McWhorter on “cultural language appropriation”

May 29, 2021 • 11:00 am

John McWhorter has two qualifications that make him able to judge whether it’s okay for white people to use black argot: he’s black and he’s a linguist. In his latest column on his Substack site (click on screenshot), Mcwhorter argues that it’s not only fine, but a form of flattery for members of one race to use the language of another, so long as it’s not used disparagingly. Click on the screenshot to read:

The “Elvis” simile comes from the claim, which may be justified, that Elvis used a black style of singing in his early music, but never gave credit to his influences. (McWhorter believes, as I do, that the black originators actually produced better music.) But he also argues that the comparison doesn’t hold water.

First, some of the language that white people are said to “steal” from blacks:

A little while ago, a Saturday Night Live skit depicted a multiracial group of teens communicating in what was depicted as “Gen Z slang,” with the doctor they were talking with having to “translate” his thoughts into it to communicate with them.

A lot of people didn’t like it, because the slang in question was mostly of Black English origin. The complaint is that the skit was denying the black roots of these terms, and instead ascribing them to Americans in general – i.e. (shudder) white persons. As in, yes – the problem was cultural appropriation.

. . . The SNL skit included, among others, yobestievibesfeels for feelings, salty for irritated, bro / bruh and no cap for “I’m not kidding” (as in, these are actual whole gold teeth, not golden caps on teeth).

McWhorter considers two arguments, and numerous sub-arguments, that terms like that should not be restricted to blacks.

1) Is there a historical precedent where people interact richly but keep their speech varieties completely separate?

He knows of no such cases.

2) Is there a case that even if this is the way it has been, that it would be a moral advancement if we tried to put a stop to it now?

McWhorter considers several arguments for the “moral cessation”, including the parallel with “music theft”, and says that the counterarguments are stronger, including the enrichment of art and language of every group by this kind of appropriation:

But overall, who among us wishes white people had never taken up ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, or rock and roll? I assume there are some who could really wish there had never been Benny Goodman, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, or Eminem and I mean that. But this would be a radical proposition held ever by only a sliver.

Black jazz, is, to my mind, still the best by far, but it was taken and changed into different forms by others, and some of those white artists, like Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Stan Getz, brought something new to the genre. As far as I know, they did no harm to blacks or black culture. Goodman, in fact, was the first major white bandleader to integrate his groups, taking on people like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. “White” jazz is the most common form of cultural appropriation—a form of borrowing that does nobody any harm, but enriches everyone but the Pecksniffs.

McWhorter also points out that whites have been taking language from African Americans forever, even in the antebellum South, and, of course, this form of linguistic borrowing is good for everyone: it enriches our communication.

Take another oppressed group (well, at least they were once considered oppressed): the Jews. I know of no Jewish person who is insulted, including me, when we hear a non-Jewish person use Yiddish argot like “chutzpah”, “oy vey”, “schlemiel”, and “kvetch.” Indeed, I’m pleased and flattered to hear it! It means that those words were useful, and are considered not insulting but a tribute to the colorful language that is Yiddish. I can’t really see any difference between that kind of “cultural appropriation” and words like “bestie and “vibes” (in truth, I thought these were Millennial words!).

McWhorter thinks we should give up trying to police the racial borders of language for two reasons. First, it never works. Second, and most important, appropriating words and phrases from another culture is a form of flattery, and we all know this. Trying to keep the borders distinct is a futile exercise in tribalism. To quote the expert here:

In light of the above, I suggest we return to intuition here. Yes, even on race, sometimes intuition makes sense, and not just the intuition that white people are racist.

Namely, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Whites talk increasingly more like black people in America as a sign that whites and blacks are more comfortable together socially than they once were.

Yes, racism still exists. But getting past it will happen in increments. What is the progress in insisting that the increments, when they reveal themselves, don’t matter?

And whatever your other discomforts are with “Gen Z” using some black slang, your question must be whether it should be socially proscribed in light of what I have noted above as issues that cannot be waved away. Is the discomfort something you could honestly back with a confident pox on linguistic sharing amidst the broader context of what we are actually seeing?

