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Issues & Values
Shades of Meaning

DiscoverSavageSquawDiscoverySavageSquaw

Words are easy, like the wind;
Faithful friends are hard to find.

          --Richard Barnfield (1574-1627)

ince the 1980s, critics impelled by heightened ideals of equal rights and multicultural objectivity, with the primary aim of ridding the English language of all words potentially biased, racist, sexist, pejorative, condescending, or simply outdated, have led the English language to a radical revision. Purification, some might say.

However, while film and television scripts have steadily become overladen with sexual and scatological expletives that the journalists of the Lewis and Clark Expedition would never have considered writing down, a few of the words the explorers used rather freely, such as discover, savage, and squaw, are now politically incorrect in many quarters.

Of course, it's essentially a question of attitudes, which often have less to do with whether the words are inherently rude, insulting or derogatory than with new prejudices, or reactions to old ones. The tyranny of political correctness often obscures the overarching richness of the English language in general by overriding the fact that other people in other times have used the same words with entirely different shades of meaning.

Since it is impossible to read very far in the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition without encountering discover, savage and squaw, we may do well to set aside our up-to-date attitudes for a while, and learn to read those three words with their late-18th-century meanings in mind, so that we do not, out of mere ignorance, burden old heroes' tales with new and unseemly motives.

--Joseph Mussulman


 
From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)