#thingsdarkiessay

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Dan Scherlis has pointed me to the recent #thingsdarkiessay TwitterStorm. Khaya Dlanga described it at length in a weblog post a week ago ("Yesterday, a short-lived war broke out between the US and SA"):

A virtual war between the United States and South Africa was full-on yesterday, the weapon of choice being Twitter. Unfortunately, the weapon was an American one too. Of course in the bigger scheme of things, even in the smaller scheme, this was an insignificant spat. The war was fought at 140 characters at a time.

It was between South African blacks and African Americans.

[…] The tweet that caused all the trouble is a certain trending topic that went as follows — before I say, I should explain what a trending topic is. Twitter tracks the 10 most popular topics of the day and ranks them according to popularity. These topics are usually preceded by a hash tag. Allow me to demonstrate. #khayasthoughtleaderblogsucks. That would be a trending topic, notehowtherearenospacesbetweenthewords. Yes. WedothatonTwitter. The native that caused all the trouble started a trending topic that reached number 1. #thingsdarkiessay. That was the topic. One would say for example, "#thingsdarkiessay I have high-high". Elderly black folks say they have high-high, by this they mean high blood pressure. Perhaps using more words than necessary increases their blood pressure. Maybe they were the original tweeters.

Someone else would then say, "#thingsdarkiessay Stop nonsense". You get the picture. Completely harmless. Unless you were African American. An avalanche of misunderstanding descended on the South Africans like a ton of 140 character insults.

As a result of the complaints, the Twitter management removed #thingsdarkiessay as a "trending topic".

In explaining the intercultural misunderstanding, Dlanga offers this exchange:

Dream Hampton, (@dreamhampton) who became the first woman editor of The Source Magazine asked me if "darkie" wasn't "more akin to the N word?" I explained to her "No, here that would be the K word". She was fine with the explanation, if not completely comfortable with it.

In other words, this is one of those cases, like the Tiger Woods "spaz" debate, where a word that's innocuous in one variety of English is seen as deeply offensive in another.

Dlanga feels unfairly treated by Twitter:

It would seem to me, according to Twitter, tweets Americans find offensive but are innocent to others will not be allowed to be trending topics it seems. Part of social media is that we get to learn about each other. It's not always going to be just fun, sometimes we have to get a little uncomfortable with one another before we can be truly understanding of each other. Even in our hyper-emotional responses we may pause for a moment, breathe, think and learn something about someone else. They were not wrong in their outrage, nor were we when we joked about things darkies say. What was wrong was the inability to try to understand or explain why we held the views we did. Most of the responses were emotional, not rational.

And this feeling leads him to a little anti-American joke:

At some point I even tried to get the US Embassy (@USEmbPretioria) to intervene, they responded by saying, "@Khayadlanga has more pull power with Twitter than we ever will". The comment was followed by a smiley face. This response was enough for my over-inflated ego. It's true, flattery will get you anywhere. All I need is flattery and oxygen. I am more powerful than the United States. I feel like invading something. Anything. Suggestions anyone? Should we vote on it? I say let's invade Khanyi Mbau or Julius. Kidding.

But there's an obvious problem, from Twitter's point of view.  If a term X is harmless in region A but problematic in B, then not only will right-thinking people in B be offended, but not-so-nice people in B may enthusiastically join in.  Whether (and to what extent) Twitter ought to police such things is another question, of course.



114 Comments

  1. Słowosław said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    What is "the K word"?

    [(myl) That would be "kaffir".]

  2. davek said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    The root of the problem here is the blurring of national boundaries on the internet. Anyone with an internet connection can access Twitter from anywhere in the world, but Twitter.com is still an American website. It's not really all that unreasonable to be expected to pander to American sensibilities when posting on Twitter.

    Likewise, I don't complain about Amazon.com not listing prices in sterling – I go to Amazon.co.uk to do my shopping.

    Perhaps Jack Dorsey should launch Twitter.za to cater for such local differences.

  3. P Kerai said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    @Likewise, I don't complain about Amazon.com not listing prices in sterling – I go to Amazon.co.uk to do my shopping.

    Ironically, I live in the UK and bought something off Amazon.com yesterday, and they did list prices in sterling when you're ready to checkout (you can disable it, though).

  4. Ali said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    Isn't another problem that it's practically impossible to have a debate based on reasoning and critical thinking, let alone cultural sensitivity and tolerance, when you're restricted to typing only 140 characters at a time? For instance, just asking that question required 223. Then, there's the time it takes to give several examples to support or illustrate your point (that took 162). And then a little bit more to concede that there may be a counter-argument or differing perspective that you have not yet considered, and that your point of view is not meant to be dogmatic or exclusive, despite how firmly you might hold to it–which, perhaps, a talented person could manage to pull off in less than 140 characters, though this one took 358. Tack on a conclusion to remind everyone what all the fuss was about, and you're pretty much done for regardless of your brevity (conclusion: 158, total: 905).

    I'm not saying it's impossible. But damn! Emotional responses are so much shorter. (87)

  5. Acilius said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    Until the quote from Dream Hampton, I was quite puzzled. What's so objectionable about "Things Dark I Essay"?

