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.
ENA1 - Language & Representation