Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Randomly offensive numbers

I was going to respond to Casey's David's and Daniel's comments regarding intelligence on the last post. But I'm not sure I could go much further than the standard discussion of the Stanford-Binet and all criticisms and defenses of its reliability and accuracy then I could mention Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and I'd have said nothing new or very interesting.

So how about another quotient. If intelligence is so hard to pin down and measure how much more difficult would it be to measure the amount of offense intended or taken by different words? The folks at Random House believe it's possible to quantify both.

On a scale of "Disparagement" from 0-5 some words are ranked based on the "degree of intent to offend." A possibly offensive word like welsh or gyp gets a zero because it is rarely intended as a disparaging term. A word of mild disparagement like nerd gets a one. The levels as they set them forth:

  • 0 - Not intended to offend, even though it may (Oriental, welsh [welsh on a deal], lady)
  • 1 - Intended to show mild disapproval (egghead, nerd, grind)
  • 2 - Rarely intended to offend, but indicates a lack of sensitivity (the little woman, harelip, cripple)
  • 3 - Sometimes intended to offend, sometimes not, but there is a more neutral word that is better to use (haole, Canuck, goy)
  • 4 - Intended to offend or show contempt (spaz, honky, pansy)
  • 5 - Intended to offend and hurt (faggot, nigger, ofay)

And they suggest a parallel "Offensiveness" scale for the "degree of offense taken."
  • 0 - Rarely taken as offensive (guys [when used to refer to women], Moslem [instead of Muslim], cover girl)
  • 1 - Taken as showing mild disapproval or lack of respect (housewife, Miss [instead of Ms.], old maid)
  • 2 - Usually taken as insensitive, rather than as completely offensive (Eskimo, deaf-and-dumb, dame)
  • 3 - Easily taken as offensive (Indian giver, baby [when used to address a woman], redskin)
  • 4 - Usually taken as offensive (dyke, Okie, wetback)
  • 5 - Taken as offensive and hurtful (cunt, Hebe, gook)

This is isn't as far as they go. The quotient is actually a combination of the two scales based on an interaction of the intended and taken offense. The average of the two scores gives us the OQ. The page provides commentary on each example but here I'll provide only the term and its OQ:
  • gyp: D=0 O=2 OQ=1
  • Nazi, as in "soup Nazi": D=1 O=3 OQ=2
  • girl, when used about a woman: D=1 O=3 OQ=2
  • Holy Roller: D=3 O=3 OQ=3
  • pickaninny: D=2 O=5 OQ=3.5
  • city slicker: D=3 O=2 OQ=2.5
  • boy toy: D=4 O=2 OQ=3
  • half-breed: D=3 O=4 OQ=3.5
  • queer: D=4 O=3 OQ=3.5
  • cracker D=4 O=4 OQ=4
  • nigger D=5 O=5 OQ=5

My initial reaction is disbelief. Then I go to a charitable view figuring some sense of 'degree' of offense is a worthwhile consideration. The discussion gives good attention to the issue of decorum, which I hold as a vitally important consideration when discussing offensive speech.

But this whole thing loses me with the introduction of numbers and averages. Every one of these numbers can be not just mitigated but flat out shattered when audience and relationships and discourse and and other persistently independent variables are introduced.

Of course there's no chance that Random House is going to start listing who is likely to be offended based on who is using a term. Tho a short paragraph at the bottom of one graph explains that some terms that are higher on a disparaging scale are so low on the offense scale that they don't even get a label.

Certain terms, such as liberal or right-winger, are practically spat at people of the opposite persuasion, but those against whom the epithets are directed are more likely to respond, "Yes I am, and I'm proud of it." Such terms are not labeled either Disparaging or Offensive in Random House Webster's College Dictionary, since the degree of offensiveness changes depending upon context.

Of course Random House is prudent to have some sort of system guiding the labels they use for the words they include. But is this system--and its implication that there are some words that don't vary based on context--is based on an ideal image of how aware people are of the language they use and how knowingly they work with everyone's connotations with every word. In reality there are such drastically mobile sensibilities involved--these numbers are too hopeful.

One more consideration. Why is zero not used for words that are not at all derogatory? Are there some words that are a 'minus' on the scale? Or are some words simply not allowed to be rated on this scale? And what about a word like niggardly that has nothing to do with offensive speech other than the phonetic similarity? Its use is often used with absolutely no intention to offend and it can elicit nigh on the strongest reaction of offense taken. Is it an OQ=2.5 usually offensive word? Yeah -- it probably is actually.

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