    "In other words, this is one of those cases, like the Tiger Woods "spaz" debate, where a word that's innocuous in one variety of English is seen as deeply offensive in another." I have reservations about the phrase "variety of English." I've always heard "variety of English" as a substitute for "dialect," and always with the suggestion of a variant prevalent in a particular geographical region. So it might work for the main topic of the post, but I'm not convinced there's any great regional variation in the use of "spaz" as an insult. It might be that where the word has been used most frequently, many speakers toss it around in informal registers without any particular awareness of its etymology, but I'm quite sure that any English speaker who has a spastic condition would be likely to dislike the word rather intensely.

  6. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    I too thought at first that this had something to do with essays–and possibly vampires!

    I hope it's not off-topic, but the mention of "a word that's innocuous" to some can be "seen as deeply offensive" by others caused me to think about the word 'Brit'.
    When not being used for the fry of the herring (different ety. I know) it is used for (and increasingly it seems by) people like me, and it always jars when it hits my ears.

    I'm in my (omg) 60s and during my lifetime Brit has spread from near non-existence. It was as the OED coyly puts it "in early use not a self-designation" and whenever I hear it I can't help adding an "S" and "OUT!!"

    Though not in any way a supporter of imperialism and conquestiness, I am rather disturbed that we seem to have come to refer to ourselves by a term that owes its use to the fact that people who didn't want us to be in various locations around the world, and possibly would have been happier if we'd been kicked out of Britain too, were in so much of a hurry and valued paint so highly that they abbreviated us.

    It's obviously not as bad as the 'N', 'K' or other one-letter bad words, so I'm just curious if I'm the only Briton who has this reaction.

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    It's not really all that unreasonable to be expected to pander to American sensibilities when posting on Twitter.

    Are you suggesting we should be forced to pander to American sensibilities when posting on Language Log.

    There are numerous phrases that some have been brought up to consider, or genuinely consider, or have been brought round, to consider, as offensive, which are considered harmless or neutral by others. And that's not to mention embedded phrases.

    Two days ago I commented that 'After K. had to work like a nigger finishing the evaluations in a weekend, the big boss has been sitting on them for two months.'
    'That's not very PC', a younger but more senior colleague remarked.
    'OK, been staring at them for two months', I said somewhat puzzled.
    'I think he was referring to the first phrase' the other colleague in the room chipped in.
    It still took me a few seconds to work it out.

    We clearly have some kind of flag that will mark words such as 'nigger' as offensive, even if it was not until the late teens that one found out the word was offensive and not picturesque. However embedded phrases aren't linked to their component parts (which is why so many dead metaphors can be resurrected by an unfortunate turn of phrase), so the embedded phrase never gets marked as offensive.

  8. JimG said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Tangent warning

    I don't Twit, I don't want to be a Twit. I DO use SMS, and I find that the 140-character limit forces me to sharpen my writing style, honing its edge, forcing me to clean out the extraneous stuff. (One would never use the word extraneous.) I do use orthography differently on SMS, and I do abbreviate. I find it's surprising how much one can communicate, and very well, using <140 characters.

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    The SOED puts Brit at early twentieth century. "Brits out' as a slogan was, I thought, limited to Northern Ireland, though all of our other ex-colonies will have had their own wording of the phrase.

    The use of the word as a self-designation probably is to do with cultural and demographic reasons. Back in the days of Empire we didn't need to identify ourselves, and their is also the fact that in a foreign country the phrase 'the Brits' would be seen as most likely to refer to the British expatriate community, whilst 'the British' could be seen to refer to the whole nation.

  10. Peter Harvey said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    When I arrived to live in Zambia in 1980, I was told not only that I should never call an African a Kaffir, but also that I should never use the word 'stupid'. In fact it was a disciplinary offence at work to call an African stupid. This was a result of the common collocation 'stupid Kaffir'.

    Then I went to live in Saudi Arabia. Like many Swahili words, Kaffir is Arabic in origin. It means infidel. So in Saudi I was a Kaffir myself!

    [(myl) More on the S-word, and the scriptural support for its proscription, is here.]

  11. Alan Gunn said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Richard Howland-Bolton brought up the OED's mention of self-designation, perhaps suggesting that the OED meant it as a test for whether a word is offensive. I don't think that works. Some African-Americans use the n- word to refer to themselves, which doesn't make it OK for others to use it. And there are no people anywhere (except maybe in Maine?) who think of themselves as "Yankees," but it would be a sensitive soul indeed who'd be offended by hearing it. I heard it a lot when my family spent a year in Louisiana in 1951-52; sometimes it was meant as a put-down, but mostly not. I've also been addressed as "Yank" by a few Brits.

  12. Słowosław said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    Thank you for the link, Prof Liberman.

    Re: "Brit", I don't know anyone who finds it offensive (my friends are probably too young), but it seems to be used far more by North Americans than by people in Britain. Does it have a North American ring for anyone else?

  13. Ken Brown said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    "Brit" is completely neutral to this Brit. Not insulting at all. And I even use it myself because we have no other noun for a British person. (Or English or Welsh… or most nationalities… is that a feature of English? Is nationality usually adjectival?)

    "Briton" implies chariots and woad, and when used in a modern context it seems terribly pompous.

    But then the only ethnic insult I can think of that anyone ever actually uses for white English people in our presence is "pommy" and even that's not really offensive. ("Limey" is a word only heard in old films – and again not really offensive – not at all offensive – drinking lime juice was a Cunning Plan that worked)

    Peter Harvey said: "Like many Swahili words, Kaffir is Arabic in origin. It means infidel. So in Saudi I was a Kaffir myself!"

    Surely "Kaffir" as used in South Africa can't be considered Swahili? Its an English or Afrikaans borrowing from Arabic.

