Friday, November 24, 2006

There's a nip in the air

Radio One DJ Edith Bowman has landed herself in trouble for reading out an apparently racist email on air, according to The Independent . In a discussion about modern slang, Bowman is reported to have read out the email which stated "When the weather is a little cold, we say that it's a bit Pearl Harbor, meaning that there's a nasty Nip in the air".

Why the fuss? Well, "nip" has long been a pejorative term for Japanese people in much the same way as "Paki" has been for Asian people. And a little bit of History GCSE or a few Hollywood films will probably have informed you that Pearl Harbor was the scene of Japan's infamous air attack on the US Navy in the Second World War, hence "nip in the air".

But does using a word like "nip" automatically make you a racist?
Maybe not, particularly if you're not even clear it's racist in the first place, which is something that can't be said for the American actor, Michael Richards who has apologised for launching into a racist tirade on stage which included describing members of his unsympathetic audience as "niggers", as reported in The Guardian. And not so long ago, it was Mel Gibson doing a Hitler impersonation by drunkenly rambling about Jews being sinister...

So, why should we care? In this interesting series of essays on the BBC Voices website,
Dr Emma Moore of Sheffield University looks at the significance of the labels we give to each other and why they make a difference. As she puts it in her second essay, Who Has the Power?:
What does the existence of terms like 'coloured', 'queer' and 'people with disabilities' tell us about the distribution of power? Basically it suggests that the people with the power to get their version of the world 'out there' are busy defining themselves as normal and marking out everyone else as different. We all define our world in relation to what's familiar to us. If something falls outside what we consider to be 'like us' (i.e. normal) - more likely than not - we'll find a way to define it as marked. So, if being black or Asian or gay or disabled is labelled as marked, we can be pretty sure that these groups represent individuals who haven't traditionally had the power to get their version of the world 'out there'.
So, coupled with linguistic theories that link the language we use to the attitudes we express (ideas like linguistic reflectionism and determinism) labels like nip, nigger, queer, paki and white trash define these groups as outside the norm, somehow different, and may in fact influence our perception of the actual people. So no more nips in the air; let's stick to brass monkeys.

Useful for:

ENA1 - Language & Representation


Ken said...

The description from the essay only goes part of the way, and, as such, may give the wrong impression. It seems to imply that anyone using terms like that is referring to only others. What about when they refer to themselves, and even use pejorative terms? For instance, when an African American tells a joke about "Niggers", is he being racist, if he includes himself? And whites refer to themselves as 'honkies,' what does it say? Some of the most eye-opening Anti-Semetic comments I've heard have come from Jews. How does that tie in?

I'm not challenging the statement made - I'd just like to know how this aspect fits into it.

Dan said...

That's a fair point. Context is everything, and if that context involves a member of a particular ethnic group using a label to derogate that ethnic group then that's got to be different from an outsider doing the labelling.

I mean, I'm happy for close friends to call me a slaphead, but if a stranger walked up and called me it, I'd be offended.

scoldedcat said...

I've heard that the origin of "There's a nip in the air" dates back to the 2nd World War when the Allies were fighting the Japanese in the jungle. Patrols never new where the enemy was until they were only metres away. Some soldiers felt that they had an intuitive 6th sense that the enemy was close because they felt a cold shiver run down their spine. This cold, deathly shiver led them to warn their comrades of their suspicion by saying "I feel a nip in the air".

Anonymous said...

There is evidence use of the term 'nip in the air' in literature, for example tolstoy and sherlock holmes, these pre date the second world war by many years.