I don’t know whether Facebook simply decided to show me a post of ‘Words you can’t stand’ on some language-related Facebook page, or whether a friend commented on it, but I spent a few minutes scrolling through people’s discussions of the usual suspects.

One person said something like: “Any word with TARD in it, because you really mean the r-word”. 

I immediately thought of custard and mustard, and also bastard (which some people might take offence at, for other reasons) and bustard (which is close enough to be possibly questionable). 

The Free Dictionary has come to my aid with a list of words containing -tard, including, in their various forms:

tardy, dotard, petard, retard as a verb and noun and retarded as an adjective, costard, dastard, leotard and unitard, stardom, stardust, tardigrade and ritardando

Of these, the only objectionable word is retard as a noun, which is of course what the original commenter really meant, no doubt thinking about words like (you know which words I’m going to say after the break)

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And to think that I saw it in a Dr Seuss book

In 1937, Vanguard Press published And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street, by Dr Seuss, known to his family and friends as Theodore Seuss Geisel. The original edition referred to “a Chinaman”, which was later changed to “a Chinese man”. Chinaman is now seen as offensive though possibly not taboo, and no new children’s book would use it. As far as I can find, there are no direct equivalent instances of [Country] + man. The closest is Indiaman, but that didn’t/doesn’t refer to a person, but rather to a large ship engaged in trade between Europe and India. Dictionary.com notes that Chinaman was originally as neutral as Englishman and Irishman. The difference is that Chinaman is [Country]-noun + man (compare *Englandman and *Irelandman), while Englishman and Irishman are [Nationality]-adj + man (compare *Chineseman). 

The Wikipedia article on Chinaman (linked above) mentions that Chinese uses 中國人 (zhōng-guó rén, China man/person), and I am familiar with Korean 중국 사람 (jung-guk sa-ram, China person). 중국 남자 (jung-guk nam-ja, China man) and 중국 여자 (jung-guk yeo-ja) are both also possible. I would not be surprised if many other languages use this formula. It is certainly not inherently racist. (Also, the Chinese word for a Western foreigner, 鬼佬 (gwei-lo), means ghost or devil man. Hmmm …)

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