Notes on “mongrel” (and “mutt” and “bastard”)

A number of people were offended by the use of the word “mongrel” in my Media Mix column of July 7, and just as many seem to be confused by it. The word has no pejorative shading to me, though apparently it does to others. I assume that’s because they associate it only with dogs, though in its basic meaning it can apply to anything—dogs, horses, plants, literary genres, and, yes, people—that is not “pure” in whatever sense that word has relevance. In the column, I used it to highlight the media’s fixation on pedigree, which I find pointless and gratuitous. Regardless of her value as a TV personality to individual viewers, to the media Rola’s identity is informed by her mixed heritage. It’s what made her initially interesting to them. For what it’s worth, I think she’s transcended that identity, but in actuality I don’t care. Rola is Rola, as one Twitter supporter said.

One person asked me on Twitter if I would ever say the word “mongrel” to someone’s face. At first, I couldn’t imagine any situation where I would use it in coversation with a person of mixed heritage, but then I thought of a word that many people will find even more offensive: “mutt,” which specifically refers to mixed-breed dogs. My partner of 31 years was born to a Japanese mother and a Korean father, and once she learned the English word “mutt” she adopted it as her own. She also identifies with the Japanese cognate, “zasshu.” It was an empathetic impulse. In Japan, mixed-breed dogs have it much worse than pure-bred dogs, and she wanted to stand in solidarity with them simply because she likes dogs. But eventually she came to the conclusion that using the word to describe herself robbed it of whatever negative connotations it had in the larger world, because she couldn’t do anything about what people thought of her background (which, for the record, was characterized more by poverty than by discrimination). For the same reason, I’ve also heard her refer to herself as a “bastard,” since she was born out of wedlock. No, I would never call her a “bastard” to her face, nor “mutt” nor “mongrel”—nor “wife,” for that matter. I’ve always just called her Masako.

For contrast, here is an essay that is all about mongrels.

And here is the president’s take on the matter.

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