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June 1999

PC or not PC: A final column from Doris Faden, Thanks for Eight Years

A look at German political correctness and racial slurs

Children can be sticklers for etiquette. When a friend’s son was six years old, he began to criticize his parents’ language. Once I heard him tell his mother to watch her mouth when she used the word “hilarious.” The boy simply assumed that any word he did not know must be dirty. I was recently reminded of this incident when an American politico was forced to resign for using the word “niggardly.” Someone who apparently didn’t know the word felt it to be a racial slur and took offense. Is this what political correctness is about? German feminists used to demand that the word man for the impersonal construction be replaced by frau, since man was discriminatory. Of course this man has nothing to do with the word Mann for man, but has the same derivation as the French on. But some people will take offense wherever they find it. A popular German sweet consisting of a chocolate-coated, marshmallowy substance has been known as Negerkuss (negro’s kiss) since time immemorial. The name has now officially been changed to Schaumkuss or Schokokuss (foam or chocolate kiss) by the manufacturers. There was no pressure on them to do so. They found the expression had outstayed its welcome. The term Bimbo, used to describe dim females in English, is a derogatory term for Africans in German, one of many ethnic slurs. Unfortunately, you can still hear Itaker for Italian, Zigeuner for gypsy, or Kanake for any exotic-looking foreigner. The latter example is especially idiotic: The word comes from the Samoan language in which it simply means “human being.” The term Katzelmacher for South Europeans is thankfully disappearing: it referred to their alleged practice of cooking and eating cats. As long as Germany’s most famous late-show host persists in telling ludicrous Polish jokes, you will probably continue to hear poorly organized events being referred to as Polnische Wirtschaft (Polish housekeeping). And while the verb türken for faking or cheating is no longer printed in serious publications, it remains in colloquial currency. So, too, are the expressions Kümmeltürke or Kruzitürken. It will be cold comfort to Turkish fellow-citizens that neither has anything to do with Turks: Kümmeltürke (cumin Turk) was originally used for Balkan spice peddlers, while Kruzitürken is a euphemism for Kruzifix. Other phrases deserving a sudden demise are of more recent provenance. Elderly people will still comment on official or bureaucratic cock-ups jokingly with “Man sollte es dem Führer schreiben” (we should let the Führer know). Yes, this is a joke, as it was at the time of the Third Reich. Everyone knew it was useless to write to the Führer about one’s gripes. But the fun stops when, in heated arguments, Germans tell unwanted foreigners or dissenting countrymen: “Euch haben sie vergessen zu vergasen” (They must have forgotten to gas you). And people still say, unthinkingly we hope, bis zur Vergasung (until the gassing) when they mean: to the bitter end. When we were children, we used to call a string of a hundred tiny firecrackers Judenfürze (Jew’s farts). My only excuse is that at six-years-old I didn’t even know what Jude meant. Last New Year’s Eve, I learned to my horror that there are still adults who use this term. Let’s hope the children will wash their parents’ mouth out with soap.

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