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Words can be poisonous weapons

  • Geoff
What is a “location”? To most people, it’s a place. But in South Africa, it was once an area inhabited by mainly desperately poor black people. When many South Africans used that word, it suggested a dirty, unsafe area, where poor people cooked pap outdoors.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Nov 21, 2019

The dictionary can never be an unbiased book. Every word that appears in it is coloured by history, politics, connotations, and context, and fuelled by fashion.

South Africans aren’t foreign to how words can be poisoned and meanings changed by politicians. During apartheid, the word “native” was used pejoratively for black people as an official government term. There was even a native affairs department under the authority of then Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd.

The apartheid government struggled repeatedly to coin euphemisms for black people. Terms such as “natives”, “bantu”, “non-Europeans” and “plurals” all had their day. The latter was called “hilarious” by the Sunday Times in 1978. There was once a department of plural relations and development.’

But the shoe always tends to slide to the other foot eventually. Many black South Africans and politicians today are too easily tempted to call a white person who disagrees with them about anything a racist, often without cause. And in spite of losing power, Afrikaners are still famous for using the ugly “k-word” to refer to black people, although doing so publically might and get them into serious trouble.

The slippery, politicised meanings of ordinary words are not a South African invention, however. Is the word “Zionism” an ordinary word? Not so long ago, the ideology had to be inherently part of an Israeli government platform for it to succeed. But what about an Arab government party? It would be absurd to expect it to call itself Zionist.

Zionism is a particularly loaded word in South Africa, where the African National Congress, trade unions, leftist academics, and nongovernmental organisations are intensely hostile to Israel. Among politicised activists in black communities, it provokes awkwardness even among people who accept Israel’s existence. For the more extreme, Zionism is akin to a four-letter word. Every word has an implied back story: many South Africans who use Zionism as a pejorative are veiling anti-Semitism.

Ever since Theodor Herzl’s day in 1897, the word Zionism was the most central expression of Jews’ fight for a state. Israel now exists, but ironically among Jews, the word is being reconsidered amidst the hurly-burly of Israeli politics. Ask Israelis if they are Zionists, and many might say they aren’t, Israel is simply the Jewish country where they live, and they will fight to keep it secure. Increasing numbers of American Jews, alienated from Israel because of differences in world view, would not describe themselves as Zionists.

Is Zionism just a term which was once important, but isn’t anymore? Some people will angrily reject this, saying that discarding the word is a betrayal of people who gave their lives for it. But did they fight for something that existed then, but has changed now, and must they change too?

Words are always a weapon or tool, depending on who uses them. What would happen if the “Z-word” became forbidden in contemporary society? Or fell into disuse, like “plurals”? Would the anti-Semitic thread simply be expressed through a different word?


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