A Grammar What?

A few weeks ago, on an online writer’s forum, a user posted a request for a “Grammar Nazi” to beta read their manuscript. I knew what they meant. They wanted someone with a sharp eye, a good grasp of grammar and a brutal approach to editing to specifically check for language errors in their writing. However, I did not expect the response this poor user’s post evoked.

After a couple of helpful responses people started taking issue with the person’s use of the word “Nazi”. References were made to the fact that Nazism was a totalitarian and oppressive philosophy and that it was insulting and demeaning to equate people who care about grammar to people with the types of principles and beliefs held by members of the Nazi party.

One or two brave souls spoke up defending the original poster, pointing out that the term is often used humorously and the the person clearly did not mean to cause offence. I agreed (quietly; I’m a coward) with these voices. I’ve jokingly called myself a Grammar Nazi, and never intended insult to anyone. But offence was taken and the dissenting voices promptly silenced.

I supposed the people who object to the association with Nazis have a valid point, but I couldn’t see why it would bug someone so much unless they were personally very close to the Holocaust or similar oppression. The internet is rife with self-appointed activists. Wasn’t this just another example of this phenomenon?

But one objection I did find myself agreeing with. It was a reference to an old article by Paul Diller titled The Casual “Nazi”, dealing with how once-significant terms become diluted over time, at the same time diluting the memory of the horrors with which those terms were once associated. You can go read the whole article, but I quote the last paragraph here, which I think is a powerful argument against the use of the term “Grammar Nazi”, and indeed any other abuse of the word “Nazi”, no matter the intention behind it:

Although the English language is an ever-evolving organism, as its speakers we must use it responsibly. This responsibility includes reserving words for their appropriate meanings, especially those words that evoke tragedy and evil of such magnitude. The pervasive fast-and-loose use of Nazi imagery is dangerously desensitizing. Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and director of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to fighting anti-Semitism and other bigotry, has noted that, “If the language and images of the Holocaust become debased, we will lose the ability to identify and grapple with crucial issues in our society.” By using words and names once exclusively associated with unspeakable tragedy in such an insouciant manner, we dilute their original power and trivialize the horrors perpetrated by the real Nazis. The “boy who cried wolf” is now crying “nazi”. I hope that our society’s vigilance against bigotry and hatred does not erode as a consequence.

 How about you? What do you think about the term “Grammar Nazi”? Is this just another case of political correctness and online activism taken too far? Or should we indeed take care to preserve the true meaning of words like these, lest we find ourselves doomed to repeat history?

16 thoughts on “A Grammar What?

  1. This post of yours popped up via another so I came to read it… in case you’re wondering!

    I’ve known survivors and relatives of survivors of the holocaust. I’ve also known people who have been raped. I hate both ‘nazi’ and ‘rape’ used out of context. I’ve read far too much (far, far too much) on what was done during ww2 to want to ever hear or read any of that taken out of context. I’m also of the generation whose parents went through that war themselves. Their memories, their own horror – not pretty. Who wants to rub that in with superficial uses of these words?

    As for should we hide or view the images associated with it… using it for history, using it properly and moderately, fine. But having those images pop up for all the wrong reasons is, imo, very offensive.

  2. Grammar Nazi :- Someone who is similar to a Nazi, but instead of believing he/she has a superior racial status, like the Aryan Germans in this case, the person believes he/she is superior in grammar usage. Like there were considerably less German Aryans then, there are less people, at least on the internet, who can use proper grammar. No relation to their racist ideologies at all.
    I look at the phrase from this viewpoint. 🙂

    1. On a bit of a tangent, that’s what I love about language. A single word can have so many different levels of meaning only within it’s original definition. Then we’re not even getting into the phenomenon of homonyms.

      One could argue it’s a disservice to the language to tie a word down to a single meaning and then “banning” that word from use due to the ideology it represents.

      Your view of the term makes perfect sense to me, though I doubt you’d be able to convince the internet at large of it.

      1. To the arguement that such words “disservice” language, here is a counter-arguement. There also exist words like ‘rape’. If there are no objections against the use of this word and the ideology it represents, why are there objections against words like ‘nazi’?
        My view won’t make sense to many on the net because either many won’t get it, or many won’t accept it. 🙂
        But, “grammarita” is just more catchy. 😀

  3. I don’t think terms like ‘Grammar Nazi’ are offensive particularly; they are obvious enough in context and it’s clear that they flow from the way the word ‘Nazi’ has become a pop-culture cliché for ‘stickler’.

    I think we have to accept pop culture and the way it changes. But that said, I think we also need to remind ourselves occasionally – as societies – of the special evil that the real Nazis represented – something that clearly has faded a bit with the generations.

