Here’s the problem that bedevils me: to what extent do I have an obligation to refer to people in the terms they prefer? It’s obvious when we’re talking about individual appellations: Nancy Smith would rightly be offended if I called her Ann. But when we start talking about groups, we can get into all sorts of problems arising from a series of terms. We have the sequence ‘n__g_r’, ‘negro’, ‘black’, and ‘African-American’. Obviously the first term is objectionable because it is associated with slavery. But is ‘negro’ objectionable?

And why is ‘n__g_r’ so objectionable that we dare not spell it out? Why is it objectionable for whites to use the term but not objectionable for blacks to use the term? What’s the rule here?

Or what about ‘redskin’, ‘Indian’, and ‘Native American’? Again, ‘redskin’ is associated with an evil history, so we avoid it, but why is ‘Native American’ preferable to Indian?

My favorite example of this process going to far concerns Pinus Sabiniana, a pine tree common in hot, dry, rocky soils. Because it has a wide range, it goes by many names: bull pine, ghost pine, nut pine, digger pine, and gray pine. However, digger pine is the most commonly used term, and the one that I have used for many years. Now, however, there are people who gently chide us for using that cognomen and urge us to use ‘gray pine’. The reason, it turns out, concerns the seeds, which are large and edible. Some tribes of Indians — er, Native Americans — would dig up these seeds to eat; this was the origin of the term ‘digger pine’. However, referring to this practice is somehow considered derogatory to the Native Americans, hence the preference for ‘gray pine’.

Clearly, this is an extreme and rare case. But on what basis can we differentiate it from other examples of changing terminology? What criterion can we use to declare that one change is acceptable while another goes too far?

By the way, I’m not denigrating the increasing sensitivity to nomenclature; language mirrors our reality and, as our perceptions of reality change, so should our language. The concern I am expressing here is with the haphazard nature of this process. How can a fair-minded person navigate this minefield?

Master of Science, Physics, 1975. Computer Game Designer. Interactive Storytelling.

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