Today in Morro Bay History: The Uncomfortable Language Choices of 1969 (December 18)


Today in Morro Bay history, the 1969 Junior class took part in the annual PSAT/NMSQT. The story is not too different from what one would expect today: students paid a fee to take the exam ($1.25, significantly less than the sum the test cost today), which had the potential to earn entrance into the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and the scholarships that resulted from that. 

The language of the article, however, stands out. In particular, the second paragraph refers to a specific scholarship program for African-American students, an idea that isn’t completely out of the ordinary. However, the article refers to these students using a word beginning with “n” (see article for reference) which modern publications today would be extremely hesitant to use in almost any context to avoid any racial connotations. Even in the context, the description stood out as jarring to me.  

Language, and in particular what is and what is not socially acceptable to say or publish, has changed radically in the last fifty years. As social conditions change, the limits of what is considered appropriate follows. These changes have not come to an end, either. Recently, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary declared their word of the year to be singular “they,” a reflection of the growing public awareness of preferred pronouns of non-binary individuals. Whether or not these linguistic and social changes will be reflected in the publications written in 2069 or if readers in that year might find something in an article published this year as jarring as I found the 1969’s use of the word in question, we can be sure that the limits of what is socially acceptable has changed (and will continue to change) and language will follow. 

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