BACK IN 2002 The Economist mused about the rise of Brazil’s left-wing president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “The meaning of Lula”, ran the cover line, prompting a great deal of mail—much of it from amused South Asian readers who wrote to say that the meaning of “lula” in Urdu is “penis”.
Amused—not outraged. It would have been absurd not to cover a soon-to-be president because his name is naughty in Urdu. Yet another complaint about a verbal coincidence, involving the trace of a graver kind of obscenity, recently had serious consequences at the business school of the University of Southern California (USC). Greg Patton, who teaches communication, was describing how repeating “erm, erm” can undermine a speaker’s effectiveness. He noted that other languages have similar pause-fillers; Chinese people, he mentioned, use the equivalent of “that, that, that”, or in Mandarin, “nei ge, nei ge, nei ge”.
Then came the whirlwind. An anonymous complaint from an unknown number of black students said that their “mental health has been affected”. The dean of the business school removed Mr Patton from the class, excoriating him in a leaked letter: “It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalise, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.”