Normally I really appreciate almost every posting at Language Log, an excellent multi-author blog by linguists. An entry by Christopher Potts appeared today that seems to me to have disturbing implications.
He refers back to a post by Geoff Nunberg criticizing a September court decision that allowed the Washington Redskins to keep their name. The reason given was that on some uses of the term 'redskin' it's not intended to be offensive, and the team uses it in a respectful way. I'm not sure I disagree with anything in Nunberg's original post. I think I even agree with the spirit of Potts's first post, where he argues that you can't just make up a new definition of a word that has expressive content (i.e. roughly what you might call emotional content) and then think that it's no longer disparaging because you're using it to mean something new. The word still carries that expressive content in the mind of the hearer. I do have some hesitations about his thoughts on the 'niggardly' incident that his fellow linguist John McWhorter has examined with more sophistication and balance.
This new post is what really worries me, though. Potts suggests that the court's reasoning rests on the following principle:
(A) A word W is inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in a speech community C just in case every speech community within C regards W as offensive on every meaning that W can have in C.
He's right that (A) is too weak. You could name a team any offensive term you wanted, even the n-word, as long as you said you were using the word in a positive sense and treated every black person with respect in all your offical outlets. That seems wrong. It still carries the offensive expressive content of the word, even if people didn't intend to convey that. Since (A) won't do, Potts suggests the next principle as the one they should have used:
(S) A word W is inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in a speech community C just in case some speech community within C regards W as offensive on at least one of the meanings that W can have in C.
I understand what he's getting at. He's saying that the existence of one usage that some speech community finds acceptable doesn't mean it isn't still going have all the negative effects on the relevant community, the ones who take great offense. That seems right. However, (S) is not just describing what in fact causes offense. The 'niggardly' example and the other points he makes demonstrate only what turns out to offend people. (S) is supposed to be a basis for legal prohibitions on speech, and that leaves the realm of descriptive linguistics and starts specifying what's appropriate. (S) seems to me to be far too restrictive as a guide to what's appropriate.
It's true that 'niggardly' doesn't have any meaning that disparages black people, not in any community. So that isn't a good counterexample. The people in that case just didn't know what the word meant, and they made all sorts of ignorant and very foolish-sounding comments as a result. However, it doesn't take much to have a speech community that uses a word with a slang meaning, particularly when it comes to derogatory usages with expressive content. People make up these sorts of terms all the time, and they don't easily catch on at the larger scale of popular English usage, but it's quite easy for a small language community to have such special usages (e.g. the gangs in a particular section of a city).
So if a couple gangs start using the term 'Burger King' as a derogatory term to denote a member of another gang the Flesheaters, then there's a speech community within that part of the city that regards 'Burger King' as offensive on at least one of the meanings the term can have in the larger speech community of the whole city. What follows from (S) is that 'Burger King' is now inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in that city. Then you can extend it. The smaller community of the gangs is also within the country. You can run the same argument and say that it's inappropriate for anyone in the country to use that name that way. Then you can do it for the whole English-speaking world. Something has gone wrong here. I'm not sure what principle to replace (S) with, but it clearly won't do.
Update: As is typical of analytic metaphysicians, I came up with a fictional example that does in fact do the job of illustrating that this principle is false. All it takes is a possible example. However, it's much better to have an actual example to show that a term in current use is inappropriate according to (S). I found one. There's a band (or is it just one person?) called Tool. That's a derogatory term for someone who isn't very smart. At least one speech community in the United States recognizes that term as disparaging on at least one of its usages in that community. That community, part of the general community of English speakers, satisfies the conditions of (S) so that it's inappropriate for Tool to use that name. Examples from the music world (or what passes for it, in some cases) abound. Now I think some of these, e.g. NWA, WASP, The Dead Milkmen, The Dead Kennedys, and many other groups do in fact have inappropriate names, not that I'm advocating the government to step in and force a name removal, but I do think it's morally wrong to use those names. However, the name 'Tool' is certainly not one of these.