Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Yo Sharque, I have some reservations about your phraseology!**


Hi Janet,

I'm a long time reader and fan of your blog. You even answered one of my questions about maps in books a few years back. Your recent blog post about characters having a code is very informative and helpful. 

In it, you use the phrase "off the reservation". While this isn't the most offensive phrase out there, it's not great. It's a casual reference to a time when First Nation Peoples were forced to stay on designated plots of land. They weren't allowed to move freely throughout their state or country. Leaving without a permit was illegal.

It's an ugly part of North American history and one that has in no way been resolved. First Nation People are still fighting for the same rights that white Americans and Canadians (I'm from Canada) take for granted. This is a phrase that has kind of infiltrated white vernacular. We use it to mean "going rogue", unaware of its history and meaning and that it's a thoughtless and hurtful term for a lot of people. 

As you always say, our word choices matter, so I always appreciate when people point out my own blind spots in my language. I hope you don't mind me doing the same.

I very MUCH appreciate this kind of helpful note.
You're right.
It IS a blind spot.

And holy hell, was it hard to find something that worked in its place.
But I'd like to avoid giving offense when none is intended.
And this wasn't a character speaking; it wasn't dialogue.
(people say things that are insensitive and racist all the damn time.)

This was just me, making a point.
And so I agree, it should be changed.

BUT, I still remember and grimace about a lady who complained about the extensive use of the N-word
in a YA book about young black men in a juvenile detention center.

To have removed that word, in that context, would have been bowdlerizing.

This isn't a matter of find/replace.
It's like spell checking its/it's in a manuscript. It all depends on context.
**anything to get a reference to The Music Man in a blog post


Unknown said...

Well, there is 'going rogue' or 'being a wild duck'.

Having grown up a stone's throw from Oklahoma, I know there is another meaning to 'going off the reservation'. In this context it means simply striking out on one's own without the support of one's culture. The people of the five tribes in Oklahoma were off the reservation often. They were frequently seen in my home town by my grandparents and great-grandparents. Still are, by the way, but they dress like everybody else now.

Only during some of the 1800's were indigenous people not allowed off their reservations and then only when in large groups.

Brenda said...

Good catch, OP, and excellent response, Janet. Today's lesson is "How Best to Respond to a Sensitivity Critique that Rings True."

PAH said...

I think kindness is key (this situation was handled well by both parties - yay). Language is an UNWIELDY BITCH GODDESS. We say so many things without any clue as to their origins.

I also think we have to be conscious of false etymologies. I once saw an Online interaction was one person took another to task for the phrase "butt hurt" -- claiming that its origin was from prison culture / rape. But as far as we can tell, its first uses were referring to that of a petulant child after being spanked.

Awareness is great. There's no need to offend when alternatives exist. But ultra-egg-shell-walking and -- in the land of the Internet where everything is true or offensive, depending on your personal bias -- things can get sticky. I err on the side of kindness.

Anyhoo. This was well-handled and I will be more sensitive to this phrase (though I can gladly say it is not in my habitual repertoire).

Ash Complin said...

All these years, I thought that meant that someone was trying to get a table at a reservation-required restaurant without making a reservation i.e. they act like the rules don't apply to them. I feel dumb.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I had this exact problem phrase in earlier drafts of my werewolf novels, and on one hand, the character saying it might have been the kind of person to say it anyway, implications be damned...and on the other hand, saying 'off the leash' or 'off the chain' made it funnier, in context (for me, anyway.)

Gretta said...

This is such a great example that we're all in some stage of learning, all the time. I didn't know Jada Pinkett Smith had alopecia until the whole Oscar thing. Ash Complin, I'm dying laughing! And not too long ago, a friend greeted me by saying, "I haven't seen you in a coon's age!" and I said, "Oh, no, no! I think that's offensive?" And she thought it was because raccoons lived a really long time.
Urf. Words.

Ryan Neely said...

