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?