More semantic drift?

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Wed Feb 27 06:00:20 UTC 2008

Or just plain ignorance?

Stacy Schiff, a reviewer for the NYTBR, describes a character in a
novel that she is reviewing as:

"... green-eyed, coffee-colored Clara, the ... octoroon ..."

"Green-eyed octoroon"? Of course. *Coffee*-colored _octoroon_"?!!! Is
the author crazy?!!! (I assume that the description used by the
reviewer is based upon one that the author pulled out his ass.) A
"coffee-colored" octoroon is a genetic impossibility, not to mention
that such a black person can not be distinguished from a white person
by the casual eyeball. Indeed, mere mulattos, such as your humble
correspondent's late grandmother, have been mistaken for white. E.g.,
railroad conductors - a position that could be held only by a white
man, in those days - used to try to seat her in a white coach.

Back in the day, a Louisiana couple were refused a marriage license
when the usual pre-nuptial examination of birth records by the health
department revealed that both the bride and the groom, though both
were scions of families that lived as whites, were of too-recent
African ancestry. Records revealed that the groom-to-be was of
one-sixteenth sub-Saharan African ancestry and that the bride-to-be
was of one-eighth sub-Saharan African ancestry. In other words, she
was, like "coffee-colored" Clara, an octoroon.

The groom-to-be's African ancestry was sufficiently distant that he
could legally live in Louisiana either as a white person or as a black
person. However, such was not the case for his betrothed, since an
octoroon is, by legal definition, a Negro. Hence, they could get
married only if the man chose to define himself as "colored" instead
of as "white."

The news story ended at this point. But, I assume that they probably
went to some Northern state to get married, in the same way that a
Saint Louis friend of mine went to Illinois to marry her Scottish
beau, back in the 'Sixties.

OTOH, this author's lack of miscegenetic knowledge is a good thing.
Once upon a time, no one would have made such an egregious error,
since everyone was directly or indirectly taught the descriptions of
the people named by the various color charts.

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
                                              -Sam'l Clemens

The American Dialect Society -

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