means a direct, specific meaning—as found in most dictionaries. Its use is intended as neutral or objective. Below are the denotative meanings of four words which the RIBW hosts wanted to discuss.

  • ethnic = relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background [neutral]
  • diversity = being composed of differing elements, variety [neutral]; has come to mean: the inclusion of different types, races, or cultures of people in a group or organization
  • urban = relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city [neutral]
  • minority = the smaller in number of two groups constituting a whole [neutral]

Next, connotation refers to the implied or suggested meaning of a word. (You can compare the different connotations in these pairs of words: fat/plump or childish/childlike.) Skot and Rick believe that the words from above have taken on new meanings over time and should be taken “off the shelf” of use.

  • ethnic = belonging to a non-white, non-majority group (Problem: all peoples have some ethnic background, but white Americans think of themselves as “normal” or “neutral” or “vanilla” and think of other people as having ethnicity. Which group is “marked” and which is “unmarked”?)
  • diversity = a kind of training program which makes people of color feel angry and white people feel bad about themselves
  • urban = ghetto, ethnic, city-dwelling, hip hop-listening, non-mainstream demographic (Problem: many young whites are moving back into urban centers)
  • minority = people of color (Problem: with changing demographics, we get expressions like “majority minority populations” in California.)

Change over time
The word gay used to mean “light-hearted, joyful, or lively” (from the 12th C.). If Americans think back to the 1960s theme song for the Flintstones cartoon show, they’ll remember “We’ll have a gay old time.” Now, the word primarily describes sexual orientation, so the Flintstones’ theme song today would draw snickers from young people.

Incorporation or obsolescence
The word cool was adopted into U.S. jazz (urban, African-American) culture and meant “hip” — which it still does today. Moreover, it has been incorporated into mainstream culture, so it is understood across all English-speaking groups now. On the opposite end of this linguistic spectrum is the 1990s expression rad [from radical], which also meant “cool” but is no longer in fashion and sounds outdated today.

Power of assertion
Finally, language is a social tool. As a tool of human beings, it is used for both communication and for staking a claim to one’s position. Think of labeling in the U.S., where Americans went from use of the n-word to the more anthropological sounding Negro to black, Afro-American, and African American. The key here is who claims the ownership of the word and how it is used.

In future blogs, we shall look at parallel identity expressions…
Women: the use of the word girl
Disability community: the use of the r-word
PC (or political correctness) — a whole other topic!

If you can’t get the mp3 files above to play, you can find the interview in the Radio in Black & White archives here. It’s Show #233, Part 1.

Alan Headbloom