Welsh on the Deal? The Danger of Negative Stereotypes in Language
This is a guest post by Alan Headbloom. Alan is the Founder of Headbloom Cross-Cultural Communication in Allendale, Michigan, USA. He helps international professionals with English as a second language and cross-cultural communication skills.
Like it or not, human beings have their prejudices about “those people” who belong to other groups. Not my religion?...those people! Not my ethnicity?...those people! Not my social class?...those people!
Over the centuries, cultures have found ways of holding The Other at a distance: by creating stereotypes. One of the best tools for embedding negative stereotypes in culture is through language. We were reminded of this by a recent kerfuffle in the U.K. involving British Education Secretary Michael Gove (pictured below). When speaking to Members of Parliament, he talked about an invitation to a site visit which he then later backed out of. Gove announced his change of mind, saying he had "welshed on the deal."
What was Michael Gove's Mistake?
For non-native speakers, I’ll explain the expression “to welsh on” means to renege on or retract an earlier promise. Unfortunately, its roots come from an unkind characterization of people living in Wales (the Welsh). The stereotype is that you can’t trust the Welsh because they will go back on earlier commitments. Clearly, if a sensitive speaker knows the anti-ethnic sentiments of an expression, s/he will no longer use it. Few people choose to be knowingly disrespectful in public.
Some cases of disrespect are easier to identify than others, however. Local friends pointed this out to me when our discussion included the expression “Long time, no see!” It’s an expression we’ve used all our lives. However, it appears the origin of the expression is racist in intent, taken from an early 1900’s report of a Chinese person’s greeting, “Long time no see you.” If the intent was to mock a non-native’s imperfect grammar, then the expression is racist in origin.
The question arises: Is there a statute of limitations on expressions and intent? If no one connects the xenophobic malintent of the words, are they still hurtful? On the surface, they seem a friendly shorthand for “Gee, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you last!” How do we judge language which evolves over time?
In the case of the British official above, his ignorance of what was offensive caused him embarrassment, necessitating a public apology. Years ago, my wife witnessed someone’s loss of income (a real-estate commission) when the person told a house-hunting couple that they could “jew down the homeowners on the price.” The couple—both Jewish—were offended and went back to the realty manager to complain about the agent, who was shocked to learn of what she’d done. By the time she had been educated, it was too late; she’d lost the business.
The list below will help you identify terms which are offensive to some cultures. If you are unsure about new expressions you encounter, it’s not a bad idea to check their origins. You just may save yourself some embarrassment!
Expressions to Avoid:
- Indian giver – person who takes back an earlier gift
- Dutch courage – bravery induced by alcohol
- Chinese fire drill – the act of passengers jumping out of a car at a stop light, shouting crazily, and running around the car
- An Indian burn – to grab the bare arm or forearm of a person with both hands and twist the skin in the opposite direction, causing pain and redness
- To gyp someone – to cheat someone (reference to Gypsies, who were considered liars and cheats in the communities they passed through)
- Dutch rub – the prank of holding someone’s head down with one arm and rubbing the knuckles of the other hand harshly on the scalp of the victim
- To welsh on a deal – see description above
- To jew someone down- to drive a hard bargain, to get someone to lower the price
- The expression “to go Dutch” – splitting the restaurant bill instead of paying for it all—is actually not about being a cheapskate but rather an allusion to Dutch doors, which split in the middle to open at the top or the bottom.
- The expression “low man on the totem pole” means the least senior or least important person in an organization. This expression is actually not pejorative but simply ignorant of Native American culture, as the lowest creatures carved on a totem—the ones easiest to see—were actually the most important figures in that “culture.” You can see a photo of a totem pole at the beginning of this post.
Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts:
- kerfuffle = fuss, commotion, disturbance
- statute of limitations = limited period of time for which someone is legally liable
- xenophobic = being afraid of foreigners
- malintent = bad intentions
- shorthand = abbreviation, “quick way of writing notes”
- cheapskate = stingy person, miser, someone who doesn't like paying for things
About the Author:
Alan Headbloom works with foreign-born professionals who work in contexts where others do not speak their first language or share their first culture. The motto of “Headbloom Cross-Cultural Communication” is "Feel like you belong." Alan blogs and tweets at the intersection of language, culture, and ethnicity.
Photo Credits: Totem pole- Fotolia.com, Michael Gove- Wikipedia