“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says one character to another in the great John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In real life, however, a disturbing paraphrase might be more suited to characterizing contemporary attitudes:
When the slur becomes vernacular, print the slur.
I’m referring to a relatively new bit of bigotry, the anti-Semitic epithet zio. In recent days, I had the misfortune of observing a Facebook post by a local, New York-based journalist of some note who used this offensive term to describe people he didn’t like or respect—and this has sparked some contemplation. I didn’t grow up hearing this slur. It wasn’t bandied about like kike or jewboy was, and I’ve been labeled with both. So it doesn’t have the viciously old-school-intolerance connotations those monikers do.
What it does have: insidiousness. Because it’s a term to denigrate those who support the idea of Jews having a homeland, and in that regard, it’s as anti-Semitic as hebe or sheeny or any of the terms we, as members of the tribe, were exposed to in our youth. Like many slurs, it’s a corruption—in this case, of Zionist or Zionism—and therefore has been relegated for the most part to the language of folks whose ignorance thoroughly informs them, like the alt-right numbskulls of David Duke’s ilk. But when a journalist uses this term, this is when we have to worry. It means the word has been accepted into the vernacular, has found its way into common parlance. And it means that people may be less reluctant to use it in everyday conversation … which would be a big problem.
Imagine seeing zio as a descriptive word in a news article from a reputable media organization. In a book. On TV.
Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen. That just wouldn’t be cool, would it?
Language is evolving continually, and we, as human beings have been OK with made-up content ranging from “ginormous” to “normalcy.” The evolution of words is interesting. We want new entries to the lexicon.
Yet acceptance of a novel slur is not copacetic, as it not only gives voice to prejudice, but it also legitimizes junky, cut-rate expressions—ones that provide no benefit to the growth of speech and writing … and only degrade them. These are the vocabularies of idiots. Do we really want them in the dictionary?
We already have so much hate speech that has made it into world discussion. Words for Jews. Words for African Americans. Words for people who are gay. Words for women.
Please, sir, as Oliver Twist might urge us. We don’t want any more.
I’m not suggesting we ought to clean up the English vernacular, by the way—oh, no. We should leave it as it is. Yet we can do something about budding pejoratives such as zio, and that is to avoid using them altogether … as well as ignore proponents of the words themselves. That would certainly make the point that their own application is wrong. That would certainly let them know that the changes they’re trying to make linguistically won’t work.
Hopefully, it also might make zio and other, similar bits of bigotry fade into the background. There’s small chance that won’t happen if we eschew their implementation. There’s a large chance, however, that it will if we remain cognizant of hate speech’s evolution. For in time, we may not be able to just print the legend when it comes to contesting prejudice. We may be able to print the facts.
And I assure you, those will be good days, even better days than what we have now.