  14. rpsms said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    I am reminded of the beer mix "Black and Tan" (Yuengling or custom mixed) and the trouble Ben & Jerry's got into with the Irish over the ice cream flavor inspired by the beer.

  15. Tom said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    I'm British, 22 and though I find nothing offensive about the term I'd never use "Brit" to refer to myself. Sounds very American.

  16. William Lockwood said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    I can't agree with Stephen Jones in the least. I'd be really shocked if I heard somebody say "worked like a nigger". Given, I haven't heard that phrase used, but the only time I've heard "nigger" used in speech was 1) By my grandmother, referring to a water chestnut 2) the somewhat more dilute "niggah" of the rap-listening (I guess?) community.

  17. Alex said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    @Stephen Jones

    My college-age cousin, an American from a staunch Irish Catholic family, is named Britt. (Not Brittany or Briton; his name is just Britt.) How's that for odd language change over time?

  18. Ken Brown said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    William Lockwood said: "I can't agree with Stephen Jones in the least. I'd be really shocked if I heard somebody say "worked like a nigger"."

    Same here. Its a word you hear mentioned far more often than used I think. Was never really part of my use vocabulary and the few times I have heard it usd recently it was always deliberately meant to shock.

    It also sounds rather artifical in an English context – when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s someone wanting to directly insult black people would have been far more likely to say "wog" or even "monkey" (though "coon" was popularised by "Till Death us do Part" TV program), and someone wanting to be deniably snooty might have said "coloured" or some circumlocution like "of the coloured persuasion"

  19. Marinus said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    I must say, as someone born and raised in South Africa, that I have never heard the term 'darkie' used except as a slur, or something thereabouts. I am very skeptical that it's neutral in meaning. I suspect that Khaya Dlanga's view is perhaps a little intentionally tone-deaf to the normal use of the term, in an attempt to 'reclaim' or 'take back' a derogatory term. That would be a familiar turn of events, as these things go.

  20. Cecily said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    @Richard Howland-Bolton, I happily describe myself as a Brit, mainly when commenting on blogs and forums etc when I need to distinguish between users of BrE and AmE, and Fowler reckons "Its use is more typically affectionate than hostile or offensive.".

    @Stephen Jones, the way embedded phrases don't necessarily flag as offensive may be true, though I can't think of any examples off hand. Like William Lockwood, I baulked at "worked like a nigger" (not a phrase I'd heard before). The usage I most often hear is "the nigger in the woodpile", so if anyone would like to suggest a good alternative, it will pass it on next time a certain relative uses it.

  21. Dance said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    There's was a similiar twitterstorm over "#thatsafrican" in June, which was pretty fascinating to follow in real time (and made me wish for easier ways to archive twitter).
    http://www.afrolicious.net/2009/06/21/telling-our-own-stories-thatsafrican

    I have tried to hold sophisticated debates on twitter, once successfully, once not.

    Even more shocked by "worked like a nigger" because it is straight out of the days of slavery and sharecropping (and I'm wondering exactly what the inflections behind it are in British use—did distant slavery send it Home? were the crap jobs black immigrants held so visible?) No one using the word "nigger" with intent today associates it with working hard.

  22. Robert Coren said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    @Cecily: Well, W. C. Fields used to say "There's an Ethiopian in the fuel supply", but I don't think that would work in most modern contexts.

  23. Fresh Sawdust said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    The problem with Stephen Jones, or rather what he is apparently arguing for, is that he has worked overseas teaching English in some capacity for quite a while. The fact is, if he were to utter the N word so freely back in the UK nowadays, he would definitely offend any black person within earshot; and even if there weren't any, his white colleagues would be left feeling distinctly uncomfortable, if only because it wouldn't be most people's intention to seemingly encourage unwittingly(?) offending others, even if there hadn't been the "rise of PC" etc etc.

    Ultimately there are other ways to express the "intended" meaning, and to argue for the continued use of a certain phrase just because "you alone" find nothing wrong and everything right with it smacks at the very least of a strange sort of linguistic conservatism, as if the language should not change regardless of the wider social changes (for good or bad, when carried to extremes!) that have clearly occured.

    But hey, when you live in Rome, I suppose there's no reason to do as the Brits now do.

  24. Peter Taylor said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    I would say "I am British" rather than "I am a Brit", but I don't find "Brit" offensive. I guessed that the British tabloids probably use it quite a lot, and a quick Google search with site:thesun.co.uk bears that out.

    I do find it offensive to be called a Yankee, which has happened in South America. Call me pejoratives based on my nationality as much as you want, but get the nationality right!

    The word "nigger" caused Agatha Christie's publishers some embarrassment. Ten Little Niggers was later renamed Ten Little Indians, and still later And Then There Were None.

  25. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    I'm not sure what Ken Brown meant by ""wanting to be deniably snooty", but "coloured" as a generic adjective for darker-skinned people has been a part of my vocabulary for a very long time. My grandfather would use the word "nigger" in a distinctly non-pejorative sense : "I had a really nice little nigger nurse give me a bed-bath today", he once said while hospitalised. What is sometimes overlooked in these discussions of potentially offensive words is that they often come into use for exactly the opposite reason : to avoid giving offense, rather than to cause it. Thus for my generation "black" was pejorative, and "coloured" used as non-offensive alternative; I don't know whether my grandfather consciously adopted "nigger" as an alternative to some other term for dark-skinned people that had already become pejorative, but it seems quite possible given the contexts in which he would use it. And to be honest, I still can't understand why "blacks" is today regarded as being P.C. : "black people", perhaps, but "blacks" ? I can't imagine anyone other than a member of the BNP describing Caucasian Britons as "whites", at least within the context of <Br.E>.

