The furore over “Paki”

I posted this to www.guardian.co.uk comments section on 12th January 2009 in an area where readers were asked:
Do you forgive Prince Harry?
  • Yes. It was three years ago, and Harry's matured since.
  • No. It's a racist insult, and he's third in line to the throne.

The Guardian survey wording is based entirely on the assumption that an offense was committed. Clearly some people are of that opinion, but in a world where certain groups seem to be all too easily offended by the slightest thing, news coverage should remain more detached. My answer to the question is: "I am not convinced there was anything to forgive."

This case is yet another that illustrates how arbitrary, haphazard, and therefore somewhat absurd are the ways in which certain words come to be regarded as offensive to certain groups of people.

Look at the linguistics of it: the word element -istan occurs in several cases in Asia and means a country or territory. The adjective referring to Afghanistan, also to a native of that place, is either Afghan or Afghani (says my recent edition unabridged Collins dictionary). It is only a recent linguistic quirk that has made the corresponding adjective relating to, or noun for a native of, Pakistan not Paki but rather Pakistani. Given that the latter still has the ending -i marking the adjective, or noun for a native person of a place, and that -istan means a country, to insist that Paki is offensive and that the only acceptable form is Pakistani is actually the linguistic equivalent of screaming that "English" referring to a person from England is offensive and that everybody must now say "Englandish".

So for someone to say "our Paki friend" is just like saying "our Iraqi friend", or "our Israeli friend", "our Afghani friend", "our Somali friend", "our Thai friend" (as opposed to "our Thailandish friend"?!), and so on, and is no more offensive linguistically than saying "our French friend" or "our German friend".

Not all national stereotype names are inoffensive; for example a Frenchman is entitled to be rather offended by terms still occasionally used by rude English speakers such as "Frog". But when a word has no intrinsically offensive semantic content but is merely a logical inflexion variant, as in the case of "Paki", any offense has to be solely in the mind of the offended.