Because I'm genuinely interested in this exact issue (not the specific phraseology, but the notion of unintentionally being offensive), I'd like to ask a potentially charged question. For any those who choose to respond, please understand I'm coming from a place of genuine curiosity and ignorance than a place of purposeful trolling.

I do think it's important to continually educate oneself so as to not intentionally be offensive. However, to play devil's advocate, at what point does one culture's innocuous saying become another culture's reason for offense?

When one goes digging, one can seemingly find offense in phrases one hears on a regular basis. Mumbo Jumbo, apparently. Cannibal. Spaz. And ... I guess, the phrase "No can do"?

Because this is an area of interest for me (though, admittedly, my interest has been directed more toward the analysis of reception theory in today's ever-shrinking world rather than my own interpersonal communication), I tend to spend a lot of time researching the subject of giving and receiving offense.

One pattern that seems to have emerged from said research is that, while it is possible to intentionally give offense for the purpose of being hurtful, more often than not most offense is received and is quite personal.

To state it another way, each individual controls what we choose to be offended by.

That isn't to say that phrases like these aren't perpetuating some form of inequality, but that is a different conversation I think.

I guess, my ultimate question is . . . at what point have we decided we've gone too far with worrying about what someone else might find offensive?

AJ Blythe said...

Not a phrase that tends to be used in Australia, but interesting read and definitely shows how careful we have to be. Although, as is obvious in the comments, when words enter everyday common use, that source information can be lost. I wonder at what point it takes on its new meaning?

Janet, maybe an alternative phrase would be "beyond the pale"? That one has British origins, but (and Colin might need to correct my Aussie take on it) it has a similar meaning.

This thread made me think of an Aussie example. We use the word "bugger" in 6 different ways - none of which are the original meaning of the word. It's an everyday word that is used by everyone here. I sometimes wonder what non-Aussies think when they hear us!

1. Disappointment "Oh, bugger"
2. A movement, such as asking someone to leave when you are cranky "bugger off" or something passing by quickly "the emu buggered off down the road"
3. Suprise "I'll be buggered"
4. Exhausted "I'm buggered"
5. Very little of something "My in-laws are rich but they gave us bugger-all"
6. Term of endearment "Well done, yah bugger"

BJ Muntain said...


I think I was about 10 when we were visiting friends of my parents. My dad called his friend "You bugger" - a term of endearment between guys, you might say - and the friend's 7 yo son told my dad not to swear.

And I stared, because I did not know it was a swear word. Damn, hell - those were swear words. S**t was dirty (ha!). But bugger? Wasn't that someone who bugs you?

I've recently been learning about ableist language. I don't think I'm going to be censoring out words regarding sight or hearing, but I am looking at them and other such concepts differently.

Words are important. As writers, it's important to know how words affect others. Not only to avoid hurting others, but also to use words to manipulate reader emotions. Certain words can make readers hate or love characters or situations. And we can use those words, if we're careful about it. But we do need to know what words mean.

My dad used "bugger" to the end, but not in its original meaning. Of course, he had stroke-ibduced aphasia, and that word can take the place of a lot of forgotten words.

(The best use of its original meaning in fiction is Nanny Ogg's song about hedgehogs in Pratchett's Discworld series.)

John Davis Frain said...

Ah bugger, I'm late again. Thanks for leaving the light on.

I enjoyed this moment of civility. Almost didn't recognize it as it's been a minute since I've seen it in the wild world.

As they say on Twitter, that's all, that's the tweet.

CynthiaMc said...

It's a power play to control people through language and it needs to stop.

When we would visit my grandfather we would go to the county fair and often run into Choctaws who used to work for my grandfather. We were all "off the reservation" meaning no one was at work, we were all free to play and have a good time together and we enjoyed it.

Pretty soon we won't be able to say good morning because night people get offended.

Huck said...

If a character broke code, Harold Hill would say, "You got trouble!" Zaneeta Shinn would say, "Ye gods!"