Words and phrases I detest

April 30, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Yes, it’s that time again, and what better time than Petulant Friday to bring up the words and phrases that we most dislike? I’ve managed to collect a few, and, as usual, at lest half come from HuffPost, that bastion of Wokeness and “look at us; we’re young and cool” language.

Here are a few words and phrases I dislike, with the source. The object, of course, is to stimulate readers to bring forth their own pet peeves.

Today I have four:

1.) “Bright line” or “bright line in the sand”.  Now I can understand “line in the sand”, as a line over which you’re not supposed to step lest you suffer dire consequences. But “bright” line? What is a “bright” line? According to Wikipedia, “bright line” is a term of law:

In United States constitutional law, a bright-line rule (or bright-line test) is a clearly defined rule or standard, composed of objective factors, which leaves little or no room for varying interpretation. The purpose of a bright-line rule is to produce predictable and consistent results in its application. The term “bright-line” in this sense generally occurs in a legal context.

Bright-line rules are usually standards established by courts in legal precedent or by legislatures in statutory provisions. The US Supreme Court often contrasts bright-line rules with their opposite: balancing tests (or “fine line testing”), where a result depends on weighing several factors—which could lead to inconsistent application of law or reduce objectivity.

But a “line in the sand” means pretty much the same thing in common language: a line that is not to be crossed without consequences.  Ergo, “bright line in the sand” is completely redundant, as well as a mixed metaphor. But that hasn’t stopped HuffPost—and many others—from using it (click on screenshots if you must read them):

2.) “Vacay” for “vacation”.  This irks me the same way that “fam”, short for “family”, and “sesh”, short for “session”, irk me. (I believe even Andrew Sullivan used “sesh” in last week’s column!) It’s close in sound to “vacate”, and could even be mistaken for it in conversation. “Vacation” is good enough for me, for I dislike these “aren’t I cool?” truncated neologisms. Why not say “conflay” for “conflation”? Here’s one from HuffPost:


3.) “Impactful” for “consequential” “influential” or “important”.  This is one of those words that sounds so juvenile that it instantly grates on me. Here’s an example from the New York Times, for crying out loud:

The quote:

It was awkward. Even Beyoncé’s recognition for “Black Parade” — a good song, sure, but hardly among her best or most impactful work — felt strangely conciliatory, a mea culpa for not giving “Lemonade” its proper due several years ago.

You can be more specific here, using words like “influential” or “important” (in a critical sense), but in this context it’s unclear who or what is being “impacted.”

4.) “On social” for “on social media”.  I haven’t seen this on HuffPost, which, after all, IS social media rather than journalism, but I hear it on the television news all the time when the anchors say, at the end of the show, “Follow us on social.” Is it too much to ask them to add the word “media” so we know what they’re talking about? Most people use it correctly, but there are those “too cool for my shirt” miscreants who haven’t learned that “social” is not a noun but an adjective. Like this site:

Your turn! Tell us all what words or phrases get your knickers in a twist.

Words and phrases I detest

November 23, 2020 • 12:30 pm

It’s that time again: time to disgorge those words and phrases that stick in your craw—elocution you detest. And I know we’re all filled with repressed rage during the pandemic, so I’ll vent a bit of it here. T

oday we have three phrases. (I may have mentioned one or two of these before, but so it goes.) As always, I take my examples from HuffPost, which strives to use argot that makes the odious site look cool. Click on the screenshots if you must read the articles.

Don’t bother to tell me that language evolves; I have a Ph.D. and know that. It’s some of the endpoints of that evolution that irk me.

1.) “Gig workers” (or “Gig economy”). Yes, I know there’s not a single word for “on-call employees” like Uber drivers or food deliverers, but the word “gig”, which originally meant a stint as a musician in a venue, sounds ugly to me, like “blog”. And somehow I can’t manage to equate an Uber ride with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing at Toronto’s Massey Hall.

Maybe I just dislike one-syllable words that end in g; another is “d*g”.  But here you go:


2.) “Tone deaf”.  The technical meaning of this phrase is “unable to differentiate between different musical pitches.” And that’s fine, but it’s been co-opted, mainly by the woke, to mean, “Not able to grasp the obvious and important truths I’m trying to tell you.” And it’s all over the place.

