Words that offend

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
Andrew Kenny asks if political correctness is invading Afrikaans dictionaries.

In the latest Pharos Afrikaans-English Groot Woordeboek, there is no mention whatever of the word “kaffer”. However, among the words beginning with “ka” is the word “kak”, whose English translation is given as “shit”. To illustrate how this word is used, the dictionary offers the phrase, “kak of betaal is die wet van die Transvaal”, which English speakers are informed means “pay up and look pleasant”. Other entries include “fuck”, “moer” “doos” and “poes”.

A recent Afrikaans-English Groot Woordeboek by Kritzinger, Schoonees, Cronje and Eksteen, published by Van Schaik, mentions “kaffer” but only as a prefix for botanical names such as “kafferwortel” (“medicinal plant”). Their Verklarende Afrikaanse Woordeboek of the same vintage does give “kafir” but only as a “Skeldnaam v.d. Mohammedane vir nie-Mohammedane, ongelowige”. Again “kak” is explained with unabashed clarity.

Van Schaik’s 1980 Woordeboek gives “kaffer” as “Bantoeman (veral deur stads-Bantoes as skeldnaam beskou)” but has no mention of “kak”. In earlier dictionaries, you find bland, accurate explanations of “kaffer” but no words referring to copulation or bowel-movements. In novels at the beginning of the century, such as Jock of the Bushveldt, “kaffer” was used as naturally as “Scotsman” or “Boer”. The earliest use I have read of it in South Africa comes from Ogilby’s Africa, a book written in 1670 by an Englishman, John Ogilby, who had visited “Nether-Ethiopia”, as he called the Dutch settlement at Cape Town. He describes the flora and fauna, including sea life: “In Table Bay, and thereabouts, play many Whales, and other great fifhes.” Of the human inhabitants, he writes, in a paragraph entitled “They are Unlearned” —
All the Kaffers are void of Literature, ftupidly dull and clownifh, and in understanding are more like Beafts than men: but fome by continual converfe with European Merchants, fhew a few fparks or glimmerings of an inclination to more humanity.

This sounds very much like Julius Caesar writing about the Britons. However, in the next paragraph, entitled “They are kind and faithful”, he observes —
In kindnefs and fidelity towards their neighbours, they fhame the Dutch, and all other Europeans, becaufe whatfoever one hath, they willingly and readily impart to others, be it little or much.
To modern eyes, Ogilby’s comments are shocking. But why? It is quite clear that he has no derogoratory intention. On the contrary, his words are gentle. And he is making no argument but simply describing what he believes he is seeing. Of course, he is writing from the prejudices of his age, and this is the point. He shocks us because his prejudices are different from ours. That is all.

The modern Woordeboeke reflect changing prejudices towards lewdness and race. In the last century the words that ordinary people used to describe sex and excretion were considered taboo. Today the taboo words are racial. It is as if society maintains a certain level of prudery but the objects of the prudery change with time. Today we are invited to be broadminded, adult and worldly-wise about words like “fuck” and “shit” and to brush aside with condescending disregard the feelings of anyone offended by them. But we must be purse-lipped, spinsterish and scandalised about words like “kaffer” and “nigger” and react with extreme sensitivity and sympathy towards anyone offended by them.

I phoned the publishers of the Pharos dictionary to ask their reasons for these entries and omissions. A courteous and helpful man explained that “race pejorative words have become so contaminated that they could harm race relations” and it had been decided to leave them out. He explained that many Afrikaners had been “previously uptight” about swear words but were now “loosening”, and so would be able to face them in print.

This explanation suggests shifting patterns of offence. The new loosened Afrikaner will not be offended by “fuck”. (I wonder if Afrikaner women have loosened enough not to be offended by “doos” and “moer”?) But blacks will be offended by the pejorative word “kaffer”. And here is the fundamental question in the debate on racial abuse: why is the word pejorative?
“Kaffer” (or “kaffir” or “kafir”), as earlier dictionaries explain, comes from an Arabic word meaning “non-Moslem”. It is the Moslem equivalent of “gentile”. The meaning in Africa changed to “black African”. Reading its use in books of the last century, it is clear that this is all it meant. It did not mean “bad black man” or “stupid black man” or “dirty black man” but just “black man”. The pejorative sense comes from a long period of white domination of blacks. The leering white bully spoke contemptuously to his cringing black servant as “you bloody kaffir”. Thus the word “kaffir” evokes this period of subjugation and humiliation and this why some argue that it should be omitted from the dictionary.

This argument does not bear close examination. A dictionary is a record and an explanation of words, in the same way that a history is a record and explanation of events. An entry in either does not imply approval. History books should not omit all mention of apartheid simply because its memory might evoke wounded feelings in blacks who suffered under it.

Consider racial abuse of other people. The most wronged and persecuted people in history are the Jews, and the most commonly used racial insult against them is “Jew”, as in “the bloody Jews”. Jews have heard this abuse over centuries, in pogroms and concentration camps, but regard the word “Jew” not with shame but with extreme pride. They make no attempt, as some squeamish Christians previously tried, to replace it with “Hebrew”, as if it were somehow more genteel. The same is true for “Boer”. It is the word other people most commonly use when they try to insult the Afrikaners. But most Afrikaners, especially the nationalist ones, are proud of “Boer”.

“Kaffer” is different in that the deeper pejorative sense comes not from the white speaker but from the black listener. The same happens to any colloquial word that whites give to blacks. It does not happen the other way round. There is no slang word that whites give to blacks that blacks do not find offensive, and there is no slang word that blacks give to whites that whites do find offensive. “Nigger”, “coon”, “floppy”, “munt”, “nig-nog” and “kaffer” all offend blacks. (“Nigger” comes from “black” and “munt” comes from an African word for “man”, as does “Bantu”.) “Honky” does not offend whites; it just makes them laugh. In Rhodesia, they tried symmetrical nicknames for the races, calling the men from Europe “Euros” and the men from Africa “Afs”. The Afs were offended; the Euros did not mind.

Blacks seem to care deeply how they are regarded by whites but whites do not care at all how they are regarded by blacks. This points to a lack of confidence among blacks in their own race and a serene confidence among whites in theirs. The premise seems to be that the relationship between white and black is like that between adult and child. Politically correct whites, typified by the Pharos Woordeboek, emphasises this. White men, even white women, are adult enough to hear the vulgar words of the coarse, real world but blacks are like children and must be protected.

Curiously enough, John Ogilby, writing over three centuries ago, and in other ways so different from the politically correct of today, shares their view of the black man as a child. But the premise is, and always was, entirely wrong. The key to good race relations is for every race to regard every other race as composed of equal, adult, human beings. The patronising of blacks by politically correct whites today is obnoxious and destructive. The Oxford English Dictionary retains “kaffer” with a correct explanation; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in the US retains “nigger”. Pharos dictionaries should return “kaffer” to their pages and treat blacks as adults.