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The Last Word on Slavishly

A reader emails:

I'm a bit bothered that Steele and the Republicans are making a big deal out of "slavishly." He's not running against Hoyer. As far as I'm concerned the use of "slavishly" - even when referring to an African American - is no worse than using the world "niggardly" that landed a DC government employee into some trouble a few years ago. It's an adverb, not a slur.

Paul Mirengoff made a similar point about the word "slavish" the other day: "This word is used all the time in politics to attack those who support a particular line. Let's not draw any inferences from ordinary usage of the English language."

Let me stipulate that I don't think this is a HUGE deal, but I do disagree. Etymology and definition, as well as context, do matter in the use of words. Niggardly has nothing whatsoever to do with race, and to castigate someone for using the word in its proper context simply because it happens to sound similar to a racially offensive term is ludicrous.

The definition of "slavishly," however, does very clearly mean "of or befitting a slave" and/or "being or resembling a slave; abjectly submissive." Technically the word is race netural, though in America, for obvious reasons, the word is loaded with racial implications - especially when used either as an adjective or an adverb to describe an African-American. As the emailer points out, that doesn't make the use of the word a slur, but it does make it a gaffe and a very poor choice of words.

Let's also remember that while Hoyer's remark may appear innocuous enough in isolation, it is of a piece with the history of the way members of the Democratic party in Maryland, both white and black, have treated Michael Steele. Steele has been previously been referred to as a "token," an "Uncle Tom," and had Oreo cookies thrown at him, etc.

So I think Steele has every right to make it an issue, and he's obviously chosen to do so. As I said before, however, I have no idea whether the episode is going to provide any traction for Steele at all, especially since Hoyer went ahead and issued a fairly prompt apology.