Must be the Season of the Sticks

Early in the 2020 pandemic I established an evening routine of taking a stroll around my ½ acre compound and picking up any sticks that might have fallen from the various Eucalyptus and Gravillea trees growing within. Incidentally, what we call a compound in Kenya is known as a yard in America or a garden in England. I know that in America the word compound brings up notions of Branch Davidians and other armed cultists preparing for doomsday, but it’s really an innocuous word. More on words in a bit.

The sticks I collect as kindling or fodder for my outdoor chiminea, which my landlord so graciously provided with the house. Since the Nairobi climate is cool to chilly at night almost all year round, a small outdoor fire is never out of season. Not a roaring inferno, mind you, just a small hobo fire. As Ed Abbey put it in Desert Solitaire, a fire “not so much for warmth but for companionship.

I’ve also been grilling in the chiminea using a small South African braai grille which is perfectly sized for holding a butterfly-cut chicken or a couple of pork chops over the coals. The sticks come in handy for setting the charcoal alight absent of any petroleum accelerants that could taint the flavor of the meat.

Collecting sticks in a bundle for burning reminds me of discovering to my astonishment the dictionary-defined word for such, round about age 12 or 13. Yes, youngsters, we old geezers actually used to read dictionaries and encyclopedias for fun in the library back in our day. Discovering the meaning of “naughty” words like faggot (look it up) in the dictionary was a guilty joy akin to learning how to spell “BOOBS” in a digital calculator. (80085).

Yes, faggot has actually meant, for the vast majority of its existence as a word, a bundle of sticks gathered and bound together for burning. It is only in the 20th century that the term began to be applied derogatorily to gay men, and mostly only in America. In the UK, the word fag still means a cigarette. Thus, an American may be shocked to hear someone of the British persuasion ask him, “Hey mate, care to share a fag with me?”

Likewise, anyone in the 18th century who heard me say that I make a nightly routine of strolling around looking to pick up faggots would have known I made a habit of collecting fuelwood rather than the contemporaneous interpretation. The word has been entirely corrupted and co-opted by purveyors of hate.

The thing is, language is constantly evolving. Words change in meaning quite rapidly. Terms that were commonplace and non-offensive in my youth are today considered forbidden or entirely politically incorrect. For example, my grandparents worked for years in a state-run hospital for the insane. When it was built in the late 1800’s, the facility was called the “Lunatic Asylum Number 3,” which was later changed to “State Hospital for the Insane, Number 3” and later just “State Hospital Number 3.”

My grandmother would be quick to point out that a large number of her respiratory therapy patients (also known as inmates) were not actually insane (much less lunatics), but in her words were just “mentally retarded.” Mental retardation was a commonplace term at that time, even in most legal documents. There were various degrees of retardation, ranging from slight to severe. I remember being told as a child to be especially patient with a certain classmate of mine, as he was “a little bit retarded.”

Today, the word retarded has been banished from American English as the forbidden “r-word.” A law was enacted in 2010 in the United States which formally replaced mental retardation in legal documents with the term “a person with intellectual disabilities.”

Undoubtedly, using a word like retarded as a pejorative is bad behavior that should be punished and never encouraged. But banning a word is not the same thing as banning a behavior. I’m not actually sure it’s preferable to be called “intellectually disabled.” Surely it won’t take long until someone weaponizes this term and taunts someone with it and we once again scratch our heads for an inoffensive replacement.

Similar debates rage around all manner of words and phrases in our beloved and expansive English language. There are a number of words that have been deemed racist because small-minded bigots use them as pejoratives.

Somehow the Latin adjective niger, simply meaning black in color, became weaponized into an English word so vile it is now referred to as “the n-word.” All languages derived from Latin feature some derivation of niger to mean black. The country of Niger, with its namesake Niger River flowing into the country of Nigeria are all derived from this word. Countless species names feature some variation, witness the black nightshade plant (Solanum nigrum). The United Negro College Fund continues to use a derivative of the word subtly different from the n-word, yet one is a pejorative and the other isn’t. How about we just don’t insult each other at all instead of making lists of words that are verboten?

Don’t be tempted to interpret my remarks as in any way supporting the pejorative use of hate language. I absolutely detest the use of such words, will not use them, and will not remain in the presence of anyone who insists on using them. The old children’s rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is absolute bullshit. Words do have the power to hurt, to inflict lasting damage, and we should absolutely punish and discourage the use of hateful speech.

But what I am wary of is overzealous political correctness that throws out the baby with the bathwater. Banning words will not end bigotry and hatred any more than banning or burning books will suppress reading. Censorship is not the same as sensitivity.

Our beautifully diverse English language has been coopted by people who would weaponize words, and we should not let them succeed. But to counter them we can’t simply ban the words; we must ban the behavior that would use words as weapons. For these hate-mongers will simply rearm their verbal assault weapons with ammunition from a different vocabulary. There is endless ammunition in English with which to wage an assault. Old Bill Shakespeare once said, “Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!” (A bull’s pizzle is its penis, by the way, so this is pretty salty language for the 1500’s). We can’t ban every single possible word that could be used in a verbal assault, but we certainly can and should do everything we can to discourage such assaults and punish those who wage them.

Educate our children, please, on the meaning of these words and the reasons they should not be weaponized. But don’t cover their ears with invisible earmuffs and try to pretend that such words don’t exist. I was raised well, by good parents, and I have never used such words to inflict harm, and never will. They didn’t need to ban words to teach me how to be a decent human being.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words keep therapists employed.

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