Kind Hearts & Epithets

Whether Name-Calling Is Innocent Or Hateful, It Shouldn't Be Illegal.

A FEW WEEKS back I used the term "wop" in one of my olumns, and this one poor letter writer 'bout got the vapors over it. In an impassioned tone he wrote of my insensitivity to Italian-Americans, and then ended the letter by equating the word "wop" to "nigger." Which, of course, is ridiculous, since the latter is a racist term that refers to black people (or, in limited cases, a familiar form of greeting used by select African-American comedians and/or Jackie Chan in Rush Hour), while the former is a one-syllable alternative to "dago" or "guinea."

I'm not really sure about the origin of "wop." Some think that it comes from U.S. Immigration agents, who shortened it from the phrase WithOut Passport, while others claim that it's the sound a handful of excrement makes when you throw it against a wall. Of course, for it to be the latter, someone would have had to have picked up a handful of excrement, thrown it against a wall, and been close enough to discern the sound it made. Anyone who would do this would have to be several rungs on the evolutionary ladder below whoever it was he was trying to slur with the term "wop."

I found the charge of insensitivity to Italian-Americans especially intriguing, seeing as how I'm a first-generation one of those. I called my mama, Teresa Maria DiMarco Danehy (who was born in the Abruzzi region of Italy), to counsel me on this matter. Having long ago, through disuse, lost the ability to converse in Italian, I asked her in English if she had ever been offended by the term "wop."

She was too young when she came through Ellis Island to remember anything from that time, but she did hear the term a few times growing up in the Midwest. She says it never really bothered her, and if it had, she would have mentioned it to one of her brothers, one of whom was an All-Big Ten quarterback at Iowa.

"The Italians I know prefer 'dago,' but 'wop' is no big deal," says Mama, and so that's that. I do remember that she told me that my Grandpa, Alfonso, would get called a wop from time to time, and he'd just smile back, nod, and say, "Ah, you a Merde-ee-cahn.'" ("Merde" is pronounced "maird," and is the equivalent of the Spanish word "mierda" and the English word "ess-aitch-eye-tee." So, "Merde-ee-cahn" sounds correct to the ignorant listener/target and then hits home perfectly.)

I probably wouldn't have mentioned this at all had it not been for the nonsense oozing out of the Tucson City Council chambers recently. First, council member Shirley Scott's aide, John Macko, gets shown the door for words he may or may not have uttered. Now we learn that four council members want their fellow councilperson Scott investigated by the State Attorney General! Her crime? She may have used bad words, too.

Folks, we have officially turned into a nation of pussies. And before I get a letter (on recycled, unbleached paper) from the People Against Genitalia Euphemisms (PAGE), let me state that, in this case anyway, "pussy" has nothing to do with anatomy. It means sissy, wimp, wussy boy, and, worst of all, fearer of words.

I don't want to downplay this. I grew up in the '60s and I saw the looks of hurt and anger on the faces of my black friends and teammates when they were called names. Words can be mean and hurtful. But against the law? When did we get so correct that we lost sight of free speech? I felt the same way during the John Rocker uproar. Sure, he's an idiot, but when did he lose the Constitutional right to say stupid things?

NOT THAT SHE ever would, but Shirley Scott ought to be able to get up at the next council meeting, start every sentence with "spook-spic-mick-kike," and have only to fear getting booed off the microphone and then, at the earliest opportunity, being voted out of office. They're words, people. Mean, ugly, distasteful, anachronistic words--but words, nonetheless. The use of such words should have social consequences, not legal ramifications. The only way those things should involve the law would be for Scott to stand up in a crowded movie theater and shout, "Hey, spooks-spics-micks-kikes, the building is on fire!"

Racist speech exists today in a society rife with multiple standards. Most times it is vilified, but sometimes it's glorified. Is there a black stand-up comic working today who doesn't devote 25 percent of his act to making fun of white people? But could you imagine the outcry if a white guy stood up and cracked on black people? Such are the foibles of a free society.

Certainly, I don't want my kids to be called "mick-guinea-beaners" by a teacher or a boss, but there are systemic frameworks in place to deal with such improprieties. But those are kids. Put simply, in the adult world, politicians shouldn't go running to the AG because their feelings got hurt.

What it boils down to is either we have free speech or we don't. I'd much rather live in a world where ugly words are occasionally tossed about than in one where the language has been stripped of its soul, its wit, and even its sting by self-proclaimed guardians.

The four council members (Jose Ibarra, Steve Leal, Jerry Anderson and Carol West) who voted in favor of asking the AG to investigate Scott shall reap the whirlwind on this one. It's politics at its pettiest and we, as Americans, all deserve better.

Fortunately, I can't imagine no-nonsense Attorney General Janet Napolitano giving this thing the time of day. Even if somebody calls her a wop.