Black and White

Language changes. (If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a And when language changes, it brings with it upheavals and gnashing of teeth. (Like what you read in 90% of our articles.) Most of the time, it’s because the shift is born of ignorance or caprice. Other times, though, more is at stake.

Now, as in every other time in history, the United States of America grapples with racial hatred. We are far from alone in this, and even though the streets of Minneapolis, Chicago, and Atlanta are on fire as I write, this is not the worst it’s been. I feel it’s important to keep that perspective. Americans did one time literally go to war over the status of Black Americans.

And there it is: Black. Not colored, negro, Negro, Afro-American, African-American or person of color. A recent article by Kwame Anthony Appiah argued that is as it should be. The NYU professor of philosophy and law wrote a June 18 article in The Atlantic titled The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black that made many excellent points.

Black pride was not one of them. He writes:

What complicates things is that, as a rule, capitalizing a word doesn’t convey elevation: We don’t rank Masonite over mahogany. 


A good reason to capitalize the racial designation “black,” then, is precisely that black, in this sense, is not a natural category but a social one—a collective identity—with a particular history. (“Race is psychology, not biology” is a formulation Du Bois once offered.) What’s more, the very label “black” plays a role in generating that identity.

In other words, Black when referring to a group of people carries meaning beyond skin color. In fact, Appiah leads the article by citing examples of “whites” with darker skin than certain “blacks.” Which reminded me of this exchange:

As loyal Lexicide readers know, Lex and I are empiricists; we believe the ordinary meaning of words is what matters. This is the position millions of boring, workaday people take. An apple is a fruit, hysteria is an unreasonable panic, blackmail is a crime of extortion. The man on the street cares not about the essential components of the word apple, nor does he recoil at the sexist origins of hysteria or equate blackmail exclusively with dark-skinned people. However, we do recognize that what you call groups of people matters. Because words matter. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a

So why Black and not African-American, which is/was the most recent designator? Appiah argues that not all Black people are descended from Africans. A better argument, to me, is it’s not how Blacks refer to themselves. I’m not Black, but that is how every one of my friends, colleagues, and bosses who is refers to him or herself, no exceptions.

As a side note, Oriental or Chinese was how my family and like folk referred to ourselves well into the eighties. Now we’re Asian. It’s short, easily understood, and horribly imprecise.

Or is it? Sure, a Turk or Russian is also an Asian. But when Americans speak of Asians, everyone knows they mean people of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Burmese, or Singaporean descent. Now, we include Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis in there. That makes Asians kind of like pornography. Maybe you can’t define them, but you know ’em when you see ’em. And because others see us that way, we share a certain cultural experience as Asian Americans.

Likewise, anyone who has brown skin and tightly curled hair, regardless of whether their forefathers hailed from Senegal or Barbados, knows what it is to be Black. You are treated as Black, and other Blacks treat you as Black. Framed that way, Black is not an empirical signifier of a shade, but a linguistic container holding a whole universe of shared experience. It’s the perfect answer to the contention that Barack Obama isn’t our first Black president because he has just as much European blood as African. That’s true, but did his peers treat him as white? Does any person of color? No. That’s not a judgment, just a fact. If there were some condition that gave a 100% Anglo-Saxon dark skin, she would be Black, because that’s the orbit she would occupy in society.

“The point of the capital letter, then, isn’t to elevate; it’s to situate,” writes Appiah. And that’s why he argues also for White to be capitalized.

One reason that the MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger prefers to capitalize the names of races is, she explains, “to highlight the artificiality of race,” by contrast to the seeming naturalness of color. A larger argument lurks here: Racial identities were not discovered but created, she’s reminding us, and we must all take responsibility for them. Don’t let them disguise themselves as common nouns and adjectives. Call them out by their names.

In other words, Black and White are not the same as green and red; they are not endemic to nature. And while there are definitive genetic differences between groups of people, these words refer not to genes, but to a host of expectations, reputations, and qualities—some fair, some not, some self-imposed, others conferred unwillingly upon us.

I might also address (reluctantly) the complaint that what you call Black people changes so much, why, I don’t know what the politically correct word is! Yes, it’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund and Black Lives Matter. What of it? A woman (or man) who marries and wishes to change her name is afforded the courtesy of her new name without argument. If White people decided they liked European-American or Bob, they can have it with no complaints from me.

Since I am a plain language advocate, I did not expect much from this essay. But the arguments Dr. Appiah makes are thought-provoking and logically airtight. And in the end, he is right.

Otto E. Mezzo

Uncertainty in certain times

You position at the company is in review as part of a potential downsizing effort and we are informing you it is not necessary.

A friend received this alarming email recently — because coronavirus lockdowns are not irritating enough. And this layoff notice is indeed irritating. Not because my friend lost his job (although that blows), but because of the wimpy, watery construction of this notice.

Now, I gladly repeat here that Lexicide is not a grammar site. But we do embrace clarity, and that is one of the reasons we urge you to choose the right word, not the one that will sow confusion. This email is confusion writ large.