Here’s HuffPost dissing the Oscar-winning movie “Green Book” for being a “white saviour” movie. (I wouldn’t characterize it that way, and it wasn’t a perfect film, but never mind.) The fact is that if you’re not on board with what a woke person is saying, you’re simply “tone-deaf”. More often than not, it means “bigot” or “racist”.


It’s especially used to apply to the Trump family:

In fact, I hear this word used so often by the Woke that I refuse to use it myself.  It is, after all, now a bit trite, and it’s better to think of a fresh phrase.

3.) “Fierce” no longer means “scarily aggressive.”  Now, according to the Urban Dictionary, it means “the combination of a positive mental spirit, bold words and unapologetic actions used collectively”. But it doesn’t even mean just that: it can just mean “good”, or “something I like”, as applied to “California Gurls” in the Katy Perry/Snoop Dogg song, or to clothing in this article about the American Music Awards:

This doesn’t look so “fierce” to me: it’s Anthony Anderson in a smiley mask:

In fact, you can get away with using “fierce” as an adjective for anything you like, like “Man, that meal was fierce!”

California passes law to test prospective cops for both explicit and implicit bias: a poorly written article in The Washington Post

October 29, 2020 • 10:45 am

This law sounds good in principle, but seems impossible to use as a way of detecting racism in potential hires. The law and its problems are described in a long and poorly-written article in the Washington Post; I’ll have more to say about the writing later.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the skinny, and I’ve condensed an article whose published version is at least three times longer than it need be:

An ambitious new law in California taking aim at potential biases of prospective officers has raised questions and concerns among police officers and experts who fear that if implemented inadequately, the law could undermine its own mission to change policing and the culture of law enforcement.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 30, will expand the present screening requirements by mandating all law enforcement agencies conduct mental evaluations of peace officer candidates to identify both implicit and explicit biases against race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation to exclude unfit recruits.

Experts, police unions and lawmakers agree on the value of identifying whether those who aspire to become officers carry considerable degrees of biases, yet it is the lack of clarity on what tools and measures will be used to look for implicit biases that is raising concerns and prompting questions.

“If police departments start to reject applicants because they have implicit biases there will be no one left to hire,” said Lorie Fridell, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing program, one of the most popular implicit-bias awareness trainings in the country.

That’s one problem with the implicit bias test: it shows that nearly everyone has implicit bias (the article mentions that 88% of whites and 48% of blacks have an implicit bias for white people (when I took the test, it showed I was “race neutral”: the optimal outcome). Not only that, but the IAT (Implicit Association Test) has been widely criticized on many grounds, not the least that it doesn’t seem to translate into measurable behavior, which is the reason you measure it. You can see The Replicability Index‘s useful summary of all the analyses by clicking on the screenshot below:

From the article’s conclusions:

An unbiased assessment of the evidence shows no compelling evidence that the race IAT is a valid measure of implicit racial bias; and without a valid measure of implicit racial bias it is impossible to make scientific statements about implicit racial bias. I think the general public deserves to know this. Unfortunately, there is no need for scientific evidence that prejudice and discrimination still exists. Ideally, psychologists will spend more effort in developing valid measures of racism that can provide trustworthy information about variation across individuals, geographic regions, groups, and time. Many people believe that psychologists are already doing it, but this review of the literature shows that this is not the case. It is high time to actually do what the general public expects from us.

(See also this article from the British Psychological Society’s “Research Digest.”) Based on the widespread criticism of these tests, it’s simply not valid to claim that everyone has implicit bias.

Now onto the writing quality of the article. It’s long, tedious, and the prose is convoluted and abysmal. There are also some errors. I’ll give a few examples:

The law comes amid a moment of social upheaval where police departments across the country are facing scrutiny. . . .

WRONG. A moment is a period of time, and so it should be “when police departments” rather than “where police departments”. This is a common mistake, but an editor should have caught it.

None of the experts interviewed by The Washington Post claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases — those that people are unwilling or unable to identify — as a hiring standard.