  26. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    I find "Brit" very mildly offensive, and would only use it of myself in an ironic, self-deprecating, Brit sort of way.

    In my schooldays after moving to England I was for a while a Jock. This did not get me as many cheerleaders as you Yankees may imagine.

  27. Bill Walderman said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    A controversy not too different from the one that's the topic of this post broke out in the District of Columbia in 1999, when an official in the District of Columbia government, who happened to be white, was forced to resign after using the word "niggardly" to mean "stingy" in a public communication. Members of the African-American community found this word offensive on account of its similarity to the n-word.

    http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost/access/38513518.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&date=Jan+27%2C+1999&author=Yolanda+Woodlee&pub=The+Washington+Post&edition=&startpage=B.01&desc=Top+D.C.+Aide+Resigns+Over+Racial+Rumor

  28. Bill Walderman said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    I first encountered the term "Brit" in the US Army, where it was used to designate one of the major European nationalities, alongside "Frog" and "Kraut," entirely without opprobrium. To convey a pejorative sense, these terms would have to be preceded by the participial form of the f-word.

  29. Fresh Sawdust said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    I caught (accidentally) a bit of Brit Cops: Zero Tolerance the other night. They'd been called to a block of flats where a drunk was creating a disturbance. Seeing as he'd quietened down and wasn't in possession of anything unlawful (a weapon, drugs etc) they simply asked him to go straight home and not cause any further trouble. His response was slurry and quite possibly sarcastic 'Thanks – we've got the best f****ing police force in the world!'.

    The morale of this story? Now although the officers involved no doubt were too busy to really want to pick up on the potential insult, I doubt if that drunk will ever be too busy (doing more constructive things) to cease being a pain!

    Not of course that general swearing is as potentially offensive as perceived racism.

  30. Fresh Sawdust said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    Oops, that should be 'f***ing'! And an 'a' before the 'slurry' :)

  31. Marinus said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    In all honesty, there is a world of difference between ways there are referred to groups who have suffered widespread, far-reaching and institutional discrimination, like blacks in South Africa, and those who have not, like the British. To somehow equate the two is painfully misguided.

    In South Africa at least 'black' isn't perjorative, not with the historical role of the Black Consciousness movement and government programmes with names like Black Economic Empowerment.

  32. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    @Phillip
    and then there's the episode of Fawlty Towers when the Major says "And the strange thing was that throughout the morning she kept referring to the [sub-continental] Indians as niggers. No, no, no, no I said!" at which point you think he is (surprisingly for someone of his age and background) about to admonish her for offensive language till he continues "Niggers are the West Indians, these people are wogs!"
    That was of course cut from the version shown over here.
    Is it still offensive if you are laughing at the perp?

    @Brit-repliers. I wonder if there is any correlation between your ages and your reaction. Not enough data.
    I wonder if my reaction is conditioned by the fact that I lived in London when the IRA bombings were (within hearing distance of at least one!), and as Stephen said the slogan was closely associated with the Troubles.

  33. dwmacg said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    When I first moved to Madrid, it seemed to be covered with the slogan "yanquis = asesinos". Having spent my formative years in MA, I was touched to learn that Madrileños disliked the NY baseball team so much.

    I hear "gringo" from my Latino friends a lot more these days. I don't think it's always perjorative, and it doesn't offend me.

    Are Australians offended by the word "Aussie"? Canadians by "Canuck"? And, in the latter case, what do they think of the nickname of Vancouver's NHL team?

  34. Stephen Jones said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    'nigger in the woodpile' is one of those strange phrases. Everybody knows it but nobody uses it, apart from Cecily's relation.

    No one using the word "nigger" with intent today associates it with working hard.

    'Work like a nigger' is a set phrase. Same in Spanish ('trabajar como un negro'). Despite the racial origin of the phrase no more a sign of racism in the people that use it than 'blacklist' or 'welch'. People can quite easily avoid offensive phrases by flagging the term in their mental dictionary as 'objectionable'; we do that all the time when we change register. But flagging 'nigger' as objectionable doesn't make 'work like a nigger' flagged as objectionable because it's stored as a synonym for 'work very hard.', not as its constituent parts.

    when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s someone wanting to directly insult black people would have been far more likely to say "wog" or even "monkey" (though "coon" was popularised by "Till Death us do Part" TV program),

    You've forgotten 'spade', which was possibly the most common insult. As I implied when I described the word as 'picturesque' 'nigger' in the UK was associated with Agatha Christie and Mark Twain (and possibly later Conrad). Funnily enough I don't think I've ever heard the word used aggressively.

    People often forget words and things have different connotations according to generation. Those of use who breakfasted on Robinson's marmalade and saved up the paper gollywogs to exchange them for a metal badge, find it difficult to see the word or object as a racial insult. On the other hand there are people in the UK that have had the insult thrown at them from their earliest days in the playground.

    I can't imagine anyone other than a member of the BNP describing Caucasian Britons as "whites", at least within the context of BrE.

    What you mean is whites don't describe themselves as whites (but despite 'blacks' being non-PC we still have 'black power' and 'black music' and 'black gay and lesbians'.

