Sioux Extinction

A few years ago, as I started reading a book about an incident which occurred during the Plains War, one which, as I recalled, involved some Sioux and Cheyenne villages, I first became aware of a shift in nomenclature.  The word “Sioux” had nearly been obliterated from the text, replaced by “Lakota.”  “Lakota" is indisputably prettier, and is, I suppose, the word which members of the tribe actually used when referring to themselves.  Both “Lakota” and “Dakota” are different pronunciations of a term meaning “the allies,” while “Sioux” is what the Ojibway people called them, the Ojibway word for “little snakes," so I know which one I'd prefer to be called.  However, a website geared toward children explains that even members of the Lakota tribe today sometimes use “Sioux” to describe themselves when they’re speaking English.

An informal survey of a few websites, where words are easy to count, finds “Lakota” often outnumbering “Sioux,” occasionally by as much as four to one.  The compound terms “Lakota Sioux,” and “Sioux (Lakota)” pop up ever more frequently.  The very word “Sioux” seems afraid to venture out alone, and gives some writers a case of the jitters.  What the matter immediately brought to mind was a battle that was fought during the 1960’s over the use of the word “like” in cigarette ads on TV.

Yes, there used to be cigarette ads on TV.  Not only did many TV stars smoke, the characters they were playing smoked, and the actors, still in character, sometimes stepped before the cameras with cigarettes in hand to make a pitch for their favorite brands.  Standards were loose enough in those days that a series of commercials was produced showing animated characters Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble taking advantage of a smoke break to praise the merits of Winston cigarettes, their show's sponsor for the first two seasons.  It was a sponsorship which endured until the birth of Pebbles in 1963.  The prehistoric buddies also appeared in commercials for Busch beer, but I’m assured that those were made exclusively for in-house viewing by the brewing company.

The tagline for Winston commercials in the 1960’s was, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.”  No doubt to the great delight of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, there was an uproar from grammarians over the wording.  Yes, there also used to be uproars over grammar.  In this case, purists pointed out that the word “like” should be replaced by “as.”  Their preferred wording of the tagline was “Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should.”  Enjoying its position as a national topic of conversation having nothing to do with lung cancer rates, Winston stuck to its guns.  Come to think of it, I’m surprised that Fred and Barney were never used to push guns.  But, I digress.  There was, for a little while, a war of words over actual words, and it had repercussions among people who craft words for a living.

There was even a fight over why one word should be preferred over the other.  Some thought “as” makes a better adverb, while another group countered that in this instance the word was being used as a conjunction, and there is a streak of pure, ugly prejudice against “like” performing that role.  A New York Times editor named Theodore M. Bernstein speculated that some grammarians might have been frightened by the word as children.  Panic set in among several insecure young writers, who began frantically penciling through every instance of “like” in their newspaper copy, replacing each one with “as,” even when the result made no sense.  “He writes as Hemingway,” was one bizarre formulation from a book review that caught the Times editor's eye.  Bernstein rose to the defense of “like” as a conjunction when “the verb is suppressed or its implied presence is not strong,” as in the phrase “behaving as children.”  Benstein found “as” completely improper in this case.  “Moreover, it sounds as hell.”

When Winstons began sponsoring “The Beverly Hillbillies,” America sucked in its breath as Jed and Granny lit up just before the closing credits.  Which side would they take?  “Winston takes good,” Jed observed, taking a puff.  Granny nodded in agreement,  “Like a cigarette had oughta."

Most of us try to use the correct words without sounding "as hell," and even hope to refer to our neighbors by names that won’t strike them as offensive.  What does one call Comanches and Lakotas and Apaches, banded together as a group?  I suppose that even most of them stifle a sigh of resignation and accept “Indians,” as a necessary evil.  It’s a misnomer with a long pedigree, and at least performs a useful function.  My wife tells me that Craig Johnson, author of the "Walt Longmire” books, reported about taking a ribbing from some of his friends from a nearby reservation at his use of the term “Native American” in his books.  “Where were you born?” they asked him with a chuckle.     



© Dale Switzer 2023