Some food for thought on offensiveness

Mark Liberman has an interesting post on the Language Log on judging offensiveness across languages and cultures. The context is a very recent incident where a French police union has asked for a court order to force the Petit Robert monolingual French dictionary to remove a slang reference from its 2008 edition that defines their profession as "connard de flic" (bloody pig). In solidarity, a second union is calling for a boycott of the dictionary and Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has disapproved of the editors’ decision saying she deplored the use of that parlance, popular among immigrant youth.


In fact, the dictionary is not really using “connard de flic” to define the concept of policeman. It uses that expression in a quote from a popular novel, under the definition of another slang term (rebeu, slang for Arab). As Liberman points out, the example clearly refers to a particular policeman in this novel, not to the police in general… it's therefore hard to see why the police union got upset.


Interesting discussion at a time when we are regularly confronted with decisions to include, exclude, restrict, alter the linguistic content we are producing in our group and dictionaries definitely play a more important social role these days than, say, 30 years ago. I wish I had a better operational criterion for “judging offensiveness across languages and cultures…”, but I could spend my whole life on it, I don’t think I would come up with an entirely satisfactory answer. The need to avoid bad PR and the need to avoid being perceived as language censors will always be a precarious balance.


Just some food for thought …


-- Thierry Fontenelle (Program Manager)