    What happens also is that phrases introduced to counteract a negative phrase get used negatively, so another one has to come in and so on.

    Surely "Kaffir" as used in South Africa can't be considered Swahili? Its an English or Afrikaans borrowing from Arabic.

    If the word 'kaffir' came through Swahili then it must have first been used by blacks to describe other blacks. Frankly I suspect the correlation between the English and Arabic may well be pure coincidence.

  35. Adrian Mander said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    I (a 30 year old Canadian white guy) find even the careful mentions of the n word in these comments somewhat discomfiting. It's very taboo for me.

  36. Ellen said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    Stephen Jones, I can assure you it is not true that everyone knows the phrase "nigger in the woodpile".

    As for your comments regarding "work like a nigger", surely those who use it are likely at some point to notice the individual words that make up the phrase.

  37. Acilius said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    Like Adrian, I find careful mentions of "the N word" to be nervous-making. And I do doubt that all of the mentions of it on this thread are genuinely careful.

  38. uberVU - social comments said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by languagelog: #thingsdarkiessay: Dan Scherlis has pointed me to the recent #thingsdarkiessay TwitterStorm. Khaya Dlanga described … http://bit.ly/3jf7hk

  39. Squander Two said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    I suspect the word "Brit" has grown in use so much over the last few years due to the recent high levels of immigration to the UK. There is more need than there once was for a word to distinguish between "British person" and "person who lives in Britain".

    Ken Brown,

    Drinking lime juice was a Cunning Plan that didn't work: not much vitamin C in limes. Drinking lemon juice was the Cunning Plan that worked. It's interesting that we ended up being named after the failed attempt rather than the successful one. I wonder whether that's just accidental or whether the word "limey" was intended to have connotations of incompetence.

  40. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    I used to be friendly with some cops in Rochester NY who frequently called me 'Slimy Limey'–strangely that didn't offend me :-)

  41. Mr Punch said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    As a sixtyish American from Boston, I must say that I used to associate "Brit" with "Brits out!" (many of our local residents are keenly interested in Irish affairs) but now it seems to have lost any pejorative tone. (By the way, has any American ever used the term "Briton"? We predate the Act of Union, I guess.) As for "Yankee," I know a lot of people who would embrace that designation, and who are unhappy that New York has to some degree appropriated it.

    Classic definition of "Yankee": Outside the US, and American; in the US, a northerner; in the north, a New Englander; in New England, someone from Maine; in Maine, someone who eats pie for breakfast.

  42. Stephen Jones said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    As for your comments regarding "work like a nigger", surely those who use it are likely at some point to notice the individual words that make up the phrase.

    Yes, after they've said it if the room suddenly goes quiet.

    There are countless examples of set phrases where one doesn't think of the constituent parts. Why should this phrase be an exception?

    Stephen Jones, I can assure you it is not true that everyone knows the phrase "nigger in the woodpile".

    True, there probably aren't many words or phrases in the English language we can say 'everybody knows' for.

  43. Lazar said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    @Mr Punch: No, England and Scotland were united 69 years before the colonies declared their independence.

  44. Des said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    "Aussie" is not considered offensive in Australia, though we rarely use it of ourselves in ordinary speech. There's even a cheer used at international sports events:

    "Aussia, Aussie, Aussie: oy, oy, oy".

    On a previous topic, a couple of generations ago, naughty kids in Oz were admonished: "Be good or we'll give you to the tinkers". Not sure if the tinkers were Travellers or Rom. Possibly Travellers — given the "tinker" use?? Haven't heard the phrase for sixty years or more, nor have I heard of Travellaers or Rom for that long either.

  45. Matt said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    I'm just curious if I'm the only Briton who has this reaction.

    Nope. I'm not really a fan of it, but then I'm a) atypically overly formal, b) kind of associate with Sun-esque jingoism and c) see it noticeably peak in use by foreigners during antagonistic (and usually foolish on both sides) nationalistic Internet arguments with British folks, during which it does have kind of a derogatory, patronizing or contemptuous overtone (usually North Americans).

  46. Mark P said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    I'm 59 years old and grew up in Georgia. In my lifetime, the word "nigger" was never used except as an insult. I have to assume, based on things like Mark Twain's writing, that the word was one time not intended to be a special insult but was rather a common term for black people. I still believe there was at least an unconscious condescension (to be generous) in the use. I don't remember the word "darkie" being used in any context except in what was thought to be a humorous but still condescending way. I think it has traveled a path similar to "nigger" but maybe without quite as much negative baggage. But still all the baggage is negative.

  47. dwmacg said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    @Stephen Jones:

    Here's what the Online Etymological Dictionary has to say about "kaffir":

    "1790, from Arabic qafir "unbeliever, infidel, impious wretch," with a lit. sense of "one who does not admit the blessings of God," from kafara "to cover up, conceal, deny." Technically, "non-Muslim," but in Ottoman times it came to be used almost exclusively for "Christian." Early Eng. missionaries used it as an equivalent of "heathen" to refer to Bantus in South Africa (1792), from which use it came generally to mean "South African black" regardless of ethnicity, and to be a term of abuse since at least 1934."

    So apparently Swahili doesn't enter the picture.

  48. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Can we go way back and hit a picky little linguistic point?

    Elderly black folks say they have high-high, by this they mean high blood pressure. Perhaps using more words than necessary increases their blood pressure. Maybe they were the original tweeters.

