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Among the locals

Allow me a few minutes, if you will, to rationalize a personal preference. Perhaps a prejudice.

I loathe the use of locals in news stories as a noun meaning local residents.

This is, I concede, a widespread usage, and in casual conversation—“Anybody know where the locals go for good barbecue?”*—unobjectionable. But in journalism, it smacks to me of condescension, of a reporter, an important person, coming into a place and commenting on the quaint customs of the indigenes. The way that a New York Times reporter sent to Baltimore would write like an anthropology major.

We all know that local rhymes with yokel.

So give it to me straight. Is this echo of a sneer something that you sense when you see the word in an article? Or have I made myself hypersensitive?

 

*In Baltimore, that would be Big Bad Wolf on Harford Road.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:47 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

It's part of the euphemism treadmill. S. M. Stirling's Nantucket trilogy is about the results of hurling the island with its inhabitants from 1999 back to the Bronze Age. As the islanders return to the sea-trading style of their ancestors and build oceangoing ships for trade, the word locals is adopted for the natives of the era because it seems less condescending than natives. But by the second book, an Akkadian prince comments on how the Nantukhtar use the word local, even to him, "as we might term a hill-tribe, or a band of the truffle-eating Aramaeans."

There does seem to be a hint of condescension, though it's hard to tell if it's intended or not.

Okay, I have to respectfully disagree on this one. Some years ago I went to a talk on Canton Rose (aka Famille Rose) ceramics at an antiques shop in a ritzy part of the county. The proprietress was astounded when a sweet young thing walked in with a big box of rare and choice examples. She said that she had admired them at a yard sale, and the woman looked her up and down and gave her the entire box. The antiques dealer gasped and said, "Where was this?" and the reply was "Local."

The word by itself? No.

The word coupled with other stylistic elements? Absolutely can be condescending.

But I'd never say that the mere use of the word had a sneer in it.

The Ridger makes a good point--so much depends on context and intonation--not to mention body language.

Similarly, I've always found the use of "Blacks" slightly offensive, but not "Black people."

Perhaps it's the construction itself that offends: a word that's usually an adjective describing a group of people ("local") is used in this case as a noun for that group of people ("locals"), a sort of part-of-speech synecdoche.

The offense may come from the reduction of that group of people to just one characteristic. That is, there's an implied prejudice in the idea that just that one characteristic defines them.

I think this slight offensiveness holds true for many groups that have been subjected to frequent prejudice: the handicapped, the blind, the deaf, the young, the old or elderly, females, etc. "Elderly people" or "Elderly Americans" simply sounds more respectful to me than "The elderly."

I don't think there's any offensiveness or condescension when labeling a group of people by their nationality though. Maybe nationality is a big enough characteristic that it's fine to reduce people to that, whereas skin color, physical ability, and gender are not.

Interesting....

"Locals" in and of itself is not offensive.

Virtually every time the New York Times comes into a "local" community, their feature reporter (Oh, sorry, "writer") runs the risk of proving that (s)he is a snot.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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