This is awkward. Although the antecedent to “those that people are unwilling or unable to identify” should be “unconscious biases”, it could also be “law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases.” The awkward sentence could easily be fixed to “None of the experts interviewed claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that hire using screenings for unconscious biases—those biases that people are unwilling or unable to identify.”

. . . . he is skeptical of taking implicit bias evaluations like IATs, as benchmarks of deep-seeded beliefs that would lead to discrimination.

IT IS NOT “DEEP-SEEDED” but “DEEP-SEATED”. Everybody should know this, but the mistake is common. But that doesn’t excuse it from appearing in a major newspaper.

These screenings vary agency to agency and often include review of social media postings for sexist or racist comments, interviews with acquaintances, past employers, family members and thorough mental evaluations.

That’s another awkward sentence implying that the review of social media posts includes “thorough mental evaluations”. This could have been solved by putting “thorough mental evaluations” before “review of social media postings.”
A shared concern among scholars is on the use of tools such as implicit association tests (IATs) — sometimes used in bias training — as a hiring tool or screening device due to the unreliability of its findings.
The bit after the second hyphen is confusing and hard to read. It would be easy to fix: “Because implicit association tests (IATs) have been found to be unreliable, scholars are concerned about their use to screen or hire applicants, or in bias training.” Further, the construction “a shared concern . . .on” is awkward and should be “Many scholars are concerned about. . . ” or some other construction.

Yes, these errors may seem minor, but don’t newspapers like the Washington Post employ line editors any more? What’s just as bad, or worse, is the painfully awkward prose, with long sentences, that pervades the entire article. Like this:

Kang said implicit bias tests provide useful, yet inexact information, which he compared to weather forecasts, about a person’s beliefs and stereotypes at a certain moment, but they ought to be used as road maps to help law enforcement agencies develop better methods and procedures, rather than as individual hiring tools.

UG-LEE! But examples are easy to find. One more and I’ll leave you:

Catafi said POST will be working with psychologists and law enforcement experts to incorporate these new required items to the current psychological screening manual, and they have until January 2022 to complete the process.

That one has a bad error as well: it’s incorporate INTO, not “incorporate to”.

But where are the editors? There ought to be editors. Well, maybe next year.

h/t: Luana

Words and phrases I detest

September 18, 2020 • 10:30 am

It’s time for your host—now even more peevish than usual because of the pandemic—to vent about his most-despised words and phrases. And you can add yours in the comments, or perhaps you’d like to inform me that language changes and these neologisms are fine. In that case, take a number and get in line.

As usual, my examples come from HuffPost, which is the fastest way to find examples of odious jargon. Click on the screenshots to read the articles.

Back in the day“.  Yes, everybody says this, but it annoys me because of its lack of precision. Exactly what day are you talking about? Back in WHICH day? If you mean “during the 1950s”, or “in my youth,” then why not say that? You will never find that phrase coming out of my mouth.

Bigly” marks the user as a clever person—supposedly. Actually, it marks that person as a sheep who follows ridiculous speech trends. “Bigly”, of course, means “copiously” or, as in the case below, simply “well”. If we’re going to use “bigly”, how about “smally” to mean “not much” or “not very well”?

I do have a “Yo Semite” tee-shirt thanks to a kind reader, and I enjoy it a lot, but I don’t enjoy it “bigly”.

“Sorry not sorry”.  Now this one really burns my onions.  What it means is that you’re not sorry at all. I suppose that someone who was clever (and that doesn’t include those who use this phrase) could construe it as “I’m sorry, but I’m not apologizing for what I said/did.” But it’s used, like the phrase just above, to mark yourself as a clever speaker, which it doesn’t do at all.

“Slay”.  This means “amazes” or “wows”, but it’s both overly cute and macabre at the same time. A classic use would be “Beyoncé slays with new album,” but here’s an article from Huffpost that I found in about five seconds. In so doing, I discovered something new to me: “slay” can be used as a noun as well as a verb. And that’s even worse!:

Favorite words

August 7, 2020 • 1:08 pm

Many times I’ve posted about “words and phrases I hate,” but now let’s walk on the sunnier side and list the words we like (phrases would be too onerous). I was inspired by the tweet below that Matthew sent me from Jonathan Eisen, evolutionary biologist and brother of Wormageddon instigator Michael Eisen:

These words seem to be chosen because of their sounds, which, I suppose, is the best criterion for having a favorite word. Mine, however are a mixture of sound and meaning. And I don’t have a list, so I’ll just put a few down off the top of my head:

ratiocination (learned from Hitchens)
uxorious (learned on my own, but Hitchens used it often)

That’s a good selection. Your turn (put one or more of your favorites below).

