Having returned from a two months stay in Europe, I recall warring letters to editors and heated debates in the Austrian press. An advertisement campaign by an ice cream company caused a ruckus. “I will mohr! “ (I want moor) the posters said referring to the desert “Mohr im Hemd" (moor in a shirt). Similar to the English Christmas pudding, this mix of chocolate, sugar, egg yolks, almonds, and red wine is cooked in hot water, and then covered with hot chocolate sauce. Cream (the shirt) is squeezed through a pastry bag around the Guglhupf-shaped desert (the moor). How could such a delicious innocent desert cause such a controversy?
The name for this desert, beloved by generations of Austrians, insults members of the Austrian black community. They perceive Mohr as a colonial racist term alluding to African nudity. Blacks in Austria have been fighting for more than a decade to eliminate discriminatory names of foods, streets, and other things. They have succeeded with the Negerbrot(Negro bread), a chocolate with peanuts. Very few Viennese pastry shops still sell it under its original name. They want the street names for Kleine und Grosse Mohrenstrasse (Little and Big Moor Streets) changed. One reader commented in his letter to Der Standard; why not rename the streets Cassius Clay and Barack Obama Street? Another reader suggested the Zigeunerschnitzel be renamed Sinti-und Romaschnitzel.
In Germany the pastry Negerkuss (Negro kiss) was replaced by Schokokuss ten years ago. The classic children’s book Zehn kleine Negerlein (Ten Little Negroes) now comes in a second, politically correct version Zehn kleine Kinderlein (Ten Little Children) although it does not sell as well as the original.
This discussion about inoffensive language took place in the US much earlier. Negroes are now African-Americans, while mongoloid children are children with Downs Syndrome. While this may satisfy some groups, I doubt that it eliminates real discrimination. Do we need to change our existing terminology?
In James Baldwin’s novels, African-Americans are called Negroes or colored people because that was the common name at the time. Shakespeare gave us “The Moor in Venice” and no one takes offence. What do we gain when we rename Negerbier black beer? Often language, literary style suffers. The original terms in the language hold more meaning. Rape is stronger than sexual assault. Negerbier makes a certain time and place come alive. Modern politically correct language is often lifeless and cumbersome. See the German StudentInnen to include females in the plural version of students. In the old usage, ninety-nine female students (Studentinnen) and one male student would have become Studenten (students); in the new, StudentInnen with the capital I in the middle, ninety-nine male students and one female all become female students.
Have we gained anything or is it a mere quibble? Why can’t a beloved desert keep its name? Maybe we should inject a little more humor into the debate and not take ourselves so seriously. The German band Tote Hosen is on to something when they said: Auch lesbische schwarze Behinderte koennen aetzzend sein. “Even disabled black Lesbians can be a pain.”