Words Mean Things: Usage in Geographic Context
No, I’m not going to examine the phrase “geographic context.” Instead, I’m going to talk about the importance of geographic context to the meaning of words.
This is a particularly sticky wicket for the English language which, as discussed, has no governing body. Thanks to the success of British imperialism, English is the official language (and mother tongue) of many people outside of England. Major English-speaking countries include the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Some islands in the Caribbean also call English their official language, and English is on the docket as an official language in many other former British colonies–even when the local population typically speaks another language or two.
This isn’t unusual. Former French colonies may also list French as an official language, alongside native languages.
One thing to note about language is it is constantly in a state of evolution. You can look at English over the course of the twentieth century. While some people will point to a “dumbing-down” of the language, the truth is slang in particular is constantly reinventing usage. Words and phrases like “on fleek” and “bae” enter our lexicon.
Usage can tell us a lot about someone. It can indicate their age (ask your mother what “fleek” means). It might tell us their gender or sex. Usage tells us about their politics and their education levels.
It also helps up identify where they’re from.
What a word means is sometimes dependent on where you’re situated–not just socially, but geographically. Sometimes, this affects the terms we use: As a Canadian, I say “washroom,” not “bathroom” most of the time. European friends will refer to the same place as a “WC” or “water closet.” They might even just use the local word for “toilet.”
Certain words also begin to take on a particular meaning in different geographic regions. A great example is the word “cunt.” In Australia, the word is used freely and liberally. You can address your best friend (sorry, your best mate) as “you cunt!” and they probably won’t be mad. You can also use it to yell at a koala that bit you. It can be as inoffensive or as offensive as you like.
In America, “cunt” is considered one of the worst possible insults. I have friends who hate reading it in books. They get squeamish about its usage. It’s considered incredibly rude!
A Difference of Opinion
Obviously, Australians (and to some extent, the British) have a different view of the word “cunt” than Americans do. Since the internet puts us in such close contact with each other, however, Americans often come face to face with usage from other parts of the world.
I’ve seen Americans go at Australians on social media about their usage of the word. If an Australian tries to defend the usage, saying, “Well, here it’s not that bad,” the American will huff right back, “But here it is, so you shouldn’t use it.”
(American cultural imperialism is fun.)
While in this particular case, it might be advisable for the Australian to temper their usage–particularly if they know they have an American followership or are talking to American friends–it’s equally on the Americans coming across the usage to accept differential usage.
But What If It’s Offensive?
“Cunt” is a great case study still, because it is highly offensive–in some geographic/regional/cultural contexts. Americans are very offended by this word! As I mentioned, it’s one of the worst insults a North American can think of.
Australians and Brits are less fussed over it. They tend to use it frequently and don’t necessarily construe their usage as being offensive or even potentially offensive until a North American busts in with an “omg so rude!”
Now the great debate: Who is right and who is wrong?
If the American insists on imposing their interpretation of the word, they’re engaged in cultural imperialism — enforcing their own beliefs and forcing others to accommodate those beliefs. If the Australian acknowledges the American thinks it’s rude and continues unabated, they’re being insensitive to the fact others from different cultural contexts have different views.
Of course, the Australian backing off usage allows the American to exert cultural imperialism, while the American simply sitting down and shutting up allows the Australian to continue being insensitive and offensive to the American’s sensibilities.
So What’s the Solution?
The best solution is for both parties to acknowledge the other’s point of view and temper their positions. The American could say, “I’m offended by this, but I understand your views on the word are different than mine because of where we’re from.”
Equally, the Australian could say, “I don’t see it as offensive, but since you do, I can try to limit my usage while you’re around.”
That’s an ideal world though. More often, this simply devolves into screaming matches about who is more right, whether the Australian needs to leave off, or whether the American should just bugger off.
In practice, the best solution is for the two sides to leave each other alone.
Agree to Disagree?
There are plenty of words where connotation and usage simply won’t match up in different cultural and geographic contexts. The safest thing is simply to agree to disagree, yet few people can leave it at that.
The best possible thing you can do is simply accept your view may not be the only one. When someone else suggests there are other usages or interpretations, simply accept that.
I’m going to lay a little blame at the hands of Americans here, in that in my personal experiences as an editor, they have a difficult time letting things go. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s a definite attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong!” when it comes to language. I’ve seen professors at American universities reject textbooks because they have “too many spelling mistakes.” The mistakes? Words like “colour” and “neighbour,” which used Canadian spelling.
I’ve had authors insist to me Canadian spelling isn’t different, it’s flat-out wrong. And these are not hillbillies or rednecks. These are well-respected, college-educated people in New York and Washington.
Any time I’ve talked to Brits, Australians, or even South Africans, we’re all quite willing to admit we just do things differently. We might not agree with each other, but we seem more willing to engage in dialogue.
I’m sure there are Americans who would love a constructive conversation, and I’m sure there are Brits who insist American spelling is wrong, Australians who believe their usage is superior, and Canadians who think they’re right. We’re all guilty of it.
But a little level-headed conversation and understanding goes a long, long way.