Linguists use the “euphemism treadmill” to describe the semantic shift (change in meaning) of a euphemism to an offensive or taboo word. In his book, The Most Human Human, computer scientist, linguist and philosopher Brian Christian uses the word “retarded” to illustrate the treadmill. Retard is a polite, perfectly acceptable way to say “delay or hold back progress”. It is derived from the Latin, retard?, which means to slow or hinder.
Retarded was proposed as a more polite way to say “idiot” or “imbecile”, which had at one point been used to describe the mentally handicapped. Over time, through common use, retarded lost its euphemistic value. On 6 October 2010, US president Barack Obama signed Rosa’s Law, which removed all references of “mental retardation” in Federal law and replaced it with “intellectual disability”. There’s now even a campaign to ban the R-word.
The treadmill also works in the other direction, too. Words that were once considered impolite (again through common use) lose their bite and become perfectly acceptable to use in polite company. Take the word “scumbag”. In its original usage, the term meant condom and was explicit, Christian says. But today, not even an Amish mother would bat an eyelid if her young child were to blurt the word out. Well, perhaps an Amish mom might flush red, but everybody else is unlikely to be alarmed.
The treadmill has alarming, sometimes hilarious effects in the spaces where socially, geographically or economically divided communities interact, as the ANC’s reaction to Max du Preez’s Facebook status illustrated.
The truth is that apartheid created micro-communities and cut off – linguistically and culturally – South Africans from one another. So it is no surprise that semantic shifts that happen within one community do not happen in the others, despite both being within the confines of the same country. This separate development of the lexicon leads to “maaifoedie” translating to “rascal” in one community and “motherfucker” in another. It is why, when one community holds “lekgoa” as a person with wealth and education, another takes it to mean spittle or a tick sucking the very life out of humanity.
Thapelo Otlogetswe, a Setswana-English linguist at University of Botswana, believes that “lekula” (or the plural, “makula”) is derived from coolie, a historical word for manual labourers (often slaves) from Asia. Coolie, incidentally, hopped on the treadmill and, from its original Urdu meaning, has become offensive through common use. The same applies to the evolution of kaffir from its original Arabic meaning, “non-believer”, to what it is today.
Unlike with kaffir, when the word “coolie” came to South Africa through the slave trade, it slipped into the local languages. Growing up, I cannot recall any other Setswana word to describe people of Indian origin other than as makula. I perceived no malice (and I believe that none was perceived) in its use except when conferred by tone or context in much the same way that the words “whites” or “blacks” are innocuous except when an inflection or the context gives clues to an underlying prejudice.
Batswana and Basotho don’t usually use makula in a derogatory sense, says Otlogetswe. He says that while its etymology is derogatory the current use is not.
Someone on Twitter suggested “maIndiya” (or in isiZulu, “’amaNdiya”) as a more appropriate word, but I suspect it a recent entry to the lexicon to avoid the regression of “makula” to its derogatory meaning that results when our separate worlds brush shoulders. That may very well be what Malema will use now that he has committed to never using makula again.
But this tlhakatlhakanyo, this big misunderstanding might make a case for why the likes of Malema are necessary or at least, why they have come to exist in a society like South Africa. We might otherwise stay in the comfort of our respective spaces without the oftentimes uncomfortable incursions they provoke. It is said that nature does not like vacuums. Well, nature does not take too kindly to imbalances either. DM