We get it. You don’t want to feel bad. You want to protect your own feelings. Any jury would find this sort of self-preservation ample grounds to acquit you on the charge of atrocious writing, right?

For those of you who don’t read Lexicide regularly, or for those who don’t understand the rules of English (but I repeat myself), the problem in this alleged dismissal notice is an uncertain antecedent. An antecedent is the noun to which a pronoun* refers — e.g.; manager in the sentence “My manager knows he is an idiot.” In the email, it’s unclear whether it refers to position, the review itself, or even the downsizing effort. For a brief moment, my friend wondered if perhaps his firm had decided against staff cuts. Maddening. A simple re-ordering of this sentence would have helped:

As part of our downsizing effort, we reviewed your position and determined it was not necessary.

Still horrible, but at least it leaves no room for confusion. But it does commit the sin of using a verb — the company actually reviewed the position instead of the job miraculously finding itself in review. Verbs imply agency and action, and corporate folk like to think of bad things just happening instead of people causing them to happen. (“The gun went off,” “The knife went in.”)

Another problem I have with the way this company fired my friend is saying his position was unnecessary. It may well be true, but come on. They’re one shade away from saying my friend, with all his skills and experience, was unnecessary. Why not just call him redundant?

I have a revelation for companies and managers. People (employees, customers, partners, and the like) appreciate clear, direct statements. I know of no instance where someone has sued over a forthright termination. In fact, dodgy layoffs cause way more problems for companies than direct ones.

The problem, as I allude to above, is people want to protect themselves rather than serve their audience. To put it another way, they are selfish. To communicate clearly is to serve others. The tools are there for us to use: grammar, word choice, medium. In uncertain times, these tools provide us with certainty in communication. Use them.

— Otto E. Mezzo

*Antecedents are not always nouns. They can be verbs (Belinda uses bad grammar, just like Ralph does.), adjectives (Andrew Lloyd Weber is pretentious, which everyone knows.), and so on. But in those cases, the referring words are called pro-verbs, pro-adjectives, and so on.


The Chinese word for “crisis” is an opportunity to stop clichés before they happen

How’s your daily life dealing with the Chinese virus? No, I’m not talking about the Wuhan virus, SARS-CoV-2, novel coronavirus, or whatever name you choose based on your political leanings. I’m talking about the viral spread of this notion that the Chinese — those clever sages of the East! — so craftily see “opportunity” in every crisis.

Don’t know this one? For you millennials, the observation is that

“In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.”

— John F. Kennedy

Kennedy apparently cited this notion aplenty. In fact, he gets the “credit” for popularizing this idea, repeated ad nauseam by business leaders and politicians of all political persuasions.

You can see the appeal of this linguistic construction. If those inscrutable scholars of the Orient can see a chance for success in bankruptcy, earthquakes, and global pandemics, you can too! Remember, business leaders! Twenty years in prison for wire fraud is not the end — it’s an opportunity.

Only, of course, it’s not true.

Here are the traditional characters for wei ji. (The simplified form is at the top of the article.)

While wei (the first character) does mean dangerous, ji does not mean opportunity. By itself, it means… nothing. The confusion (willful or otherwise) comes from ji being a component of ji hui (机会), the actual Chinese word for opportunity.

So this idea is as inaccurate as the canard that apropos and appropriate are the same word because they share similar sounding syllables, or the one that gives you license to use stagnant and static interchangeably because the first three letters are the same.

It’s a useful cliché in a uniquely American way. It’s relentlessly optimistic. It’s positive and forward-looking. But it’s still a cliché, just like everything people cite from Art of War. And fortunately, it’s a cliché that seems to have fallen from favor — not, I suspect, from overuse, but rather from the relentless fact-checking, Twitter-canceling, and fears of “cultural appropriation” one risks by publishing this trope.

Which I suppose is for the better. I fully expected blog posts and podcasts rallying the business world to see the opportunity in this current crisis. But whether from pessimism, political correctness, or wariness of clichés, no one seems to be peddling it.

Oh wait.

Inc.: How to Find Opportunity Within a Crisis

Otto E. Mezzo

For an amazingly thorough linguistic takedown of weiji, this is the article you’re looking for:


About that classical literacy…

Earlier this year, I bemoaned Western civilization’s ignorance of our cultural signposts (the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek and Roman myths and history). Behold, I give you the Leader of the Free World.

In the midst of the 2020 coronavirus epidemic, White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted this doctored image and macro text as the President faces criticism on his response.

“Who knows what this means…”? Clearly not this Wharton graduate.

Read also:

The Atlantic: Corporate Buzzwords Are How Workers Pretend to Be Adults

Lex and I launched Lexicide 11 years ago to grouse about corporate buzzwords — particularly those that changed the meaning of existing words and thus killed the original word (hence our coinage “lexicide”).

