What’s in a word?

When I was not so very young (i.e. should have known better), I made a casual remark, using a phrase I’d grown up with and never questioned. I said that someone had “welshed on a deal”. Another person sitting at the table took me very severely to task — I had disparaged the people of Wales.

I was stunned.

Until this man spoke up, it stupidly had never occurred to me that the phrase referred to people from Wales. It was just “a word” in the English language that my family had used forever. But my protests of innocence didn’t hold much weight even for me, and I was ashamed of my ignorance.

In an attempt to help, a friend suggested that the man was misinformed, that in fact the word referred to the well-known juice company, or at least to the family that founded it. But aside from the fact that it’s spelled differently, after a lifetime of exposure to the British habit of casually disparaging anyone not considered British (including, oddly enough, the Welsh, Irish, and Scots) I knew in my heart that this very angry person was right. “Welsh on a deal” was another one of those casually damaging phrases we have all inherited from our forefathers, like “jew down a price” (a favorite of my father’s), “indian giver” (a constant in my childhood) or “Chinese fire drill” (that one still slips out).  And did you know that to “gyp” someone is to equate them with the European gypsies who were long assumed to be liars and cheats? Another one I was ignorant of, though I protest that I’ve always known them as Romani people.

Growing up, I was forbidden to use certain words that put down an entire ethnic group. You know the ones I mean. Mama was continually mortified by my grandmother’s use of what we now refer to as the N-word. It was just something everyone Granny ever knew had used since she could remember. I’m sure if anyone had had the nerve to confront her, the response would have been an echo of what I’ve heard so many people say: “Well, I don’t mean nothin’ by it.”

And yet my own mother used “welsh on a deal” without a hint of a blush. Why had no one ever told me what the phrase was supposedly based on? Was it assumed that it was self-evident? Or was it simply from so long ago that everyone had actually forgotten where it came from?

I believe such things go back to the ancient urge to protect your family and your village from strangers, the need to quickly judge if you are under threat, so as to be ready: That person doesn’t look like us, this person doesn’t talk like us, those guys don’t act like us; be open but beware! And let your neighbors know that the threatening others are about. You know, those people.

The problem now is that the entire globe is fast becoming one large village, one human family. We may not like all those relatives that live all over the world, but they’re all related to us as surely as the ones living in our own home, if more distantly. We need to be more careful how we might be putting the family down. Ignorance is no excuse, as we don’t say often enough.

So I’m checking out the words I use, not just in my writing but in my personal life. It’s a simple matter of engaging brain before putting mouth in gear.

And it’s really not so hard to say “didn’t honor our agreement”, is it?