    Just to elucidate on that – I think the actual Nazis, the German leadership and their henchmen and followers of 1923-45, were evil in the truest sense of the word. Why? Because they did what they did – mass murder on a colossal scale, tortures, suffering, warfare and so forth – consciously, rationally and with intelligence and calculation – and all of it, incredibly, thinking they were ‘good’. But I can’t call them ‘mad’, because if we consider they were insane, we let them off the hook. The better word is definitely ‘evil’. And one of the many evils the Nazis have left us with is that they were SO totally evil, in so many ways, that they’ve made it impossible for us to reasonably discuss such matters as the how and why of what happened.

    This is unfortunate because in many ways they merely orchestrated aspects of humanity that had all been evident before, which were also evident then elsewhere (Stalinist Soviet Union, for instance) and which represented a side of the human condition that still exists. And that worries me. We can’t let it happen again.

    1. And one of the many evils the Nazis have left us with is that they were SO totally evil, in so many ways, that they’ve made it impossible for us to reasonably discuss such matters as the how and why of what happened.

      Very true, this. The forum thread where this discussion took place was in fact closed very quickly. There were no name-calling or excessively emotional arguments or any of the other type of stuff that normally pollute forums in general or discussions of this nature in particular. Thus, the only reason I can think of for the thread’s rapid closure was that one of the moderators was either deeply uncomfortable with the discussion, or was afraid of the discussion devolving into a flame-war. And that is unfortunate, as you say, because we need to have these discussions, so we can remember what we are capable of when we give up our humanity.

      As I was typing this post the Zemanta plugin actually suggested images of a swastika that was adapted into a letter “G”, the supposed emblem for Grammar Nazis. In the Wikimedia page for the image was a warning that the emblem is based on an image that is illegal to display in several European countries. I’d long known the swastika is illegal in Germany, but this sets me thinking: isn’t banning the image perhaps much more harmful than educating people about what it means? Talking about it, rather than hiding it, would work better at preventing the philosophy it represented from returning, don’t you think?

      1. I think you’re right; keeping people aware of the issue is the way to stop it happening again. Anybody with half a brain must surely realise just how ruthlessly evil the Nazis were. A special evil. To me, banning the symbols does little because it immediately makes them ‘forbidden’, therefore ‘good’ to certain people. In any event, the mind-set that created the Nazis seems to be a part of the human condition, and we risk it re-emerging – this time with different symbols. Same applies to ‘Mein Kampf’, which was banned for decades in Europe and has only just been republished there, with a commentary about it. Again, I think banning did little; the book is filled with the frothing rantings of a shell-shocked ideologue. You have but to compare it with Churchill’s carefully styled, reasoned and eminently sensible prose to find the difference between barbarism and civilisation. (One of my favourite books is still Churchill’s ‘History of the Second World War’, committee-writing and all).

        Learning about the history is one way of keeping abreast of the problem, too, of course. So yeah, I figure if we’re smart, if we’re aware – and most of us are, I think – then we’ll avoid the abyss. The problem, I guess, is that when you get down to populations and mass behaviour, not everybody is sensible or reasonable; and one lesson that history offers is that some people like to be led. It keeps happening. Ouch.

  4. Ellen pretty much sums up my response.

    It’s a bit like “rape” … People talk about being “raped” by high prices, or some other inconvenience. It wasn’t something I ever said myself, but never having been raped I wasn’t deeply offended by it, until I read something posted on a feminist forum. Or maybe it was something written by someone who had been raped. Anyway, it made me stop and blink a bit. Now I’m blinking again at the idea that “Grammar Nazi” could be offensive … and yes, they have a point.

    But holy shitte, people – YES YOU HAVE A POINT, and I won’t say it again, but can we STOP with the Being Offended already? IT GETS OLD!

    Not that there’s anything undesirable about being old, okay? Please don’t think I’m being ageist.

    1. People get offended much too easily, yes. And as someone once said, offence is taken, not given. It is always someone’s choice to be offended, which implies they can make the choice to let it go. If only we can learn to disagree without getting all worked up about it.

      I’ve never heard “rape” being used in that context, but I think it would make me uncomfortable. That begs the question: Why does “rape” being used in this way bug me, but not “Nazi”? My theory is that rape as a phenomenon is much more real in today’s context than Nazism, which proves, to me, the point that article makes about words losing their power to inspire horror as we forget what they really mean.

  5. Y’know, I could argue either side of this problem with equal passion. I guess that’s another way of saying I don’t know where I stand but I do feel strongly about it. And in spite of how absurd that sounds, I do actually mean it.

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