Tag Archives: racism

populism, populist

Language change is, generally, organic. It usually doesn’t happen by fiat (especially in English); it also doesn’t happen by vote. There may be some influence from “above” by people such as English teachers, but that mostly affects what rules people think they’re breaking when they’re speaking the way they want to speak anyway. You could say that language change – grammar, the meanings and pronunciations of words, and so on – happens by mass popular movement.

Which is not to say that it’s populist. Populism is a political stance that advocates the people – the general populace, hoi polloi – in opposition to a ruling élite. Language change is not the product of a program leading a movement of the populace in opposition to English teachers, editors, and others. There could be such a movement, of course, but de facto language change happens by popular will anyway. We’re all part of it, not just the people at the top. (The situation can at times be different for languages with official deciding bodies, such as in France.)

So, you could reply, if we all decided that the meaning of populism should shift to ‘following the will of the people as with a general tide, without a specific political program’, then that would be the meaning. Well, yes, if that sense shift happened and ultimately overcame opposition. The change would probably take quite a while and not be without some controversy. But it could happen.

But there are shifts that we have every right and reason to resist, no matter how many people use the new sense. We are all streamkeepers of this flowing language. When a word is being used as a euphemism to let something slide that should not, or when its use carries implications that have negative consequences, we should not let these pass unnoticed. If we speak up and point out the problems, we may help these shifts to become unpopular.

So, for instance, for a long time there was a default assumption that people in certain roles were masculine, and so he and him were used. Around the time that such assumptions started to be a bit less tenable, a common line from prescriptivists was that he and him were the natural universal gender-neutral pronouns. (Poor men, having to sacrifice the uniqueness of their pronoun! Ah, such sacrifices must be made.) At long last enough people pointed out that this did, in fact, convey the default assumption of masculinity – words carry resonances and implications whether you say they should or not – and so use of masculine pronouns as a universal has lost general acceptance. (Read more about this in my article on they.)

Which, I suppose, you could say was a populist movement – the neglected masses against the prescriptive authorities – though it was in particular a movement by and on behalf of the more neglected moiety of the populace, to influence the more dominant segment and thereby produce a fairer outcome for all.

But now let’s say that people start using populism to refer to a movement focusing on the desires not of the whole population but on a minority of it who consider the remainder to be of lesser status. Say, for instance, that there is a group we’ll call X in the population, and they feel that the government has been giving too many rights to that larger part of the population that is not X. This group has traditionally been the group that, for all its internal differences, has been ceteris paribus the more-advantaged group, and they’re seeing non-Xes get similar rights. This doesn’t involve the loss of any rights from X – unless you consider it a right to have things that other people you consider inferior can’t have. If some political leader or party rallies members of X against the government just so they can protect their perceived right to have more rights, would you call that populism? Would you accept seeing it called populism? When the movement is for the rights of not all the populace but just a subset of it, and strongly against the rights of others?

This is not a hypothetical question. I’m seeing populist used quite a lot by news media and the commentariat for racist, nativist, frankly sexist and reactionary movements. In countries across Europe and at least one in North America, leaders who advocate or enfranchise not just xenophobia but racism and sexism are being called populists, and the reactionary groups that support them are being described as having populist sentiment.

Which implies that women and non-white people are not part of the populace, or anyway are not relevant parts of it. In spite of being, in sum, the majority. And, for that matter, it also implies that white men are, en masse, in favour of such movements. Which is also not true.

I think we owe ourselves and everyone else a duty to make this use of populist and populism unpopular.

Help stop a word-lynching

Edit: When I wrote this back in 2008, I was less sensitized to the insistent racism and injustice experienced by black people in America, and so I did not take into account why the erroneous account might spread so readily, or the surrounding sentiments; I also used the word lynching too readily in a figurative sense, which can belittle the genuine life-and-death nature of its historical reality.

Nobody likes being called racist, of course, but the fact that it upset me so much is likely because to some extent I really did, in the back of my mind, belittle the concerns of blacks in America and Canada. When your life has been free of certain kinds of harassment, it’s far too easy to think those who complain of it are whiners. I’ve since learned better.

But I’m not going to revise this and pretend I didn’t write it as I wrote it. These are my words the way I wrote them, and I won’t duck and pretend I wasn’t so knee-jerk insensitive.

I still do not accept the inaccurate etymology offered for picnic; the historical data are well established. And I do think that phonetic profiling can have scurrilous effect. But the sounds of words also have effect regardless of etymology. For example, niggardly has nothing to do with the “n-word” etymologically, but it sounds so much like it, it’s more or less impossible to use it without bringing that worse word to mind. I am less convinced of this in regard to picnic, but I would like to know how others hear it (before they are told any accounts of its origins).

I do not, in any event, consider it fair to tell people they are being racist for using a word that has no actual history of racism and that, to them, has no racist overtones or implications. Especially when no one seems to be calling anyone out for using bulldoze, which has a truly awful history – but doesn’t sound like a taboo word.

But now that these stories have been spread, we have to be aware of them, and address them – and the sentiments and experiences behind them.


Spread the word and help stop another lynching of a perfectly guiltless word – and the family tradition it refers to. Tell your friends and colleagues that picnic is not a racist word.

You might think that this is a joke or a parody. Unfortunately, it’s not. People with influence over what students learn are maintaining that “picnic” is an offensive word, and that the origin of the “picnic” is in a happy outing to eat out on a lawn while watching a lynching (the term supposedly being from “pick a nic” – “nic,” in this account, is another version of the “n-word” – to string up). Continue reading