In recent correspondence about the use of the word yuon, references have been made to historical sources, some dating back many centuries. Although such citations may support the view that a word has innocent origins, all living languages change over time and in troubled periods usage may change quite quickly.
Consequently, the use of some words acceptable to one generation may be regarded as being beyond the Pale in the next. Context is crucial and the parameters of context may include the perceived agenda of the speaker, the audience and the likelihood of causing offence when a speech is reported more widely.
There are also the nuances of oral communication to consider. It would be quite possible, for example, for someone to use yuon as a completely neutral word when ordering soup in one breath and then say it as a derogatory word in the next merely by changing their tone of voice. This, of course, would be in the full knowledge that their companions would know exactly what they meant.
In these circumstances it is probably the novelist or the dramatist rather than the compiler of dictionaries or the academic who is best placed to tease out the subtleties of usage. Searching the historical record will certainly generate thousands of footnotes, but will not prove a case one way or another.
In any event, what is most important today is whether or not use of yuon is likely to worsen relationships between ordinary Khmer and Vietnamese communities on either side of the national border. To this end it is not unreasonable to expect those with influence to use the word with circumspection.
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