    High-high (hoog-hoog) is just the usual way of saying "very high" in Afrikaans, no extra word at all. A great little language — Malay grammar on a Dutch vocabulary. First written in Arabic script, so no problem with kaffir. Wikipedia has a short piece on Arabic Afrikaans.

  49. dwmacg said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    That's the "Online Etymology Dictionary", of course.

  50. Nathan Myers said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Compounding the lime juice fiasco, the Royal Navy stopped carrying fresh limes, and instead issued canned lime juice, which all the vitamin C had been cooked out of. Robert Scott carried such cans to Antarctica, and died, along with much of his crew, of scurvy.

    I had the same experience as Acilius, parsing "Things Dark I Essay". It took rather some time to discover the topic.

  51. Marinus said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    @ Dan Lufkin: As a native Afrikaans speaker, I have to say that the usual way to say 'very high' would be 'baie hoog'. Doubling of words isn't at all strange in Afrikaans ('gou-gou' – quickly, 'nou-nou' – in a moment, 'stuk-stuk' – piecemeal, amongst others) but not the norm and certainly not for showing a high degree of something. That is true in some cases for some of the Bantu languages, which is what I believe the #whatdarkiessay point was.

  52. Acilius said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    About ten years ago I read a column in THE NEW STATESMAN, I think by Cristina Odone. She told a story. She was walking down a street, I forget where but I seem to recall it was a big English city other than London.

    Two well-dressed men were staggering along in front of the columnist, obviously drunk. She of course wanted to avoid any contact with them. But when she heard them bellowing that the neighborhood had gone downhill and it was the fault of "All these feargals," she was so puzzled by the expression that she couldn't resist asking the men what a "feargal" was. "It's rhyming slang," they explained. That didn't help her. "Feargal Sharkey," they explained. Still not helpful. "Feargal Sharkeys- darkies!" She was stunned by this, not because it was racist- that she'd more or less expected. What stunned her was to find that anyone still used such an old-fashioned word as "darkies."

  53. Sili said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    Oh, look. It's the No God brouhahah all over again. (Aka Twitter(ers) are stupid.)

    Twitter collapsed recently and as was pointed out then it's really time to have more services of the same kind. The G-word may have monopolised searching, but there are still oodles of ways to get email or run blogs, so it is a bit surprising the Twitter is still the lone provider.

    I had to think a bit, but I managed to recall the K-word. Would I be wrong in thinking that it was employed in one of the Deadly Weapon films?

  54. Ellen said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    There are countless examples of set phrases where one doesn't think of the constituent parts. Why should this phrase be an exception?

    I didn't say that particular phrase was any sort of exception. I just said people are likely to notice the words that make up the phrase. My opinion of course, I don't have studies to back that. But you don't have studies to back up your opinion that people using the phrases will be oblivious to the individual words, only noticing them if someone gets offended.

  55. Acilius said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    "people are likely to notice the words that make up the phrase"- when one of the words in the phrase usually provokes a very strong emotional reaction, I'd say they are likely to notice it.

  56. Ellen said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    Oops, I should have specified, as I did before, people will, I believe, at some point notice the words that make up those "set phrases". And I should have said "will remain oblivious" in my last sentence. And if I'm wrong and you have some study saying that, overall, people will not ever notice the words in set phrases of their own accord, feel free to indicate. But I doubt it.

  57. Nathan Myers said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    I'm surprised to find Afrikaans described as having a Malay grammar. In my experience with Malay (actually Indonesian, but hey), reduplication added vagueness: orang, person; orang-orang, people. hati, heart; hati-hati, care. jalan, walking; jalan-jalan, walking around. English, lacking this grammatical operator, needs its enormous vocabulary to convey finely crafted degrees of vagueness.

  58. Martin van den Berg said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    @dwmacg and @Dan Lufkin: The Dutch route into Afrikaans seems likely to me. The Dutch equivalent of the OED (http://gtb.inl.nl/?owner=WNT) mentions the first use in Dutch as occurring in Indonesia (1726). In Dutch there ir an insulting term meaning 'stupid peasant', but entry entry 5 of (http://tiny.cc/gtbinl) suggest that that has a slightly different etymology in coming from the Hebrew. Whether that is true or not I don't know, but he word definitely does not have any racial connotation in Dutch.

  59. John Atkinson said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    @Stephen Jones: "If the word 'kaffir' came through Swahili then it must have first been used by blacks to describe other blacks."

    Yep. The Muslims of the coastal cities would have used "kafiri" (= infidel) to describe the pagans of the interior.

    The S African (Afrikaans and English) form of the word doesn't have the final vowel of the Swahili, which is another reason to think that it didn't come via that language.

    "Frankly I suspect the correlation between the English and Arabic may well be pure coincidence."

    I disagree there. I've always assumed (as Dan Lufkin says) that the word was brought to S Africa from the East Indies by Malay-speaking slaves of the Dutch colonisers. Malay gets it from Arabic, of course.

    Though I too disagree with Dan that there's all that much "Malay grammar" in Afrikaans.

  60. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    @Marinus & Martin v.d. Berg — Thanks, I was hoping a native speaker of ZA would chime in. I know that baie hoog would be better register, but we were talking about older people. BTW, I wonder whether ZA baie (= very) is related to Bahasa baik.

    Martin, the "Malay grammar" bit was given me as encouragement by an elderly Afrikaner gent when I was first studying De Taal, starting out from Dutch. I do agree that Malay has a lot of grammar (especially the affixes) that was jettisoned in the formative years of ZA. I believe that there is a lot of emphasis on the purity of the Dutch roots of the language and downplaying its creole aspect. Gotta do a little reading on that.

