Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Words I Despise - Part I

This will be an ongoing (if intermittent) series. There are quite a few words out there who's common usage drives me batty.
First up, we have ethnic. According the Dictionary.com, ethnic means "a. Of or relating to a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage. b. Being a member of a particular ethnic group, especially belonging to a national group by heritage or culture but residing outside its national boundaries: ethnic Hungarians living in northern Serbia. c. Of, relating to, or distinctive of members of such a group: ethnic restaurants; ethnic art. "
It appears to be definitions b and c that cause the problems. I hear media refer to people as ethnic Chinese or ethnic Albanian and I understand that for some reason they have chosen this description because it is handier than saying people of Albanian or Chinese descent (and perhaps a little more accurate). But it always leaves me wondering - as opposed to whom? The non-ethnic Chinese? And since - in these scenarios we are referring to people of a culture, race or country that is different from their current residence - do we need the ethnic?
And the one that really gets me is referred to in definition C. You hear people talk about ethnic food, there are signs for ethnic hair products. Here's the thing. All food is ethnic. It may not correspond with your ethnicity or it may correspond with the primary ethnicity of the area in which you live - but that is still an ethnicity! It wouldn't bother me as much if people were talking about ethnic Chinese food (for example) - although I would still wonder if there was non-ethnic Chinese food. But people seem to think ethnic is shorthand for minority. Which is how we end up with ethnic hair products.
So stop the abuse of the word ethnic. It has a wonderful purpose. But if it gets used incorrectly too often, it will go the way of ironic and metaphorical - words that people don't really understand well anymore.

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