Words Mean Something

I think I may have mentioned before that I am a word lover.  Actually, I’m more of a word freak.  My kids would tell you that I get giddy over recognizing Latin or Greek roots in words.  I love the Word of the Day feature on my homepage.  And I nag the kids in their writing  and speech about choosing their words carefully.  I know that writers can agonize over each word to give their sentences exactly the right tone.

That’s why, why I was outraged to learn that Mark Twain’s most famous works will be revised in a major act of political correctness.  Apparently, a certain Twain scholar has taken it upon himself to replace the “N-word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with he word “slave” in a new combined edition of the books.  Also out are the words “Injun Joe” and “half-breed.”    The thinking here is that the new wording will be less offensive to readers so that middle school and high school teachers can begin assigning these classics once again.

Where to begin on what irks me about this English professor and a publisher taking such liberties?  Most obvious is the fact that by changing the dialect and vocabulary of the characters, he is changing the characters themselves.  This is not a matter of translating, say, Chaucer because no one understands Old or Middle English.  This is putting new words in a character’s mouth, words that Twain could have chosen but didn’t.  Mark Twain knew the meaning of the words he chose and used them for a reason.

What I find to be so laughable is this professor’s desire to protect kids from a word that they very likely use themselves or certainly hear repeatedly in the hip-hop music they love.  The “N-word” is routinely tossed about in song lyrics and teenage conversation, especially by the demographic group that would cry offense if someone of another race were to use the word.  That is a garbled, “sensitive” way of saying that it seems it’s OK for black kids to refer to each other as “niggers,” but it is a mortal sin for white kids to use that word.  There, I said it.  I half expect to find the PC police stalking my comment box now and posting hateful messages.  So the word is just fine in song lyrics, but it’s offensive in classic American literature??

Here’s what I find offensive in the so-called “literature” on high school required reading lists: sexually explicit scenes and 4-letter words.  I know a lot of that language is part of kids’ everyday vocabulary; I hear it all the time in the mall or at the library.  But to me, it’s offensive.   I also find detailed descriptions of rape, oral sex, and even consensual sex to be highly inappropriate for high school kids.  Books containing these, however, are forced on kids as “literature” by librarians and English teachers.  Take, for example, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  It’s very explicit in its description of sexual abuse.  Found on some required 9th Grade reading lists is the more recent The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  It’s loaded with shock-value scenes in place of plot, but it’s cheerfully assigned with a little disclaimer  about mature content for parents of Ohio freshmen.  Teachers really think kids are comfortable discussing such scenes in front of the whole English class?  But teachers will argue that’s what makes the books “real” and “relevent.”  Hmmm.

So are we supposed to be sensitive about are word choices or not?  I’m confused.  Mark Twain…bad; hip-hop artist…good?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Words Mean Something

  1. Love this post. I am glad that I was able to find the original versions of these books and keep them on my shelf. The’ve sat there for a long while, and many times I thought about chucking them or donating..then my oldest was bored..he said he’d give ol’ Tom a try and loved it. Now he’s got the younger kids intrigued and those books are finding loving hands upon them once again. Not to mention they love to play Jeopardy on the Wii and there are lots of questions on Tom and Huck.

    To “edit” these books is self-righteous and arrogant. We have enough of that going around.

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