Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

America isn’t speaking our language


I haven’t yet read the report published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. But, looking at the recommendations, I think there is one missing detail. We also need some loose agreement on terminology attuned to the conditions of British English as distinct from American English.

Let me explain. I would not dare to pronounce on what is acceptable terminology in Spanish, for the simple reason that I do not speak the language and certainly don’t understand the context. Without context, you can’t fully understand meaning. So I truly do not know whether ‘negrito’ is offensive or, as many claim, a term of affection. Perhaps it can be both. Certainly Spanish uses far more physical epithets than we do. Astoundingly, it seems people called the Mexican drug lord El Chapo ‘Chapo’ — dwarf — to his face. We rarely use such terminology in English (although one of my colleagues did accidentally end an email to 5ft 6in Sir Martin Sorrell with ‘I look forward to seeing you shorty’).

Americans can’t delineate people by class because they haven’t got any, or by geography because they don’t know any

But while I think Americans would hesitate before pronouncing on what is acceptable in another language, they extend no leeway to other native English speakers. In a few cases Brits have been censored for a harmless utterance (saying ‘ladies’ lingerie’ in a hotel lift, when asked ‘what floor?’) which to anyone from the UK is entirely uncontentious. So it is annoying when Americans unilaterally declare certain English words off-limits, only to replace them with designations such as BIPOC, which are useless outside the US. African-American doesn’t even translate to Canada. You occasionally see an American trying to describe someone of colour outside the US, and their brain hits a wall.

The problem with Americans is that they can’t delineate people by class because they haven’t got any, and they can’t describe people by geography because they don’t know any.

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