Viewpoint Dr. Larry Burriss: Language

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Language
09/14/2020

When I was taking a German language class several years ago, the instructor said, during the first few minutes, there are some German words which sound like some inappropriate English words, but we should understand we were learning German, not English.
Now, a University of Southern California communication professor is in trouble because he used a Chinese word meaning “that,” which sounds similar to a racially insensitive English word.

The professor has been suspended because some students didn’t like him using this particularly innocuous Chinese word. But Chinese students are also protesting, saying the University is being racially insensitive by forbidding the Chinese language from being used on campus.
Such is the continuing legacy of political correctness run amuck.
And it gets even more confusing when a word means something polite in one language, but something rude in another language, and something entirely different in still a third.
Unfortunately, I probably can’t use any of them on the air.
But let’s try a few just for fun.
If someone from Australia ever visits you, and you are going swimming, don’t be surprised if they ask if they need thongs. But don’t get offended:  In Australia a thong is what we call flip-flops.
There is a word in several languages that sounds like variations of what we euphemistically call the “F bomb” but are actually the names of small towns. I have often wanted to try to do a story about one of these villages just to see what my editor would do.
It’s fairly common knowledge our word “awful” used to mean something worthy of respect, that is, “full of awe.” But try calling a friend “awful” today and see what happens.
If you’re really interested in this kind of thing, there are dozens of web pages devoted to listing words that sound very offensive in English, but mean something totally acceptable in their native languages.
Several years ago, or maybe it’s several years in the future, my favorite philosopher, Lieutenant Uhura of the Starship Enterprise, said they had learned not to fear words.
Too bad we can’t say the same thing today.

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

I’m Larry Burriss.