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March 19th, 2008

Is Oriental offensive? / cliche or cliched? / Woe is me explained

by Barbara Wallraff

David J. McCarthy, of Rochester Hills, Mich., writes: “Someone referred to someone else as ‘Oriental.’ ‘No, no, no,’ said our liberal in residence. ‘Things or places may be Oriental, but not people -- they’re “Asian.”’ I ran to the big dictionary in the school library. It says that ‘Oriental’ describes people from that region. I admit I’m an Occidental. To me, the term seems old, maybe archaic, but not offensive.”

Dear David: I’m afraid it’s not up to you whether “Oriental” is offensive. The folks to whom the word is applied get to decide that, and they’ve made clear they would rather be called “Asians.” The rationale is that calling Asia “the Orient” makes it etymologically east.” (The word “orient” comes from a Latin word for the part of the sky where the sun rises.) But if Asia is where you’re from, it’s not to the east of you -- it’s right there. “Oriental” implies that Asians are faraway, exotic people.

Now, about that dictionary: I’ll bet it was an old one. If you want to know whether a word is offensive -- or slang or substandard -- it’s important to use the most recent dictionary you can find. Appropriateness changes faster than spelling, pronunciation or basic meanings. You would have done better to go online to a site like dictionary.com. There, two of the three definitions supplied from different sources call “Oriental” “offensive” in reference to people.

Cathy Cikra, of Hartville, Ohio, writes: “Has ‘cliche’ suddenly become an adjective? I always thought ‘cliche’ was the noun form and ‘cliched’ the adjective, but lately I have been seeing the adjective ‘cliche.’ What gives?”

Dear Cathy: You’re right -- “cliche” as an adjective is becoming downright common. Here’s a recent example from the “Today” show’s Web site: “Forget cliche, cookie-cutter recipes -- steal Martha’s!” The thing is, we all know that “cliche” is pronounced “kli-shay,” but “cliched” looks as if it ought to be pronounced “klitched.” The problem goes away if you put an accent mark over the “e.” Newspapers don’t use accent marks, so they have an excuse -- but that Web site used one on “cliche,” so I don’t know why they couldn’t have gotten it right with “cliched.”

Michael A. Roberts, of Steuben, Maine, writes: “As a retired English prof, writer and editor myself, I follow your column in awe at your mastery of the fine points of the language, so I have never thought to question your pronouncements. But surely your citation of ‘Woe is me’ as an example of the casual use of a solecism is off the mark. ‘Woe’ is a noun and ‘me’ an indirect object with the silent ‘to’ understood -- in which case ‘Woe is me’ is actually the correct form.”

Dear Michael: You caught me. Thanks for pointing out my mistake, and thanks, too, for phrasing your objection so very kindly. (I especially liked the “in awe at your mastery” part!) Yes, indeed, the reason “It is I” is grammatically correct is that “I” is essentially the subject of the sentence, but “Woe is me” is on a different, thousand-year-old pattern, as would be obvious to all if we still had different forms for direct and indirect objects, the way Old English did.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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