« Don't shrink from the polysyllable | Main | Back in the day »

The Rules of Disparagement

I suggested yesterday in the “Word snobbery” post that the term grammar Nazi merits an unfavorable look. I think it is objectionable both as an exaggeration and as a violation of the contemporary Rules of Disparagement.

Those rules are not legislated, but they have grown from a more powerful force than law: public opinion. The basic principle, briefly stated, is that you can use insulting language only about groups of which you are a member. There are, as usual, exceptions, which we will get around to. But first the basics.

Thus, African-Americans can freely use the coarsest and vilest language about black people among themselves, but white people are ill-advised to play with racial stereotypes, as Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams discovered in recent days.

Gay people may also use vulgar and offensive terms to one another that straight people had better not. Women too. I can, if I wish, be mordant about Appalachians on the strength of birth and upbringing, but you non-crackers can mind your manners. Obese people might chaff one another about fatness, but the lean look mean if they do so. Do you get the drift?

This is not law but good manners.

Nazis are a specialized case, and that language works this way. Grammar Nazi is an extension of the soup Nazi jokes popularized in an episode of Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld, like Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel, gets to make jokes about Nazis and Hitler. Gentiles, however, can steer clear.

Beyond specialized cases, there are the exceptions, the classes that everyone should feel free to disparage. The main such class is middle-aged white guys. They may have started to whine that they are victims, but look around and see who is still running business, industry, and government. If you want to enjoy money and power, then you can accustom yourself to the jeers of those who enjoy neither. Have at them.


*But I am not here to condemn so much as to help. If I deny you grammar Nazi, I can at least offer a constructive suggestion. How about grammar Prussian? Doesn’t the image of an imperious, monocled, dueling-scarred Von with a spike on his hat suit the purpose admirably? Just remember: you heard it here.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:06 AM | | Comments (24)


I refuse to give up the right to use Nazi jokes simply because I am a Gentile. I've never found Mr Seinfeld at all entertaining, but he may joke at his own discretion: I won't be in his audience.Recent targets of what has become "acceptable" to insult, assault and defamation include the Roman Catholic Church and Christianity generally (just don't try it with Arabs or Jews), anyone who didn't vote for Obama (what secret ballot?) and anyone who doesn't have a particular ethnic or protected religion to put them into the "protected species" category. What exempts women from being targets I can't tell you. Certainly out of 50% of the population we can find a few who deserve scorn,sarcasm and guffaws to be directed at them. Or does the expression "good manners" mean it is acceptable to be rude to and about men but women are protected by Emily Post? If I say that Elena Kagen reminds me of an adult male baby, will that earn me a rip to the scaffold?

But surely only Germans and Polacks born near the Baltic sea would be allowed to use "Prussian" in any disparaging way?

"F*ing hipster" is of course right out, unless you happen to have a skateboard, an iPhone and no professional future to speak of.

In fact, were your rules actually followed, it'd be a very bland, boring language we'd have to content ourselves with.

I dunno. I generally dislike rigid rules for their sheer rigidity, but in these cases I tend to err on the side of caution for the sake of civility, as in civilization. I've always like Kathleen Parker's rule of thumb that if you're not speaking of Hitler or the Nazis, then don't use the terms Hitler or Nazi. Seems reasonable to me.

I think we can safely extend the use of Nazi jokes to Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, gays, Romani, Poles, Slavs, Russians, the mentally ill and Communists. Add in the French, Norwegians, North Africans, Italians &c if just having your country occupied counts.

A point and a gold star to Tim!

And how about including anyone who fought in WW II against the Axis? That covers my father's generation (sometimes called "the greatest").

Sounds to me like there's been a little bit too much caffeine this morning. I didn't read the post as being prescriptive, but descriptive. Got to run and get my decaf and a muffin.

John, if you're concerned about the white man's "power," nothing reinforces it like telling other people "I have so little to fear from your insults that I welcome them." Or, in your words, "have at them [us]."

It must also be said that someone inclined to rip on middle-aged white guys might not see any distinctions between the bourgeois targets you name and the Appalachians, etc., you would otherwise protect.

Point well made, Dahlink, but I don't believe I've ever heard anyone of our fathers' generation refer to someone as a nazi. Perhaps because those who were there actually know what the word means.

What against Prussians have you got?

What does a word mean, Eve (and John for that matter)? It means whatever people think it means. And people today, when they use a term like Nazi as in "grammar Nazi" mean "hardass." Surely they're not saying that these people are committing genocide.

The problem with a term like Nazi (at least at present) is that it's not old enough to be a complete caricature, and not young enough to to retain its original meaning. This is why John can joke about Prussians, it's too old linguistically to retain anything the caricature he so neatly described.

I don't think the 'Nazi' in these expressions has anything to do with racism, it's a synonym for 'fascist' or 'extreme authoritarian.' The alternative expression is grammar, fashion, etc. 'police,' so it's a reference to repression, not extermination.

I have an alliterative alternative that gets the same point across - Grammar Gestapo. It's a little less emotionally charged, and conveys a sense of policing rather than conquering or butchering.

Belatedly I admonish our host that he needs to broaden his exposure to the communities surrounding his. Middle-aged white males have become a minority in both the general population and in running things. Perhaps it is that minority status that makes them targets.

Middle-aged white guys as a minority in the general population is self-evident. As a minority among the people running things, I'm afraid I'll have to ask for evidence.

Mostly white, male, middle-aged:,0,5014359.photogallery

Give Laura Lee a bonus!

"Nazi" is flung about so often these days that it's lost some of its kick. "Grammar Gestapo" sounds downright sinister.

Point nicely made, LL!

When I was in college we had an African-American president and he made it a goal to make things more multicultural. Which is fine except the college was in the middle of nowhere.

Everybody was very caught up in being politically correct so I started openly calling my friends "Honky" and "Cracker" (I'm white). Everyone would gasp because their sphincters were tight.

Then we had a young African-American woman come to give a speech at the college and she said the following, "It took me until the age of 11 before I could call a white person my friend." I listened to the entire speech and as we walked back to the dorms my friend Ed said how amazing the it was. He highlighted the struggle against racism and so forth. Her struggle was just that, a fight for equality in our society. However I said to him, "What if I said that about a black person? Would you have the same reaction? Would it be ok?"

No one ever thinks of other races as just people. They have to be black, white, yellow or brown. That's too bad. In places like NYC no one gives a crap.

"I am what is now called a WASP, the only ethnic minority that it is entirely safe to disparage." --Northrop Frye, or possibly Robertson Davies

Mr Cowan: I suspect Mr Davies. He once pointed out in an interview or essay that minorities take themselves far too seriously. He might have added that the government takes them far too seriously as well. They are now treated as the spotted owl or the darter snail: endangered species around which everyone else must dance. I refuse to perform a gavotte under these circumstances.

Only use language about a group of which you are a member? So Jerry Seinfeld would have to be a Nazi to engage in Nazi talk? Why hasn't anyone noticed that there's some garbled logic going on here

Part of France was occupied; the other promptly surrendered. And Italy became Germany's closest ally for a time.Wars, as hideous as they are,expose interesting loyalties among the populations.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected