Saturday, May 26, 2007

An etymological misconception dispelled

All the publicity about the Don Imus flap brought this subject to mind, but I didn't want to broach it while the story was fresh, because it's somewhat tangential to his troubles.

It's about this word "ho".

A look at the Imus story linked above, or the word's Urban Dictionary page tells us that just about everybody thinks it comes from the word "whore", but that's just not true.

Now, I'm not disputing the meaning of the word in contemporary usage. Words "mean" what people agree that they mean, and if you think "whore" when you say "ho", then that's its meaning, especially if everyone around you behaves as though they think the same thing (see the later Wittgenstein for a verbalicious discussion of this, but stay away from the Tractatus. It's a black hole).

I'm a geezer, and I remember the pre-Rap days fairly clearly. Well, somewhat clearly. Some days. Anyway... The word "ho" has been a part of African-American parlance for a long time. I don't know just how long, but in the mid-seventies, it was unambiguously a vernacular pronunciation of the word "hole". That changes things quite a bit.

As it was used then, it didn't carry any judgmental implications about a woman's dress, or behavior, or sexual proclivities. It could be used to refer to a woman of easy virtue, but it was, if anything, more likely to be used to refer to a strong woman who didn't put up with a man's bullshit. A pissed-off girlfriend, a tough professor, a chick who wouldn't put out. Really, it just meant any woman. It wasn't a particularly personal insult - it was universally misogynistic. It simply connoted that women are nothing more than pesky life support systems for their pussies.

It's interesting to think about what this shift in meaning tells us about our society.

Wittgenstein* posits that words are given meaning by the "forms of life" in which they exist. I think he means by that something like the culture and common assumptions of the people who use them. I'm out of touch with Black youth culture these days, but I have a nagging suspicion that "ho" still carries pretty much the old meaning in that community, even if its etymology has been lost. I really think that the "whore" definition, and its connotation of a slutty, nasty, trashy woman is a misunderstanding between Black and White "forms of life".

It's not that I think White men have any more respect for Womanhood than African American men, or that they are culturally less likely to understand the word's original meaning. Not at all. Instead, I think it's because they did not learn the word in the way that language is traditionally learned - through conversation with other people. They learned it through "Urban Music" videos. These are fantasy vignettes that, at best, present an incomplete rendition of the world they describe. In a lot of cases, they are no more representative of reality than what goes on in an adolescent boy's head during masturbation, yet they have created a substitute reality that is in some ways more influential than the "real" reality (at least for White folk).

I'm fairly certain that Rap (or Hippity-Hopping, or whatever the correct term is) lyrics are understood in different ways by poor urban African Americans, and white kids, and older suburban Whites, and middle class Blacks, and so on. This word "ho" is just an example of that. It is language that has been arbitrarily projected into an alien "form of life", and dressed in a false context (music videos) that strips or distorts its meaning.

That this is possible (common, even) tells you something about America, no?

* Please don't get the idea that I'm suggesting that you take time from your busy day to read Wittgenstein unless you have a very good reason, or a very unusual curiosity. For most purposes outside of the study of formal logic and philosophy, genuine common sense will serve at least as well. If you simply must read some philosophy, try the Tao Te Ching instead.

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