  61. Robert Young said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    @Des My grandmother used to use that phrase "Give you to the tinkers" but she meant the people who travelled around the farms and small towns repairing pots and pans and sharpening knives.

  62. dwmacg said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

    @Martin van den Berg, I'm afraid my Dutch isn't good enough to navigate that page, so I'll just take your word. :) Anyway, it certainly makes sense. I think the interesting point is that the word essentially is used to refer to "the other"; what that "other" is depends on the most salient distinction in the culture, whether it's religion, race, or class (or some combination). For what it's worth, when I was in Turkey 20 years ago "gavur" was a general term for foreigner (and I assume it still is).

  63. Dan Scherlis said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    Since Mark Liberman was kind enough to credit me for the find, I feel that I should give a hat tip to my own source. (*checks browser's history*) Ah yes. It was a post by Ken Kambara in the thickculture blog, at contexts.org.

    @Ali: Yes, it's a challenge to develop a nuanced, cross-cultural analysis in the 140 characters of a Tweet, but many Tweets are merely syndicated hyperlinks: a short title followed by an abbreviated URL. That's how I found (several) pointers to Khaya Dlanga's post.

    In fact, I suspect that an increasing portion of Tweets include links. Or maybe only from the people I follow. Or maybe I'm suffering from the Recency Illusion.

    In the spirit of a Liberman Breakfast Experiment(TM), I can quickly determine that, yes, 63% of Tweets contain URLs, out of the 800 most-recent Tweets in my own Tweetspew. But I've no idea how to evaluate the trend, if any, in hyperlinked Tweets.

    @rpsms: Really? I had no idea that ordering Guinness & Bass in the name of a "Black & Tan" could be offensive.

    Then again, neither did my fellow Yanks, Ben & Jerry.

    But I'll start ordering a "half & half", at least in the Irish pubs here in Boston.

  64. ChrisB said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    And of course see http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/DarkieToothpaste_new.jpg

  65. montgomery said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 2:12 am

    Well, I read all the comments and then I had to google "in the woodpile" since nobody bothered to explain what it meant. (I was startled to discover that one meaning describes people like me, although I tend to refer to myself as "an invisible black person" rather than as someone who has an "N in the woodpile." But that's neither here nor there.)

    I am surprised, and frankly, a bit disappointed, with the politeness with which the commenters have treated Stephen Jones. Let me be the first to say directly: it is profoundly racially insensitive of you to think that just because the N word is in a set phrase, it is okay to use it. Particularly when the set phrase, as Dance noted above, has obvious connections to slavery.

    FWIW, I emailed my (black) cousins in England to find out if this would pass unnoticed in Britain as a "set phrase" and they said it most definitely would not. At least by black people.

  66. wohz said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 2:33 am

    On the subject of being British. Some years ago I was drinking in a Dublin pub with a friend of mine and a temporary colleague of his, a visiting English contractor. At some point the 'Brit' asked us what does 'sasanach' (or 'sassenach') mean? We told him, 'English'. He was confused and asked us were we sure. Yes, it's related to 'Saxon'. Then he explained his confusion, Anytime he'd heard the word used by a Scot or someone from Ireland it was in a tone of voice that suggested it meant something like 'f***ing bastard'. Yes, we said in unison, English, f***ing bastards!

    Obviously relations between the English and the Irish had matured enough at this point that this conversation flowed in full good humour.

    If 'niggardly' is offensive, should I be careful, when saying that rather than someone having welched on a debt, 'the dues were paid'? (This might sound far worse with my Irish pronunciation that makes 'Jews' and 'dues' pretty much exact homonyms.)

  67. wohz said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 2:40 am

    Oops! I mean 'homophones'. I think I might have slipped into a truly offensive association. 'Jews' and 'dues' are homophones in my pronunciation, not homonyms.

  68. Kapitano said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 2:57 am

    I hear one group using the word "nigger" in a fairly neutral way all the time – American rappers – and to some extent their British immitators.

    There's also words like "queen", "queer", "poof", "dyke" and to some extent even "fag" which can be used safely by the people they refer to – but not by anyone else.

    But I've never heard a jewish person refer to themselves as a "Kike", an Italian refer to themselves as "wop" or "itai", or a black person call themselves a "coon" or "wog". So there's no simple rule about reappropriation of insulting terms.

  69. Kapitano said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 3:07 am

    ^^^ Paragraph got lost somehow.

    American black rappers can call each other and themselves "nigger", sometimes with a derogatory sense, but (I think) most often not. But can Eminem do it? Does he call Dr Dre a "nigger"? Conspicuously not, for someone who claims to be so controversial.

  70. JakeT said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    I don't think Stephen's point was that his phrase wasn't offensive, just that it's interesting that we sometimes don't realize the parts of phrases–we see them only as single expression with a standard meaning.

    In any case, I just wanted to comment that as a white American male in my early 30s whose only South African friend is white, "darkie" strikes my ears as substantially more offensive than "nigger."

    I don't find "nigger" substantially offensive (more awkward and a really poor curse word); then again, I'm not black nor is it a word I use. But "darkie" sounds so condescending and demeaning, I can only imagine it being used as an satirical example of something an old racist white person would say.