Words and phrases I detest

April 29, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Yes, it’s that time again—time to take out all your pent-up, pandemic-induced frustration on those who use odious and reprehensible language. As always, nearly all of my examples come from HuffPost. I have to say that I don’t find them by reading HuffPost; I simply hear something I don’t like and google it along with HuffPost. Sure enough, it’s nearly always there!  Here are five—count them, five—examples of the latest words and phrases that curl the soles of my shoes.

1.) “Mic” for microphone.  Yes, I know that “mike” isn’t part of the word, but “mic” looks like it’s pronounced “Mick”, while “mike” for “microphone”—which, as I recall, used to be the contraction—sounds like it’s supposed to sound. Below is one example of the odious “mic”, even using the with-it phrase “mic drop” (more about that on another day). Click on screenshots to see the articles:

If you use “mic”, I will castigate you (or if you’re a male, replace the “ig” with “r”).

2.) “Hilariously relatable”. This combines two ridiculous words into one phrase. First of all, there’s the “relatable” bit, meaning “you can relate to this”. I’ve talked about that one before, so let’s move on.

“Hilariously” is part of an increasing trend, especially on clickbait sites like HuffPost, to tell the reader how he or she should feel. Increasingly, words like “hilarious” or “burns” (as in, Chrissie Teigen burns Trump with a tweet”) tell you how you’re supposed to react.

In fact, what happened in the piece below isn’t hilarious at all, and doesn’t even deserve a snicker, much less a chortle. The pitcher was practicing by throwing against a screen in his backyard and accidentally broke a window in his house. Isn’t that hilarious? Nope. Is it “relatable”? Not unless you’re a major league pitcher!


3.) “Inspo” for “inspiration”. What moron thought up this contraction? If there is to be a short neologism, why not “inspi”, pronounced “in-spee”?  This word is used only to show that the user (and reader) are in the same tribe, the tribe that uses ridiculous contractions. Example:

Gag me with a spoon!

4.) “Social” for “social media”. I hear this on the local news almost every night. The announcer says something like “Follow us on social,” which of course makes me want to do the opposite.  “Social” IS NOT A NOUN, it is an ADJECTIVE. People use this either to be lazy, au courant, or both. Here’s one example:

It’s not easy to find this in print, but here’s one example:

5.) “Preventative” instead of “preventive”.  These two words mean the same thing, and I suppose “preventative” may even be in the Oxford English Dictionary (I can’t be arsed to look). But why put in that extra syllable? I tell you why: it makes you sound smarter to use a longer word. But language mavens won’t think you smarter; they’ll think you pretentious.

Now get off my lawn! But first give your own language triggers in the comments.



More odious words and phrases

March 8, 2020 • 3:00 pm

It’s sunny outside, the ducks are being frisky, and I have no business trying to brain today. Here: enjoy three words and phrases I have grown to hate. It’s amazing that I rarely repeat these; I suppose that makes me a curmudgeon.  Click on the screenshots to see the source of these irritating usages.

The first one comes from HuffPost, which, according to the New York Times, has just lost its woke editor and is suffering, to my immense Schadenfreude, from layoffs and a loss of business.

1.) “Deets” for “details”. Get this straight: “Deets” is the name of Stephen Barnard’s dog, not an annoying contraction of “details”, like this one:


The only thing worse than “spilling the deets” is “spilling the tea”, another grating neologism (see here)

2.) “At first blush”. People who use this phrase, which can be easily and more clearly replaced by “at first glance” or “at first sight”, almost certainly don’t know where it came from. In fact, it has nothing to do with blushing. As Writing Explained explains:

Nowadays, blush is a verb used for the face turning red. However, in the past, blush had a secondary meaning, “to look or glance.” This definition is now obsolete, with the exception of this expression.

