Q: I was reading your item about “niggardly” and it reminded me of something. I used the term “bête noire” recently and I was told that it’s now politically incorrect. Do you know the origin of the term and if it is now considered P.I.?
A: I’m dismayed to hear that “bête noire” has been impugned! Neither The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) nor Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) describes it as insensitive.
“Bête noire,” which literally means “black beast” in French, is a figurative expression used to refer to someone or something that is to be avoided or dreaded. It’s a vivid metaphor that has been used in English since the 19th century.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest published reference for the expression is in a Thackeray novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844): “Calling me her bête noire, her dark spirit, her murderous adorer, and a thousand other names indicative of her extreme disquietude and terror.”
Almost anything (any word or expression) is capable of offending SOMEBODY if the circumstances are right. Words themselves (except for the notorious exceptions) aren’t insensitive; people are insensitive.
For instance, there’s nothing wrong with “offhand remark,” but you might not want to use it to describe the comments by a man who’d just had a hand amputated. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with “bête noire,” but it might be unwise to use it in reference to, say, an African-American politician. If a little bell might go off in the listener’s brain, you choose another term, that’s all.
If we were to forbid every word and expression with any capability of offending anyone, we’d have to go around with duct tape over our mouths.
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