Book Review: “On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present” by Karen Stollznow

by Amanda Clarke

Book cover of "On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present" by Karen Stollznow

With an increasing awareness around inclusive and conscious language, the time is ripe for a book that explores offensive language and its roots. This is what Karen Stollznow sets out to do in her book On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present. Without an understanding of the ways that language has been structured to exclude certain groups, it is difficult to work toward building a language that avoids microaggressions to create something truly inclusive. There is probably a great book out there that covers the history and etymology of offensive terms and explains how they came about and how the perceptions of what is offensive change over time. On the Offensive is not that book.

While clearly well-intentioned, On the Offensive misses the mark. Instead of delving into terminology that many English speakers would be unaware is offensive (stakeholder, grandfathered), the author spends a great deal of time simply listing slurs, curses, and general insults. Does anyone really need to be told that calling someone an asshole is offensive? Instead of a history of how the English language has evolved to reflect biases and social inequality, On the Offensive comes across as more of a guide on how to insult people.

Stollznow starts out strongly with the introduction, “You Can’t Say Anything These Days.” Here, she lays out her central thesis: that it is important to understand the history of words, be aware of how language affects different people based on their identities and experiences, and adjust one’s use of language toward a more inclusive terminology, no matter how innocent a certain phrase might seem to you personally. The writing in this section is clear and well organized, providing a solid rationale for the book’s existence as well as sound reasoning for her arguments. Unfortunately, most of these strengths quickly disappear as she moves into her first chapter.

What follows is probably one of the most comprehensive lists of insults ever compiled in the English language. There is very little nuance or historical context for why some words are offensive. It feels like there is a lack of understanding of the power of words; the context used to discuss many of these terms, which carry so much emotional weight, is dispassionate and clinical. While this is probably deliberate on some level, it also has the effect of removing the teeth from the words and making them seem innocuous, almost like the word cunt is a synonym for the word woman, and therefore isn’t actually that offensive. This effect is amplified by the decision to write all of the words out in full. As a result, incredibly offensive slurs like the N-word appear alongside descriptive language such as Black, brown, or white—almost seeming to place them in equivalency.

There is also a lack of acknowledgement that the English language is not a monolithic entity, and that there are major differences in English language usage depending on the country, region, and culture. This book is extremely prescriptive—it says that a word is offensive to a community of people and leaves it at that. While this is the case for many of the words discussed (everyone can agree that calling someone a dick isn’t nice), there are also many words whose meaning depends on where you are. Fag is a perfectly acceptable term to use in the United Kingdom as a stand-in for a cigarette. The term Indian in reference to Indigenous Peoples is considered offensive in Canada but is one of the preferred terms for many Native Americans in the United States. The terms grandmother and grandfather are listed as being agist; however, in many cultures, these terms are signs of respect toward people who are older and more knowledgeable than the speaker.

By the time we reach the final chapter on agism, Stollznow really starts to stretch for offensive terminology. While I am not questioning that agism is something that exists, most of this chapter is a list of words (mostly adjectives) that don’t actually relate directly to elderly people. Does anyone associate fool specifically with agism? The term goat is now a hugely positive one amongst North American youth. Similarly, adjectives such as sweet, tired, or forgetful are just that: descriptive words. The problem is that anything can be offensive if you say it with the right tone, and a great deal of agism is conveyed not by the specific words, but by the condescension in the delivery⁠—something the author overlooks.

That’s not to say that there is no value in On the Offensive. In the chapter on sexism, there is a good discussion about the reclamation of language and a really interesting history of Polari, a language used by the gay community in 1950s/1960s Britain to identify each other and avoid homophobic laws, and the ways that language has been used to circumvent persecution and create communities. If this approach had been taken with the offensive language throughout the book instead of just with the reclamation of language, this could have been an incredibly interesting and important piece.

If you are running out of ways to insult people, then On the Offensive provides a very comprehensive list of options broken down by marginalized groups. However, if you’re looking to further your understanding of language, this book misses the mark.

Amanda Clarke is a freelance fiction editor based in Toronto. She also serves as treasurer for Editors Toronto.

This article was copy edited by Hitesh Thukral.

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