An interesting comment exchange (Thanks, Bill!) has got me thinking about the way we choose words and the words we use. You see, here’s one of the dilemmas that authors face. There are certain words and uses of words that are generally considered offensive or that have derogatory connotations in today’s society, so it’s not considered appropriate to use them. I, for one am glad of that. People have the right not to have their ethnic group, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc., insulted. I don’t want mine insulted. That said (and here is where the dilemma comes in), authors want to create realistic characters. Readers want to read about realistic characters. Sometimes that realism includes using words or phrases that may offend some readers. There’s also the fact that times change and so does our view of what’s offensive. So an author whose stories were written in, say, the 1920’s or 1930’s, or whose stories are set in those eras, may have used language that we wouldn’t consider appropriate by modern standards. And yet, not to use that language arguably takes away from the authenticity of those stories. Finally, it’s sometimes a little difficult to know which words one ought to use; bear with me on that one, and I’ll explain myself in a bit. Like so much else in crime fiction, one’s choice of words requires a balance.
Sometimes a word or phrase that’s not what we would normally consider appropriate is the best way to express a character’s personality or add to a context, so that not using it might make the dialogue stilted. For example, in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometimes-lawyer and private investigator Jack Irish is investigating the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. In the process of finding out who killed McKillop, Irish discovers that his murder is related to another death several years earlier – a death for which McKillop was framed and went to prison. Irish slowly unfolds the layers of conspiracy and corruption in this case and finds out the truth. In the meantime, he and some of his father’s football-loving friends, all Fitzroy supporters, are planning to go to a game featuring their beloved Roys versus St. Kilda. Group member Norm O’Neill says this of the Roys and the St. Kilda team:
“They can’t give this bunch a sheilas a beltin, might as well merge with Brighton Bowls Club.”
Is this comment derogatory to women? Well, yes it is. But does Temple intend it as an attack on women? I don’t think so. It’s part of the way these characters speak, it’s authentic and it makes sense given the context.
In Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the death of Ariana Rocich, a twelve-year-old Roma girl who apparently fell to her death from a rooftop into a canal. At first it seems that she was trying to flee after robbing an apartment and simply fell into the canal. But soon it appears that she may have been killed. Here is a conversation that Brunetti and Vianello have about the girl:
“‘There’s no way of knowing, though, whether she is or she isn’t,’ he [Vianello] added.
Voice coloured by his lingering irritation at the pathologist’s words, Brunetti said, ‘Rizzardi said we were supposed to call them Rom.’
‘Oh. How very correct of the doctor.’”
Brunetti himself uses the word Gypsy more than once in this novel. Is that to say he is prejudiced against the Roma people? Actually he works this case with at least the vigour with which he works any case. His use of that term isn’t intended as a slur against Ariana Rocich or her people. It’s the word he’s always used and it’s difficult for him to think in terms of a different word. So in this case, although the word isn’t considered appropriate, it serves a purpose. It helps add to one of the themes in this novel and it makes sense considering who says the word and why.
There are several classic novels in which the author uses words we would now consider derogatory and offensive. As Agatha Christie fans know, for instance, one of the alternate titles of And Then There Were None is Ten Little Indians. It also has another title that’s considered quite offensive by today’s standards. I don’t know whether that choice of title means that Christie was a racist. Certainly the same term is used in various expressions used in Christie’s work. For instance, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), patriarch Richard Abernethie dies suddenly ‘though not unexpectedly. At his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first everyone hushes her up and Cora herself admits she spoke out of turn. But everyone secretly wonders whether Cora was right. When she herself is murdered the next day it seems even clearer that she was correct. So the family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Here’s a bit of the conversation when Poirot reveals to the family that he was hired to investigate:
“‘I have been a friend for many years of Mr. Entwhistle.’
‘So he’s the nigger in the woodpile!’
‘If you like to put it that way, Mr. Crossfield.’”
Does the use of that expression mean that this character is a racist, or that Christie was? It’s hard to say because that’s the way people spoke at that time. Those expressions were in such common use that many people used them without thinking of what they really mean.
And it wasn’t just Christie either. Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery is set in great part in New York City’s French’s Department Store. One day, one of the store employees is preparing a store window demonstration when she discovers the body of Winifred French, wife of store owner Cyrus French. Inspector Richard Queen is called in and his son Ellery comes along. Together, they untangle the network of relationships and hidden motives that are behind the murder. The employee who discovers the body is referred to as “the Negress” throughout the novel. Certainly that word is offensive by today’s standards. But that’s the way people spoke at that time (the book was published in 1930). Not to use words and phrases of the time might have made the story less authentic.
So how does an author refer to certain groups of people, especially members of minority cultures? Here is how authors such as Tony Hillerman and Margaret Coel have addressed the question: they’ve asked the people themselves. Hillerman, for instance, spent decades among the Navajo people and learned what they call themselves, what they want to be called and how they see themselves. Coel has done the same thing with the members of the Arapaho Nation. Other authors too have done similar things, especially if they are not members of the cultures about which they write. So, should authors use terms such as Aborigine? Eskimo? Inuit? Native? Something else? It seems to me that authors ought to make the effort to get to know the people involved and find out from them which terms they use and do not use. That could be a very effective barometer of what counts as the right word(s) to use.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Fixx’s One Thing Leads to Another.