Semantic Disagreement | Letters | Chicago Reader

Semantic Disagreement 

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Although I appreciate the Reader's interest in reviewing my book The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, there were several points made in the article of March 13 [Calendar] that I feel misrepresent the book.

First, The Color of Words is not a "combination of lexicography and 'intuition.'" Lexicography, yes, with a generous mix of ethnic studies, but I'm not intuitively gifted enough to arrive at the meanings of over 850 ethnic terms without the aid of scholarship. As the reviewer himself pointed out, I spent five years researching the book. Hundreds of sources, including slang dictionaries and books on etymology, as well as many other media, were culled for information. When an entry such as that for "slob" (alteration of Slavic) or "burrhead" (slur on a black person) was not documented, it was because there was no disagreement among lexicographers as to its meaning, not because I conjured the meaning from thin air. My methods of documentation are clearly laid out in the front of the book.

Second, having expressed to the reviewer my interest in the language of gender and sexual orientation--the subject of my next book--and having illustrated sexism with the degrading expression "cherry blossom" (considered a flower metaphor and a sexual pun directed at Japanese women), I was surprised to find an out-of-context remark about my "sensitivities" to sexist language. My point was that sexism is often more subtly imbedded in our language than racism is. As such, it can be more difficult to detect.

The review also failed to mention that Intercultural Press, publisher of The Color of Words, is in discussion with Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center to reprint the book in paperback. Mr. Dees, whose reputation for fighting organized bigotry is well known, plans to include the paperback edition with his Teaching Tolerance educational kits, which the center distributes to schools. We hope that The Color of Words will help young people as well as adults to understand ethnic and racial prejudice.

Philip Herbst, PhD



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