Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wikiledes and wikicontext

Google the word "ghetto" and the first definition comes from Wikipedia: "A ghetto is described as a 'portion of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.' "

Meet the new "Webster's dictionary defines ..." lede, same as the old "Webster's dictionary defines ..." lede. The Freep is trying to put a little context on the way in which the city's corporation counsel fell or was pushed out of her job; depending on which side you listen to, she either said Detroit's 36th District Court risked being perceived as a "ghetto court" or needed to stop "acting like a ghetto court." She's white, most of the court's judges are black, and -- surprise -- the comment was perceived very differently by the audience than by the speaker. Those factors suggest that "the dictionary" (or the Google search for the Wikipedia page that quotes the dictionary) is the wrong place to start answering this question.

Sidelight: Why is Wikipedia generally banned as a source? Because, as Wikipedia itself proclaims, it's the encyclopedia "that anyone can edit" -- case in point, the second sentence of the "ghetto" entry: Some of the largest ghettos in the US are Compton, CA, East Cleveland, OH, Chester, PA and most noteably the South Bronx which lies in the poort congresional district in the United States. I don't know enough about Wiki culture to say whether the inept spelling is a sign of an ideologically motivated edit, but if I was in a guessing mood, I wouldn't mind starting there.

Not everything on Wikipedia is so awful. I don't see a reason to doubt the Langston Hughes and August Wilson cites later in the "ghetto" article, and they shed some light on how complex and socially/contextually bound the valence of a term like "ghetto" can be. (In turn, that suggests that the history department might not be the best place to look for an "expert" -- the hed's term, not the writer's -- to explain the social use of language. You want one of those, what do you call 'em, socio-linguo people or something.) When a word gets somebody pushed out of a high-profile job, what that word "means" or "really means" or "originally meant" might be less relevant than who said it to whom, about what, and in the presence of what recording device.*

Context-blindness is familiar these days from right-wing grudge commentary. Sean Hannity can joke with an Irish-surnamed caller about sharing a seven-course Irish dinner,** then wonder aloud why Some Jokes are off limits, given that the Hannitys of the world are such good sports -- the implication being that Those People need to suck it up and stop being so sensitive. Asking when a particular term did or didn't become derogatory might not be all that useful. It's entirely possible that "Irish dinner" can exist alongside "Irish culture," with the direction of the adjective not clear until you've seen all the players and the rest of the script.

I don't mean to liken the former corporation counsel to the evil gasbags of talk radio, but that does suggest a way of interpreting her justification:

Leavey said in an interview Friday that her remarks about the court, where most of the judges are black, were taken out of context.

(Wow! Didn't see that one coming, did you?) That's exactly the problem. If she'd been taken out of context, she wouldn't be so former. She just failed to see the context that, unavoidably, she would be taken in.

* The Morris and Morris usage dictionary (the one with the panel of writers who vote on things like "hopefully" and "host") calls "ghetto" a euphemism for "slum," which seems a case of the euphemism-phobia that afflicts lots of writers, especially journalists.***
** Six-pack and a potato, in case you missed that day.
*** Consider the genuinely bizarre contention that "African American" is a euphemism. What do you figure it's supposed to be a euphemism for?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's actually something interesting going on with "African-American" (as compared with most other uses of "X-American"), although I suspect it's rather more down Language Log's line than yours. (I would point out in particular that the shared cultural background of most people who describe themselves that way developed here, in North America, and is not part of the cultural heritage of people of more recent African ancestry -- as witness some controversy with regard to the President-elect -- or who came to the U.S. via another country.)

4:16 PM, January 17, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Oh, I agree -- there's a lot of interesting stuff going on with "African-American." Indeed, one of my Top Five Bits of Really Weird Campaign Discourse last year was a letter to the editor (in the Obs, I think) complaining that people needed to stop calling Obama an African American, given that he's only half African American. Even by the strange racial arithmetic that America is heir to, that's deeply off mark. The writer might have meant half African, or half black, but "half African American" is a bodacious fail by either definition.

I hope the Logsters weigh in on the issue at some point; it tends to benefit from the empirical perspective.

11:37 PM, January 17, 2009  

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