Since we’ve made the American South our home, we’ve come to really like the word “y’all”. It’s a friendly word… gender-neutral, and non-confrontational to even the pickiest of those who would search for unintentional microagressions. I think it’s one of those words that the nation in general should adopt.
But they won’t. If I were to use that word back to my old stomping grounds in California, most folks would think that I was joking… intentionally trying to sound ignorant.
“Folks”… another non-confrontational, gender-neutral word. Hmmmmm… One of Obama’s favorites.
Anyway… “y’all” sounds ignorant because it sounds Southern and the South is generally seen as a collection of dirty ignorant hicks. The word has become a victim of culture, and culture is a tough nut to crack. Making fun of rural whites has always been fair game (from ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’, to ‘The Real McCoys’, to ‘Gomer Pyle’ to ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’, to ‘Duck Dynasty’). We can, without fear of cultural backlash, safely present rural whites as stereotypical simpletons.
Of course, we can’t leave out ‘Deliverance’.
There’s even a word to describe this concept… “Hicksploitation” (or Hixploitation).
Back in the eighties, brilliant young up-and-comers in the Corporation, who happened to have a Southern accent, were sent (at the cost of the Corporations) to special tutors, who would teach the young Brilliants to lose the Southern accent. Really.
This isn’t about the power of words… it’s about the power of culture, and how sometimes culture will resist changes to our language. Some new words get absorbed by our culture pretty easily. For instance, iPhone, Scotch Tape, Kleenix, Television, and the Internet are all words that we use without judgment or thought. They are all fairly new commodities that have become necessary objects in our lives. They come along, we name them, and we move on.
But then we move into more difficult territory. The word “slut” always intrigues me. It’s a word that describes a woman who enjoys recreational sex with multiple partners. An alpha-level pejorative that implies both physical and moral deficiencies. Then again, there are multiple words to describe women who enjoy recreational sex… Whore, Trollop, Skank, Bimbo, Tramp, and many more.
There is no generally accepted pejorative that describes a male who enjoys recreational sex with multiple partners.
It’s not the words. It’s the culture. There was a time (actually within my lifetime) when women weren’t considered as much more than children and property (my mother couldn’t open a checking account without my father’s written permission). That time, not so long ago, was the result of a crushing reality… women who had sex would, with high probability, get pregnant. Getting pregnant without the financial protection of a man (an owner) could be catastrophic for a woman. Pragmatically, recreational sex for a woman wasn’t always a smart choice. Add to that the dripping distain that Christians had (and still have) for any sort of non-procreational sex, and you get a good picture of why there were so many negative words for women who liked sex. Thousands of years of culture were crushing for both men and women.
But then things changed. In the early 1960s, birth control (The Pill) became available for most women. After all of those crushing years, women could safely have sex with just about anyone they wanted to. As much and as often as possible. Sex and pregnancy were decoupled. Also about that time, the Supreme Court outlawed prayer in public schools. And then… of all things… the Civil Rights Act. Yup, the world was going to hell in a handbasket. We’re still trying to catch up.
So a little perspective is necessary. Less than sixty years ago, the world dominated by Christian White Men came crumbling down. Patriarchy was dying. Racial Purity was dying. Christian Theocracy was dying. And the women! They were out having sex like a bunch of bunny rabbits! But it wasn’t just the men who struggled with the new role of women in America. Women were also struggling with what it meant.
And we’re still struggling with it. We don’t know our roles. We don’t know how to behave, and we don’t know how to expect others to behave (and yes, it is perfectly okay to expect certain behaviors from others). We argue with each other about these changes, and those arguments are, for the large part, healthy and valid. In a hundred years or so, we just might get it figured out.
But in the meantime, our language… our words… can’t keep up. There are those who, seeking cultural capital and relevance, search out our evolving language for flaws, and then self-righteously condemn the speaker for using words that have been judged hurtful and incorrect. I’d ask those who live in those cultural bubbles to knock it the hell off. Give language a chance.
And for those who don’t live in that bubble… Just because your granddaddy used certain words doesn’t mean that those words are still acceptable. The culture is changing, try to be polite enough to understand that. You don’t have to agree with the changes, but at least give it a chance.
All y’all have a Day.
primum vivere, deinde philosophari.