The word blush originated around the year 1300 in Middle English and came from the Old English word blyscan.

The origin of the full idiom at first blush in unknown. However, the earliest written record available to view online is in William Spurstowe’s The Wells of Salvation Opened, from the year 1655.

Got it? You’re using a medieval term that suggests something different from what you’re saying (the flushing of a face), and you don’t even know what it means.  Here’s the New York Times, of all places, using it just last year:

The phrase, like another loser—”sea change”—should be relegated to the circular file. (“Sea change” is simply a “big change”.)

3. “Apps” for “appetizers”. I saw this on t.v. last night: some restaurant chain was offering a 2-for-1 deal with two “apps”, two entrees (in the American sense) and desserts. I’d never heard “apps” used in this way before, but it took about a minute to find it, here on  This is part of the “contraction mania” that has turned “family” into “fam” and, as above, “details” into “deets”.  It’s even more odious because “apps” has a completely different usage, as in “applications” for a computer. Somehow I don’t mind that nearly as much, because it seems more of a convenience than a way to act cool. (Don’t get me started on the hyperbolic use of “amazing”, which seems so ingrained that it’s here to stay.)

If you’re going to do this, why not use “fert” for “fertilizer” and “san” for “sanitizer”?

As always, you’re heartily invited to add your own linguistic bête noire in the comments.

Words and phrases I hate

February 6, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Yes, it’s time for another chance to blow off steam about words and phrases that irritate you. I have three today: all, of course, are from HuffPo—the source of everything risible and reprehensible. You’re invited to contribute your favorites in the comments.

1.) “Sick” meaning “cool” or “great.” This is another neologism which means the opposite of how it sounds. And it’s one of those words whose use brands you as being au courant, though of course anyone using “sick” in this way wouldn’t know what “au courant” means. Here’s an example from HuffPo, which further degrades itself by putting quotes around “sick”, quotes whose purpose is unclear. Is it to indicate that they know the word doesn’t really mean “sick” in a bad way, or to show that it’s slang? Who knows? Who cares?

The most famous use of “sick”, of course, comes from this viral video of “supermodel” Bella Hadid going shopping for Nike sneakers. If you have any ear for the spoken word, her use of language will curl the soles of your shoes. Note her continuous use of  “sick” and “dope” (means the same thing as “sick”), as well as her annoying sentence preface, “You know what?” Note also her implication at 1:38 that if you wear the right sneakers she’ll have sex with you (“get it”), but if you wear the wrong ones, well, it’s “quiet for you.”

You need to listen to this as part of your cultural education, but take my word for it—it’s painful.

2.) “I’m all about” or “We’re all about”. This really irritates me because it’s not even close to being accurate. Except, perhaps, for an Olympic swimmer in a competition who’s “all about swimming”, nobody is ever “all about” anything. But HuffPo’s editors (all privileged white women, of course), were all about being hydrated and wearing “comfortable-as-hell” tights.

Oh, which brings up another irritant: the word “hella“, a wrongly used contraction of “hell of” and actually meaning “really” or “strongly” (see above). Belowis example from HuffPo, which is calling out a swimsuit worn by a model of the wrong race:


3.) “You do you”, meaning,  “just act as you normally would.”  Everything I could say about this puerile Deepity was said in my earlier post about “It is what it is.” Both are examples, as the NYT article below says, of tautophrases (see below). And don’t get me started on Chrissy Teigen, who has become internet famous without any discernible talent beyond Tweeting. “You do you, Chrissy”.

From the NYT piece below:

William Safire, writing in these pages in 2006, coined a word for these self-­justifying constructions: “tautophrases.” This was in the midst of his investigation into the ubiquity of “It is what it is,” as evidenced in its use by cultural specimens as disparate as Britney Spears and Scott McClellan, a press secretary for President George W. Bush. (Pause to reminisce.) Whether the subject is an imperfect situation to be endured (“The new coffee in the break room is the pits”) or an existential conundrum (“My body is a bunch of atoms working in brief harmony before death returns them to the universe”), “It is what it is” effectively ends the discussion so that we can stop, nod in solemn agreement and move on.