A question from Roy Peter Clark:
Last week I taught a class for a group of middle school young men and their mentors. Almost everyone in the room was African-American. The content of the class was the history of the n-word and its current contexts and uses. It was one of the most lively hours I have ever spent in the classroom, mostly because of the candor and fervor of the participants.
What emerged was a clear generational difference. Each of the mentors — professional men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s — testified that they found the word "nigger" or "nigga," insulting, degrading, and demeaning, no matter who was the speaker.
The students — average age about 13 — had a more nuanced view, more inclined to take into account speaker, audience, purpose, and culture. One young man said that he understood why some people would find the word insulting, but that "words change," and that he could use it with friends as a term of identification, solidarity, and affection. He also understood that forms of oppression could be appropriated by the oppressed and liberated to some degree from their original meanings.
I'm still processing this and trying to understand it from a linguistic or semantic perspective. It appears to me that in my lifetime the word "nigger" has shifted in two opposite directions. It is more pejorative than ever, evidenced by how often it is spelled only with its first letter: the n-word. But there is obviously some amelioration going on in some communities, where it can be spoken in a way that inspires a manly hug and not a fist to the face.
Does these sound right to you? And can anyone think of other words that have changed semantically in opposite directions at the same time? Thanks, wordinistas.