Heather Wardell said...

"Beyond the pale" means "beyond the Pale of Settlement", which was the restricted areas where Jewish people were required to stay. Very similar to "off the reservation", really, and probably no better.

Adele said...

I love that people are so caring that they voluntarily censor their own speech so others may not be upset. I like that people feel free to express their thoughts, but on the other hand, I hate that people who are upset by someone else's words advertise their dislike in order to force caring people to censor their natural speech. This comment is fast becoming incomprehensible, and I haven't even addressed the concept of people who aren't themselves upset, but campaign on behalf of other people who they think might be upset, not that they are. We live in a wonderful, confused, baffling world. I can't wait to see how it all plays out.

Craig F said...

A beta reader caught a few colloquialisms I had throw into a work.

It seems that any of them used to define something were meant to contain someone at some point in time.

As a writer I want to open doors for my readers. I don't want any of them to be constrained by what they read.

It is damned hard work to not use any of them, but I think I can use a few to keep dialogue from stilting, but only for bad guys due a comeuppance anyway.

Unknown said...

"Beyond the Pale" The Pale was an area of Ireland in which it was safe for English to live and conduct business. Outside of that area there was no protection for the English to travel in Ireland. The expression today means to do or say something that is risky.

It had nothing to do with Jewish settlements. After all, Edward I deported all the Jews from England. Ostensibly because the Pope told him to. Seems doubtful because the Pope didn't tell all other kings to exile their Jewish residence. I always suspected, King Eddie paid the Pope to tell him that because it cost him a lot less than repaying his Jewish bankers the money he'd borrowed for his wars in Wales.

NLiu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NLiu said...

Had an Aussie friend who went and volunteered for a very proper and middle class organisation in the UK. Up to this time, she'd thought "bugger" was something you'd find up your nose. It was a little embarrassing for her when a polite Englishwoman explained what it actually referred to and asked her to stop saying it quite so loudly during meetings.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love the responses of the Readers to this. What an amazing group.

I have a friend who is about to immigrate from Liverpool in the UK to the US and she was talking about how she was going to need to learn a whole new language to get on in the US. She was referring to a certain word that is used pretty much like "bugger" is in Australia - begins with C and here in America, a good portion of the population melts down when they hear it, context be damned. However, in UK it can be a term of endearment or a term of humorous annoyance, and it is part of the banter, always, everyday, all day. I thought, perhaps, the language had changed since I returned to America, but no, it is still embedded in the culture, at least among the Scouse.

Colin could probably speak more to this. It has nothing to do with the context in which Americans understand it. Language and its understanding is regional to this day. In some places, no one will bat an eye at a word or phrase. In other places, you will be banned from the public square for using it.

We writers have choppy waters to navigate in these strange days. And we best beware. There be sharks here.

Karen McCoy said...

Absolutely. Implicit biases should always be checked. I wasn't familiar with the "off the reservation" vernacular, and have never used it, but will definitely keep on the lookout for such phrases that could be triggering.

Also: Music Man!! Oh if only I could see Hugh Jackman as Harold Hill! My school did Music Man in 1992. I was 11, and played Amaryllis. Our Harold Hill spit a lot with all those syllables, and our choreographer dubbed him "Mucus Man."

AJ Blythe said...

Heather, it's interesting trying to work out the origin of words/phrases. I know of the "Pale of Settlement" that you are referring to from Russia in the late 1700's. However, I believe "beyond the pale" dates earlier than that with a very innocent reference to a paling fence. It came from a poem by John Harrington in 1657 "The History of Polindor and Flostella". To quote the research I did before posting (I didn't want to post an equivalent of the reservation phrase):

In that work [The History of Polindor and Flostella], the character Ortheris withdraws with his beloved to a country lodge for 'quiet, calm and ease', but they later venture further:

"Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale to planted Myrtle-walk".