Last week, I wrote a post in which I lamented the loss of Natalie Portman to the eternal recesses of holy matrimony. At the time, I thought that the headline I chose–Natalie Portman Weds Dancing Frog–was clever at the very best and clunky at the very worst; after all, Ms. Portman did marry a French ballet dancer.
Our always informed readers used the comments section to both mourn Ms. Portman’s bygone availability and also to debate whether or not I had employed a slur when using the term “frog” to describe her new husband. Three people said yes (and a few other people promoted the comment in agreement). Then I received an email from a reader who said this (I should add that the word “racist” appeared in the subject line):
If we Jews don’t want people to slur and slag us with hate language, we should not use similar terms about other peoples.
I’m very disappointed that your publication did such a stupid thing. You owe an apology to Ms. Portman and her Mr.
On the scale of offense, I never thought to equate the jibe “frog” with anything beyond the pale of light humor that people ascribe to different nationalities. I’ve been called things like yankee and gringo and Americai typusi in my travels abroad and never taken it to mean anything other than a kidding term for an American; something to brush off. I put “frog” in that category because if it’s based on the use of frogs in French cuisine, there are much worse things that could be said about the French.
To help me sort this out, I enlisted Ben Schott who, among many his talents, is a writer, an author of famous almanacs, and a savvy collector of esoteric information about words. Though he says he’s not a professional etymologist, here’s some of what he had to say (pretty much off-the-cuff) about the term “frogs”:
If Limey (for English) is at the very mild 1 out of 10, and the “N-word” is at the grossly offensive 10 out of 10, I would place Frog at 6 or 7.
Interesting, I learn from the O.E.D. that the Dutch were also denigrated by the words Frog and Froglander – and this may explain why the neighbouring French are also so named.
Or the similarity of the Fr- word beginning. Or their predilection for eating frogs’ legs.
(There are a vast number of phrases insulting the Dutch in English idiom – far more than there are denigrating the French who get KISSING, DISEASE and LETTERS – I think.)
With that in mind, I’m writing to apologize to Natalie Portman, Benjamin Millepied, the people of France, and offended readers who considered my use of “frog” to be a slur. I appreciate the thought that readers put into their correspondence, and I’m confident that I will continue to be corrected many more times to come. I give the final thought here to Ben Schott:
I am sure you know this, but the French call the British “Les Rosbifs” (sp?) – presumably after all we ever want to eat. So, touché as the French might croak.
Earlier: Natalie Portman Weds Dancing