Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Don’t Mention It

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, when I read that a member of the cast of Grey’s Anatomy named Isaiah Washington told a reporter at the Golden Globe awards,

No, I did not call [co-star] T. R. [Knight] a faggot. Never happened.

I had two reactions. One: Someone must have said he called T. R. Knight a faggot. Two: That was kind of an awkward denial. Oh, well.

Over the next week, I became aware that not only his alleged name-calling, but also the denial was getting him into trouble. I was puzzled at first. People were talking about his gaffe at the Golden Globes and I didn’t know what they meant. It was only when I read in one story, “Mr. Washington moved to the microphone and denied that he had ever used the slur to describe Mr. Knight, at the same time repeating the word” that I realized they really were talking about the denial, not the actual insult. Arnold Zwicky has written a cogent linguistic perspective on the whole incident, starting off with the point that was the source of my confusion: Washington did not use the word faggot, he mentioned it. I particularly like this sentence from his conclusion:

Believing that some words are so intrinsically offensive that they should never be uttered, even to describe their offensiveness or to report on offensive uses, is believing in verbal magic.

But now that I’ve thought about the matter some more, I think I can understand at least a little bit the discomfort/offense/outrage at Washington’s mention of the word in his denial. First of all, I’m not so sure anymore that call [someone] a faggot is a mention of faggot rather than a use. Faggot has two syllables is a mention; I never said he was a faggot is a use; I never called him a faggot I’d say is a use, too. It’s not saying anything about the word faggot; it’s a sentence about whether the individual denoted by him is in the set denoted by faggot. But let me call it a mention, for the sake of argument. It reminded me of something that happened with Doug and Adam not too long ago… yes, I’m remembering it now… screen.. getting.. wavy.. harp music.. playing…

“What’s so funny?” my wife was asking Doug and Adam. They were laughing hysterically in the next room.

Adam told her. Apparently, Doug had been telling Adam something funny that had happened that day, something that involved somebody farting. As Adam relayed the story to his mom, he used Doug’s words, including the word fart.

My wife hates the word fart. For her, it’s not a funny word that you just have to laugh when you hear (like booger), but a disgusting word that’s just as bad as that other f-word (aside from finesse). Adam, of course, knows this, so he thoughtfully apologized before his mom could say anything:

I’m sorry I said “fart,” Mom. I only said “fart” because Doug said “fart” and I was telling you that he said “fart.”

I don’t remember whether Adam used or mentioned fart the first time, but the last four times were definitely mentions, not uses, and yet it was those mentions, not the original use, that irritated my wife the most. Clearly, Adam was hiding behind the use/mention distinction in order to launch a few penalty-free farts. It would have been easy enough to say that word instead of fart if his apology had been pure, but he chose to repeat fart four times, which transformed his mention into, I guess you’d call it a meta-use.

Now Isaiah Washington said faggot only once during his denial, so why the uproar? I think it probably would have been OK if he’d said something like, “Faggot is a demeaning and inappropriate label to put on anyone, and I never used it to refer to T. R. or anyone else.” I think his castmates’ unease, and other people’s outrage, arose from reasoning along the following lines:

  1. You have already been accused of using the word faggot with malicious intent.
  2. Therefore, one would expect you to exercise greater-than-normal caution in using or mentioning this word when discussing the incident, to avoid giving the impression that you habitually use this word.
  3. You chose not to do so.
  4. Therefore, it seems you think the accusation is not to be taken seriously.
  5. Therefore, it seems you are the kind of person who thinks it’s OK to call people faggot.

That, plus the re-assertion by fellow castmembers that he really did call T. R. Knight a faggot, was enough to require the now-standard celebrity public-contrition routine.

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