Sunday, March 8, 2015

Forbidden word of the day: “allochthone”

Our favorite radio essayist, M. Fouad Laroui, reports a strange story of linguistic politicization:  the banning, by Holland and Belgium, of the rather scholarly-looking and politically quite innocent word allochthone:

Now, allochthone is the antonym of autochthone, as you can tell by the prefixes, borrowed from Greek: allo- ‘other’, auto- ‘self, same’.  The root chthon- means ‘earth’ and appears in the learnèd English word chthonic.    Neither word is common in English, but autochthone is quite common in French.  Harrap’s defines it as ‘native’, and allochthone as ‘immigrant’.

Given its forbiddingly philological-Hellenistic hue, the word allochthone would seem as unlikely a target for political hysteria as, say, shibboleth or postlapsarian.   Yet such is the case today:  the word is legally banned;  anyone who uses it may be subject to punishment.

How did this come about?   As Laroui explains it,  the word itself is innocent enough but came to be soiled by the mouths that uttered it.   Just as, in America, the wingnuts came to use the term “liberal” (whose core meaning is something like ‘generous’) as a sneer-word, a hate-filled epithet, so the likes of Geert Wilders (of “scum villages” ill-fame) has used the Dutch version of allochthone invidiously, in his diatribes against immigrants.   And now -- just as they did in the “scum villages” affair -- the palladins of political correctitude have over-reacted and over-reached, with a tyranny that comes naturally to the self-righteous.

That the word is, von Hause aus, entirely blameless, can be seen in such passages as the following, picked almost at random:

Das Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (SCP), eines der wichtigsten Beratungsorgane der niederländischen Regierung, hat am heutigen Tage eine Studie veröffentlicht, aus welcher hervorgeht, dass autochthone Niederländer von Zeitarbeitsfirmen bevorzugt werden. Während 28% der nicht-westlichen Allochthonen, die sich bei einer Zeitarbeitsfirma persönlich vorstellen, einen Job angeboten bekommen, liegt die Quote bei autochthonen Niederländern …

Hmm… As an experiment, let us take a somewhat scholarly word, and see if we can similarly besmirch it:

“Donald Trump is nothing but a sniveling, low-down mercantilist !!!”


[Update 8 March 2015]  Fouad Laroui reports another editorialist’s call to suppress the use of a word:  in this case, islamophobie.   Docking a word, says Laroui, you cripple thought itself, “ce qui est propre de l’homme:   L’homme  nomme.”

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