The trouble with Trump's word choices

Story highlights

  • John McWhorter: Let's face it -- Donald Trump doesn't care whom he offends
  • Typical public figure with Trump's views at least tries to keep them under wraps, he says

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It's not as if Donald Trump erupted with any actual slurs in the third and final presidential debate on Wednesday night. Not exactly. But the Republican presidential nominee did manage to produce a trifecta of pitilessly dismissive ways of referring to no fewer than three groups of people.

Let's break them down.
    "The African-Americans." Sounds innocent enough, but that little word "the" has meanings beyond the dictionary one. The refers to that which has been mentioned before, in contrast to "a" which introduces a new topic: We found a raccoon in the garage -- the raccoon is a novelty, the garage is old news. This is why "the African-Americans" has a quietly dismissive ring to it: It implies that black Americans are less a group of persons than a unitary topic, an undifferentiated clump of nuisance, a problem we're never quite rid of. It renders black people as something different, separate and rather objectified.
    John McWhorter
    There is plenty of reason to suppose that Trump, who has long faced allegations of discrimination against black people and pretended he doesn't know the agenda of David Duke, feels precisely this way about black people. Plenty do. But Trump stands out among public figures in how baldly he indicates it.
    Next: "nasty woman." Already, I'm sure people are objecting that there was nothing sexist about this shockingly backward comment -- after all, one can also say "nasty man." However, one is less likely to: Again, words have shadings beyond what they mean in a dictionary sense. Notice that Trump would have been less likely, if wanting to dismiss a man, to call him a "nasty man." There is an air of condescension in calling someone "nasty," implying that one would have expected them to be charming, pleasing, to behave, and instead they have the nerve to act up, beyond their station. The word is most gracefully used, notice, with children. Or, back in the early 20th century, female characters and singers would use "You nasty man!" conveying that a man was getting "fresh" like an adolescent. One of the catchphrases of a now forgotten comedian of the 1930s, Joe Penner, was "You naaaa-sty man!" and the joke about his character was that he was just a touch, well, swishy.
    Now, words' meanings can differ across races and classes, and "nasty" is used in black English with a certain wink -- "That's nasty!" that goes with "man" as easily as "woman." But Trump, while he is many things, is not black. Trump, in referring to Hillary Clinton as a nasty woman, might as well have called her a mean little girl.
    Finally, describing Latino immigrants as "hombres." Why refer to them with the Spanish word for men? What's an hombre in contrast to a man? Trump said this as part of the dehumanization, or at least exotification, of such men. They are not guys, but hombres -- the word for men in "that language other than English" that they speak. In casually tossing this off, Trump sounded like people of another era referring to "pig-tailed Chinese."
    The key here is that Trump's take on non-whites and non-males is, as we have rather amply had occasion to note over the past couple of weeks re women, antique. At 70, he has never quite gotten past the mores of "Mad Men." Of course, even 70 is, in 2016, a little young to have so little awareness that a certain large number of Americans have gotten past the idea that white males are America's norm.
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    Then again, let's face it -- he also doesn't care whom he offends. I have actually been somewhat perplexed at the punditocracy's endless shock at Trump's offenses to enlightened civility -- he has never surprised me in the least. He's a type we've all known, often referred to by blue Americans of late as the "racist uncle at Thanksgiving." I remember the type in summer camp, in locker rooms in school, in dormitories -- a certain towel-snapping white alpha male sort who revels in ignoring sociological niceties and wants to know what you're going to do about it.
    My take on such guys has always been to let them pass and seek out better company -- humans in a society will never be perfect, and a world entirely without racism would be like a world without germs. The only surprise is that such a man has become a leading political party's nominee for president: The typical public figure in our times, if harboring views such as Trump's, at least tries to keep them under wraps.
    At least it's almost over. On Wednesday night at 10:30 I went to bed thankful that it was the last time I will ever have to watch that man's blithe, sneering backwardness at length. But we should be under no impression that he is innocent of racism and sexism because he didn't use certain words beginning with N, S and B. Language is more flexible than that, and Trump, in his sloppy, brutal fashion, is articulate in his own way.