Before Making an Assertion About English Usage, How About Looking It Up?

A commenter writes,

Actually, anyone with a brain disrespects all of rap and anyone in it. In mitigation, those of us who can actually speak and write English have accepted the black verb “disrespect,” which itself would be laughed out of existence but for the constant threat of black rioting. No justice, no peace.

The commenter might well have more problems than just a casual assumption that her prejudices about English are shared by other English speakers. But let me focus on that assumption here.

Just a quick Google Books search, for instance for books containing the word “disrespecting” and published before 1900 gives a good sense of how long the verb “disrespect” has been fully standard in ordinary English. Or, if you prefer, search for “disrespected” in books published before 1800. (Some of those entries are for “disrespected” as an adjective, but the adjective likely stems from the verb.) Or you could search just for “disrespecting” in books published before 1900 that have “Dictionary” in the title. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1614 as the first attestation for the verb, but I realize that not everyone has an OED subscription; that’s why I pointed to Google Books instead.

There’s thus nothing inherently “black” about the word. I suppose it’s conceivable that it’s more commonly used today among blacks than among whites, but it is certainly not just Black English dialect. Nor is there reason to think that anyone would laugh the word out of existence, given its non-laughed-at acceptance for centuries.

More broadly, each of us has only a limited mental image of the English language. We listen to only a fairly limited set of speakers, and read a fairly limited range of publications; and we don’t always remember well all the details of what we hear and read. It may appear to us that a particular word was recently invented, or is entirely a product of a particular dialect or jargon. But it doesn’t mean that our perception is correct.

So before you make assertions about English usage — or for that matter, about other easily verified things — why not look it up? Google Books is only a few keystrokes away.

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