Warning: Strong and racially devisive language discussion ahead.
One night I was hanging out with some highschool buds (I can't remember if we were in college or not at that point), and the dicussion of jerry-rigging came up. Jerry-rigging just means to basically use what you have on hand to fix something up. We were discussing whether or not the term was derogatory. Since it's Mississippi and all, we of course said that nigger-rigging is of course derogatory, but what about jerry-rigging. Someone piped up that they thought it was based on jerry curls. But then someone said that it was a derogotory term toward German people since the term "Jerry" was WWII demeaning slang. They both were wrong.
Jerry-rigging is actually thought to be the congruance of jerry-built and jury-rig. Jury-rig is technically the correct phrase and refers to nautical terminology. The terms jerry-built and jury-rig come from the 19th century long before the Germans were referred to as Jerrys. In the 19th century, a Jerry was a sneaky fellow or a henpecked husband. So it does have a negative conotation but not anymore than calling someone a rake. Personally I go with the older and more educated-sounding phrase of jury-rig. That and because as my friends pointed out, jerry-rigging has developed a negative racially motived connotation even though it's origins are not.
Other words have gone the other way too. The phrase "Long, time no see" has it's origins as making fun of Chinese-immigrants who spoke broken English. Yet, people use it in common lexicon today and very few people realize just how racially motived the phrase is.
The basic point is that language is fluid. It changes over time. It also changes based on cultural understanding. The term fag in American English is a derogatory term against homosexuals whereas in British English it's slang for cigerette. In Britian, using the word shag is as strong as using the word fuck is to Americans. That's why when the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was released in Britian they had to remove the word shag. (sorry British readers you too are not immune to my discussion of vulgar words)
As Calah pointed out in a post, words are neutral. It's the intent behind what is being said that makes all the difference. Another example is gay. Gay used to mean happy. Now it's slang for homosexual. But in certain contexts it's acceptable and in others not. You can say I'm gay, but it's not acceptable to say that's so gay.
Paula Dean, popularized chef, has been crucified (so to speak) over admitting that 30 years ago as part of her lexicon she used the word nigger. As a result several of her sponsors including Walmart and the Food Network have pulled their contracts. I consider this to be ironic given that in certain circles saying nigger is fine. I mean that as part of comedic acts and rap music and even among young black persons. The word nigger itself is not bad. I think I've said it on her at lease four times. Yet you wouldn't automatically call me racist simply because I spelled it out. I've decided JK Rowling is right. If you can't have an honest discussion about the word and actually spell out or say the word then we give that word too much power. It's not the word folks; it's the intention. Paula Dean probably didn't know better and even if she did, it was a different environment and culture. She knows better now. She doesn't say it now because to do so would be motivitated by something less than charity.
In that same vein, Bill Maher, a comedian, told a joke using the word retard. I've tried to look at the exact context of Bill Maher's joke but all I can come up with is that it was associated with Trig Palen, who has Down's Syndrom. A person with Down's Syndrom is characterized as having mental retardation. Retardation (and it's derivatives retard and retarded) is a medical term meaning that the person has less than a 50 IQ. It's actually a beign medical term that the medical community came up with to replace the socially cruel term moron. Yet many have used it to throw barbs at people and lots of people want to ban it's use despite it being a medical term.
Here we have two examples of language that are similar to the examples I had previously stated and both have garnered outrage. Nigger even though it's origins are demeaning is becoming more socially acceptable in certain areas of society. And retard which had no intended negative connotation or origin is now being perceived as biased language.
What bothers me is that people have been so quick to jump all over people who use these terms without looking at context. As I've said repeatedly now. It is not the word themselves that engender hate; it's the intent behind them.
What does this mean? How do we teach our children to deal with the free flow of words?
Well the other day my 3 year old was screaming at me from the back seat to turn off the radio. I made a remark along the lines of "Well, you didn't have to scream at me...Geez." I said it jovially. My three year old takes this as his cue to say "Jesus Christ." My husband has a tendency to spout off several colorful words when he's playing games. It's a bad habit, which we have discussed often. I'm not any better. I have said a few choice words sometimes too just not Jesus Christ in that context. Jesus Christ is not bad. My son knows Jesus on the Cross and the Baby Jesus so he knows that Jesus Christ isn't bad. And I can't tell him "don't say that" because well that would be confusing. So I had a short discussion with my three year old about context. Basically I told him that the way Daddy says Jesus Christ isn't the way we should say the words Jesus Christ. And that was it. He gets it.
And these are the types of age appropriate discussions we should be having with all children. Even three year olds will hear colorful language and really bad jokes with phrases like "Jew you down" and nigger in them from other relatives. I know that I did. I wasn't scarred for life but I also knew that it was the intent behind the words. My mother made it very clear early on that to use the word nigger was to call someone an awful name and that wasn't anymore acceptable than calling them an idiot or some other name. (I'm guessing that's why Rachel Jeantel has no idea that the word cracker is racially motivated.) She made it a point that Christian charity was paramount. And that's what I plan on teaching my children. I don't care if they say mentally retarded as long as the context or intent is correct.