What's in a Word? | Jamila Gavin

20 October 2017 What's

When finally, we as a species developed language, there came the necessity to name things. Early creation stories deal with names: secret names – the secret name of Ra, the hundredth name of Allah known only to the camel, which is why he always holds his nose up in the air in that superior manner. God in Genesis names things, and Manu in Hinduism, knowing the proper name for each living thing could then put them in their proper place. It’s as though without a name for an object, creature, state or condition, then it doesn’t exist.

As an Anglo-Indian child in post war England, I was called (affectionately) ‘Blacky’ by my school mates, as I was the darkest child they knew. But as immigration from the old empire colonies brought in every possible colour, race and creed, we ‘non-whites’ became ‘coloured’ – not to mention all the words which had started out as descriptive, but then became terms of abuse – which I don’t need to list. The word ‘coloured’ to describe anyone non-white itself became degraded, and now people are expected to use correct descriptions such as mixed race (specify,) Asian, or African origin – though in America, they happily say ‘people of colour’. But with the changes came the arguments: the correct, the incorrect, the politically correct, the respectful, the disrespectful, and the outright insulting. In the 1960s, to describe the state in which all we different people lived, the word multiculturalism was created.

Did I interpret that word wrongly? I had come from what I would have called a ‘multicultural India’, but later I was confused, as Indian politicians proudly described their new India as ‘secular’. I thought secular meant non-religious, and India was the most religious and multi-religious country I could have conceived of: Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, Parsee, Christian, Jew and Buddhist. Whereas in England, one of the first questions a child might ask of another new child was What is your name? One of the earliest questions I recall being asked in an Indian playground was What is your religion? In an instant, your one-word reply defined you, and answered a host of further questions at a stroke: the food you could eat or couldn’t eat, the wells you drank from, the clothes you wore, the temples, mosques or churches you worshipped in, the festivals you celebrated – and all the little idiosyncrasies that went with your identity.

"You only have to pick apart the English language to see multiculturalism running through it, often embodied in one place name like Pendle Hill. Pen means hill, dle means hill, and hill means hill."

In Britain, the word multicultural was, for a decade or two, celebrated and explored. It was multiculturalism that excited and inspired me and made me want to write: it led me into linguistics: the origins of words, the shared roots from so many different cultures, and even finding shared myths and legends from the Norse, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Hindus, and the Jews. However, the meaning of the word changed and was now being used to mean specifically non-white cultures whereas, in my very first book The Magic Orange Tree (Methuen Children’s Books 1979), I included the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish as part of my multicultural collection of stories.

Worst of all, multiculturalism came to mean the threatened surrender of hard won social and human rights, for gender equality, homosexuality, children’s rights not to be forcibly married, or undergo female genital mutilation, the right to wear the turban or the veil and even the abolition of Christmas. People felt they had lost their moral compass; or that there was more than one moral compass depending on your ethnicity; that morality was relative. Politicians sneered at it, and soon the word deteriorated to become a term of abuse.

So now another word takes its place: Diversity meaning different; variety; unlikeness; various kinds of... But does that really describe our country?

Whereas I believe in freedom of belief, and the freedom to practise your religion, I feel intense disappointment that this led to further diversification and demarcation with the creation of faith schools. It ran in the face of everything I valued and had striven to express in my writing. It ran contrary to everything I believed education should be about. Instead of learning to rub along together, learning at first hand about each other’s differences, and allowing that understanding to broaden one’s view and knowledge of the world, it has brought about a thousand schisms. Would today’s children make the wonderful friendships I did with Gita (Hindu), Maharrukh (Parsee), Nasreen (Moslem), Patsy (Anglo-Indian Christian), Susette (English, despite her French name!)? You see, after sixty-five years, I have never forgotten them or their families.

"...for me ‘multicultural’ was, yes, being varied and different but also finding common ground – sharing the same roots, discovering similar human experiences, and realising that our difference was not so different as we thought..."

Whatever word you want to use though, it won’t stop online trolls castigating Mary Beard for reminding them that Roman Britain was very multicultural; yes – don’t forget the Romans with their armies drawn from Jerusalem to North Africa, to the Baltic and over to Britain. Wasn’t Hadrian a Tunisian? And isn’t even good ole’ Saint George Turkish? And wasn’t Queen Victoria German? And wasn’t Jesus a Jew? And what about the Normans, the Vikings, and the Celts, and all those Spanish sailors from the Armada, washed up on British coasts? You only have to pick apart the English language to see multiculturalism running through it, often embodied in one place name like Pendle Hill. Pen means hill, dle means hill, and hill means hill; or our casual everyday use of Hindi with words such as pyjamas, bungalow, cushions, and on and on and on.

But what I mourn for, in this debate about the term we should use to describe ourselves, is the loss of the word ‘culture’. What I mourn, is that for me ‘multicultural’ was, yes, being varied and different but also finding common ground – sharing the same roots, discovering similar human experiences, and realising that our difference was not so different as we thought; that in the ‘multi’ there is the singularity of the human condition; that in diversity is communality – and surely, that is what our society is striving for?

After the unbelievable ethnic horrors of WW2, all through my post war life there was an idealistic consensus about what made a ‘good’ society. There were forces reflected by political parties which found common ground: that difference was to be respected, and discrimination on the grounds of class, race, gender or creed was despised; laws changed to reflect those aspirations, and education embraced all sections of society – or was meant to. If the word multiculturalism has changed now to be replaced by diversity, has the meaning of the word good been exchanged for commercial? Are the products of the gardens of our souls only to be measured by market forces?

For those who loathe political correctness, let’s not forget the power – the magical potency of a single word – and the effect it can have.

Comments

Anita Rose Teesdale 11/11/2017 14:21:06
" Well said -"
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