A reader concerned for my professional well-being points out that the use of “welsch” (meaning, roughly, renege) in a previous post incorporates an old ethnic slur — which I knew — and goes to note that the same thing is true of the verb “gyp,” which I should have been able to figure out but hadn’t. He suggests that I avoid the term. (The email’s title line was “ixnay on the elchway.”)
I’m prepared to go some distance to avoid the use of ethnically offensive terms, even when that means sounding pedantic by not using the most commonly accessible term: I always say “Roma” for “gypsy,” for example, or “Aleut and Inuit” for “Eskimo,” or “poor Appalachian white” for “hillbilly,” even at some expense in comprehensibility.
Unlike some of those who affect contempt for what they call “politically correct language,” I’m perfectly willing to adapt to the desires of the groups involved, or even to re-adapt. (I can remember when “black” was considered offensive and “African-American” archaic, but it doesn’t seem to me that the cost to me of unlearning the term “Negro” was an unreasonable one. I’m told that “Aleut” is being abandoned in favor of specific tribal designations; if I ever have occasion to write or speak about those peoples, I will cheerfully call them whatever they’ve decided to call themselves at that moment.)
But the situation is different when a word has become de-capitalized and has changed parts of speech to become a verb. The average American, hearing “gyp” or “welsch,” never thinks of Romany or Wales. “Jew” is also a verb, as in “to Jew someone down” (to successfully haggle inappropriately hard from the buyer’s side), but it hasn’t lost its capital letter or its fairly direct reference to a still-active (and not entirely inaccurate) stereotype. “Dutch courage” (bravery out of a bottle) has kept its capital letter, but not its point, since no one today associates the Dutch with drunken violence.
There’s a cost to being sensitive in such cases. Its wealth of near-synonyms expressing slightly different nuances is among the glories of English. Look at that mouthful I had to use to translate “Jew him down.” “Haggle him down” isn’t English; “haggle” doesn’t take “down.” “Bargain him down” is English, but lacks the sense of over-aggressiveness. Similarly, “renege” is much more formal than “welsch,” and isn’t appropriate to the situation of failing to pay a bet. To be “gypped” is not just to be cheated, but to be cheated in a petty and sneaky fashion.
The tendency to “project,” as the Freudians say, disapproved-of human tendencies onto out-groups must be nearly as old as human interaction, and the reflection of that projection in language not much younger. So it’s not surprising that out-group names get used to express deprecated behaviors.
(The reverse happens as well. I’m told that many of the names first used by colonial officials, anthropologists, and other outsiders as neutral designations of ethnic groups turned out to be terms of opprobrium, due to reliance on informants form other groups. “Who lives on the other side of that river?” “Those scumsuckers? We mostly call them bottom-feeders.” That exchange then shows up in an official report or old journal article as “Across the Uggabugga River live the Scumsuckers, or Bottomfeeders.” That’s apparently how we got “Eskimo,” which I’m told translates approximately as “cannibal.”)
On reflection, I think I will continue to use “welsch,” but not “gyp,” simply because the Roma (“Gypsies”) are, and the Welch are not, the targets of active ethic prejudice in places where this weblog is read. Even in Britain, any residual feeling against the Welch is a pale imitation of anti-Roma prejudice, which remains a major factor in the lives of its victims. Remembering not to say “gyp” is a fairly cheap way of expressing sympathy for a severely ill-treated group of people.
Since my use of “welsch” doesn’t reflect any prejudice I have or reinforce any stereotypes actually likely to be present in the minds of my readers, and since the Welch in America don’t even constitute a recognizable ethnicity — “Jones” and “Williams” are virtually interchangeable with “Smith” and “Robinson” — I don’t feel guilty about its use. (Again, I’d probably make a different choice if I were writing for a British audience.)
And if this gets me in Dutch with the Welsh, that’s life.
Note: Any actual Welch person who reads this and is actually offended by it, as opposed to thinking that someone else might be offended by it, can probably change my mind with an email.
Footnote The American Heritage Dictionary spells it “welsh,” and adds “[Origin obscure.]” Huh?
Update I’d forgotten an important special case, but fortunately when you’ve forgotten something completely disgusting the editors of the Wall Street Journal are always standing by to help.
John Fund’s column on Monday about political contributions from California tribal casino interests was headlined … I’m not making this up …”Indian Givers“. Here the term is an obvious slur directed at a still-disadvantaged group, but it’s not being used in its idiomatic sense: that is, the tribes aren’t being accused of taking back a gift, but rather of paying bribes … er, exercising their First Amendment right to make political contributions.
So the headline (which, to be fair, Fund probably didn’t write) is simply a piece of racial abuse, thinly disguised as a pun. The point is that money taken from Indians is especially dirty money: an echo of a distinction made by Arnold Schwarzenegger. (There’s a reasonable argument that casino money is especially dirty, but then the headline would have been something liked “Stacked Deck,” which might have left the Journal’s readers shy of their Recommended Daily Allowance of racial abuse.)
It’s as if an “environmental justice” publication edited by African-Americans published an essay about the way garbage flows from prosperous non-minority neighborhods to landfills in poor minority neighborhoods, and decided to head it “White Trash.”
Lots of useful feedback on this one:
1. Apparently there is real doubt that “welsh” or “welsch” meaning “renege” is etymologically related to “Welsh” the people or language. [*] The OED (which gives “welch” but not the more Yiddish-sounding “welsch” as an alternative spelling) has no reference earlier than 1857, so if it’s an ethnic insult it can’t be a very old one. A reader notes that the earliest spelling is “Welch,” suggesting that it might be derived from a person’s name: perhaps the original Mr. Welch was a bookie who failed to pay off.
2. The proper name “Welsh” is apparently one of those “people across the river” terms: it’s related to Germanic words meaning roughly “foreigner.”
3. A reader notes that, given the frequency with which Europeans in America made promises to Indians and then welsched on them, “Indian giver” is about as pure a case of projection as one could ask.