Alas, corporate-speak is still with us. And this excellent Atlantic article lays out the reason why. Using words wrongly is a shibboleth, a sort of pidgin that lets everyone in the office know you’re one of them. It’s all for show, of course, as this paragraph makes clear:

The fact that buzzwords are a joke even to many of the people who rely on them suggests that work, and its language, is a kind of pretense. And speaking the language of work reminds people that they’re pretending. Graeber remembers the first time he and all his high-school friends shook hands, as kind of a gag. It became a recurring joke, as in “Oh, this is what adults do.” “I think people in these offices are permanently caught at that moment,” he says. We’re forever “closing the loop” on things because of a vague notion that this is what adults do.

Or as the anthropologist David Graeber says elsewhere in the article, “[A]ll-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren’t really doing anything.”

Which circles back to Lex’s and my original pain point. Corporate writers and speakers really are pretending. They pretend they are experts in a subject, they pretend they care, and they certainly pretend they know what certain words mean. Whether from insecurity or con-artistry, it’s clear most of us in the business world are frauds, and corporate language is our sleight of hand.

Which is likely why no one cares they are misusing words. If it’s all a game of make-believe, then it doesn’t matter.

— Otto E. Mezzo

McWhorter: English is Not Normal

We have featured linguist extraordinaire John McWhorter here before. We would cite him more, but linguistics, including but not limited to grammar, is not our bag. Lexicide dishes on poor word usage, not bad spelling or conjugations.

But this article, offered up by pastor and good doctor of letters Jim, kinda sorta covers all three:

In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal….


There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it….

Which leads Dr. McWhorter to ask:

Why is our language so eccentric? Just what is this thing we’re speaking, and what happened to make it this way?

He then proceeds on a tiny history lesson, touching on loanwords and couplets, which Lexicide also covered. It’s a great read, whether you love English or loathe it.

English is Not Normal by John McWhorter

Fighting classical illiteracy: a Sisyphean task

At the beginning of the month, I asked Lexicide’s followers this question:

I just read a news story referring to the Sword of Damocles. With the classics taught less and less in schools, do young people know what that is? How about the Augean stables? Achilles’ heel? Pandora’s box? Even “beware Greeks bearing gifts” assumes one knows the belligerents in the Trojan War.

What expressions — classical, Biblical, Shakespearean, etc — do you wonder will one day befuddle contemporary readers?

To my list, readers added Gordian knot, Oedipus complex, and crossing the Rubicon.

But then quite a few readers chafed at the idea one had to be classically read to understand and use these phrases. Surprisingly, the pushback came from a published novelist, a high school English teacher, and a college professor of ancient texts. Others scoffed at my concern, claiming we as a culture might lose the die is cast or the labors of Hercules, yet we gain new signposts such as taking the red pill.

I may just have my nose in the air, but I think knowing the source material makes these references richer and rounder in meaning – meaning which is sometimes lost without knowing the origin. Take sword of Damocles. Typically, writers use it to evoke a situation where danger could arise at any moment. But the reason King Dionysius hung a sword over his throne was to show his subject Damocles how tenuous his position was – that even though he was a great and wealthy king, enemies lurked behind every corner. So it’s not just an illustration of impending danger, but one caused by a station many regard as enviable.

People wash their hands of a problem to absolve themselves of responsibility. But did Pilate’s washing achieve this? (Anyone who recites the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed on Sunday would answer “no!”). And a Sisyphean task is not simply any vexing, annoying job. It’s one you must repeat over and over with nothing to show for it. The image of repeatedly muscling a massive boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down is much more evocative than simply confronting a difficult deliverable.

(Plus, dammit, these stories are just fun. The Aeneid and The Odyssey remain some of the most rousing adventures in print. Without their foundations, Percy Jackson and Wonder Woman, not to mention Lord of the Rings and the Legend of Zelda, wouldn’t have been worth their authors’ attention.)

What say you? Have you ever leveraged your liberal arts education on a masterful literary reference, only to be met with blank stares? If that isn’t cleaning the Augean stables, I don’t know what is.

See also Splitting the baby

Seen in WaPo: “splitting the baby”

Several moderates have privately pined for other options, including a censure vote they know they’re unlikely to get. Others have even considered what one moderate called “splitting the baby”: backing one article of impeachment but not the other to try to show independence from the party.

The Washington Post article is behind a paywall, so here is the MSN reprint for those who aren’t subscribers:

House Democrats brace for some defections among moderates on impeachment of Trump

As we discussed in our article on the phrase, most people use splitting the baby when they really mean splitting the difference. That seems to be the case here, with some politicians trying to have it both ways by voting yes on one impeachment article and no on another.

But wait. You could argue they have an intractable problem and need an unorthodox solution. It is possible their waffling will give Speaker Pelosi pause, possibly prevailing on her to call off impeachment (not likely), or else put enough threat in the air for President Trump to resign (even less likely). Recall that Solomon’s genius was not actually splitting the baby, but threatening to split the baby.

More likely, they know they have two masters to please and want to have it both ways. That being the case, they truly are trying to split the difference, as opposed to bisecting an infant. Good luck in today’s political climate. The one upside? According to the article, these fence-sitters are actually thinking about the impeachment articles. That’s more than most of us are doing.

– Otto E. Mezzo