In his classic analysis of how speaking works, the philosopher H.P. Grice taught that conversation is founded on being informative, truthful, relevant and clear. Those points may seem too obvious to be listed as new information. But the full humanity of language gets interesting once we understand that real exchanges sometimes involve and even require regularly flouting those axioms. “Nice shirt!” you squawk at someone whose shirt is decidedly un-nice. The statement’s irony, and therefore its humor, comes from defying a tacit rule about honesty.
Under this view, to say “honestly” fits right in as a polite indication that you’re playing by the rules, not breaking them. There are languages that take this even further, with usage rules that require you to convey not only that you’re being sincere, not sarcastic, but also where you got the information: In Tuyuca, you put different suffixes on phrases depending on whether you know something from seeing it, hearing it, surmising it or getting it from hearsay. In comparison, our little “to be honest” is a blunter but hardly vacuous instrument.
I’ll talk about this sort of quandary in “Woke Words,” my New York Times Q. and A. this Thursday, and the conversation will surely get spicier when we go into more societally loaded questions, including some you’ve submitted in advance: One person reports being told that we are no longer to say “brown bag lunch” because the phrase evokes the crude color scale that some elite (and elitist) African American organizations are said to have used, once upon a time, to determine eligibility for membership, with only people lighter in complexion than a brown bag admitted.
On this one I must admit a certain skepticism (not of intra-Black colorism — that’s quite real) that “brown bag lunch” should be implicated, for the reason of the antiquity. How many people today know what the brown bag test was, and more to the point, need we proscribe words and expressions to symbolically exorcise a practice that no longer exists?
If we do, then by the same logic, we should no longer refer to whipped cream, since enslaved people were whipped, or shucking corn, because the phrase “shucking and jiving” refers to Black people faking glee to placate white people. If those hypotheticals seem to be pushing it, I’m not sure how “brown bag” is different.