Things are rarely black and white – except, of course, when the color of a specific object needs to be defined; and then such words as black and white lose any of their metaphoric potential; they become mere adjectives.
Language is rarely minimally descriptive, and words born to provide a narrowly defined meaning often assume newly assigned values. Consider the word, white. Somewhere between the white, as an objective color, and the white as a synonym of an unsullied character, lies a world of complex lexical pathways, nuances, presumptions, whispered racisms and biased value judgments.
The Latin word for white, candida, has evolved into a number of English terms with current meanings faithful to the original sense of the word; and still other meanings somewhat removed from the original intent of merely describing a color. The yeast infection that causes thrush in infants, cervicitis in adult women and disseminated infection in immuno-compromised adults is given the genus name, Candida, denoting its whitish character; and its principal pathogenic species, Candida albicans reinforces the whitishness of colonies of the organism (Latin, albicare, also meaning white.)
The Latin root, candida, has given rise to yet other words. Exemplary citizens of classical Rome were distinguished by their right to wear white togas (candidata) and, hence, were candidates for high office.
Candidness, as a human quality, demands an openness, a lack of artifice, a love of truth. Both Voltaire and Shaw chose the name Candide (or Candida) for their most enduring, most disingenuous fictional characters Admittedly, candor – the resolute enemy of the art of diplomacy – can at times be an obnoxious trait.
As a metaphoric color, white tends to define nobility, peace and virtue. Matthew speaks of “raiment white as snow.” Shakespeare also talks of the purity of spirit “as white as driven snow.” And other than the white plague (tuberculosis) and candidiasis, there are few medical ailments that rely upon whiteness as their defining character.
In general, then, the color white is inextricably joined with angels, innocence, purity, virgins, candor, doves, new brides, morning clouds, uprightness and uncontaminated snow.
Black, on the other hand, tends to depict shadowy, malign things that often operate beyond the precincts of law. We readily encounter such terms as blackmail, black market, blackguard and blackball. When it comes to qualifying words for human disease, there is little parity between black and white. Thus we have phrases such as blackout (in the alcoholic), black jack (an older term for cholera), black rot, Black Death (bubonic plague), blackwater fever (a mortal form of malaria), black tongue (pellagra), black leg (gangrene) and blackheads (facial pimples.)
The verb for defaming someone – denigrate – means to blacken (Latin, niger, meaning blackness). Are there no black-hued things in nature that deserve to be transformed into positive poetic metaphors ? Are not Rembrandt’s etchings, the printed word and the blessed night also black?
James Baldwin, the African-American writer, once noted: “It is a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of cowboys, you are the sole Indian.” It was not out of whimsy that many, in defense, have then adopted the phrase: “Black is beautiful.”
When appraising the many interpretive ways in which black and white have infiltrated the English vocabulary, it becomes an inescapable truth that we are confronting a form of semantic racism.
Words may begin their shelf lives as value-free terms with unambiguous definitions but rarely does this blissful neutrality persist. Over the years, many words will absorb some measure of the prevailing judgments and biases of those who use the language. And while the root word had not initially intended a “coloring,” in time it may nonetheless reflection societal perceptions or misperceptions.
When a word or phrase conveys more than its intended meaning, the result is mere ambiguity. But when the conscious intent of the word is additionally burdened with a disparaging aftertaste, the message then becomes contaminated. In the marketplace of freely exchanged ideas, undercurrent insinuations are difficult to overcome. There can be, indeed, a tyranny of words.
Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., may be reached at email@example.com.