  71. Marinus said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 4:06 am

    @ Dan Lufkin: It isn't that using 'baie' as a comparative is a higher register than doubling. Doubling words simply isn't productive in Afrikaans: saying 'koud koud' or 'groen groen' is just the same as saying 'cold cold' or 'green green' in English, something you can make sense of but which isn't in the grammar. Where doubling does occur, it doesn't usually act as an intensifier: it might for 'gou-gou' (quick-quick), but not, for instance, for 'nou-nou' (now-now), which doesn't mean 'right away', but 'after a small delay' (something which notoriously confuses those not used to the term).

    However, this type of intensification does happen sometimes in Bantu languages, which are much more likely to have been what the post in question was getting at.

  72. Violet said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 4:49 am

    The word "monkey" got the Indian cricketer, Haribhajan Singh into a lot of trouble with Australian cricketer, Andrew Symonds. I don't think a lot of Indians realised that "monkey" was a racial insult until the controversy.

  73. Stephen Jones said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 6:16 am

    Here's what the Online Etymological Dictionary has to say about "kaffir":

    The problem is that it provides no evidence as to how British missionaries in South Africa decided to use an Arabic word in an entirely different context.

    Swahili would have provided a medium for the Arabic word to have reached the Africans but my personal view is that it is quite possible there is no relation between British 'Kaffir' and the Arabic word, which is incidentally supposed to be used as an insult by some British Muslims.

  74. Stephen Jones said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    (I was startled to discover that one meaning describes people like me, although I tend to refer to myself as "an invisible black person" rather than as someone who has an "N in the woodpile." But that's neither here nor there.)

    The phrase has gone out of use; the last high profile use was by a 73 year old Tory peer, who rightly pointed out it was a common set phrase for his generation. I know what it means but would be unlikely to use it.

    It means a factor we don't know about that will affect something in an adverse way. Almost nobody who used it or knew what it meant would be thinking of the etymology. We don't think of tools, mechanics or zoology when we talk of 'the spanner in the works' or 'the elephant in the room'.

  75. Jon said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    Philip TAYLOR wrote "My grandfather would use the word "nigger" in a distinctly non-pejorative sense"

    A friend of a friend of mine, probably the same generation as Philip's grandfather, was known as "Nigger". He was a UK caucasian, darker-skinned than most. He was distressed that during his lifetime, his name had become an unsayable word.

  76. Dougal Stanton said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 7:42 am

    an Italian refer to themselves as "wop" or "itai"

    The latter seems to be alive and well in the Scots Italian community.

  77. Tim Silverman said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 8:04 am

    @Stephen Jones:

    We don't think of tools, mechanics or zoology when we talk of 'the spanner in the works' or 'the elephant in the room'.

    I do.

    Or rather, I specifically visualise spanners and machinery in the former case, and an elephant in a room in the latter.

    I also visualise a bucket (a rather dirty, yellow, plastic bucket, out of doors in a muddy yard, being kicked onto its side opposite me, to be precise) when someone says "kick the bucket," and visualise bats and a belfry (or at least, some sort of tower with openings near the top from which bats can emerge) when someone says "bats in the belfry".

    I don't think you can assume everybody processes linguistic expressions in exactly the same way.

  78. Picky said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    "Working like a nigger" and "nigger in the woodpile" were both current in BrE in my youth without intended racial offence. But the fact that there was also the expression "working like a black" indicates that the individual words still had a meaning. I couldn't use either expression today in ordinary speech, and nor, I think, could most British people.

    And that's "British people" because most Britons can't use the word "Briton" either, Mr Punch. It doesn't work (no one can use it without a sneaking sense of the ludicrous, says Fowler). "Brit" I used to find rather irritating, but I'm getting used to it.

    "Aussie, aussie, aussie, oy oy oy" – surely, Des, that's a steal from the famous Westcountry chant? "Oggie oggie oggie, oy oy oy!"

  79. Mary said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    I'd like to comment on the Twitter topic phrase in question. Having grown up and lived all my life in several states of the U.S. South, and having been a Twitter aficionado for about a year, I immediately separated the words to their intended meaning.

    They brought to mind the revision in the 1960s of the lyrics to Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home" — a song I now hear mostly when I view the Kentucky Derby on TV every May.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Old_Kentucky_Home

    I grew up in Texas, lived for 45 years in Kentucky, and am now at home in Tennessee. It may be, that at 82, I still have vestiges of the racism I imbibed while growing up as a WASP (though I never heard that term until I was old and retired) in a tiny town a few miles from Corpus Christi. I say that because I still feel a lingering sadness at the change in the line " 'Tis summer, the darkies are gay" to " 'Tis summer the people are gay." And even that isn't really inoffensive, because it might be that "gay" has almost lost its earlier meaning of "happy."
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Old_Kentucky_Home

    In my childhood, the word "darkies" already had a very literary feeling (though it was a racist term), as opposed to the exceedingly contemptuous racist attitude conveyed by "nigger" — which was used with total unselfconsciousness by most people around me in those years. However, I was cautioned by my parents that "nigger' wasn't proper diction, and so I always said "Negro," myself. It's really quite terrible to think of it: Nigger Town, "work like a nigger," "nigger in the woodpile," "Is your help [meaning household help] a Nigger or a Meskin [Mexican] ?"

    Jim Crow laws were in full force, and it was actually illegal to assemble in a public gathering with Negroes. Therefore, although my parents determinedly brought the children of our Mexican "help" to Sunday School services with us, the Negroes, as they were referred to in our home, were limited to attending their own separate church.

    Today we do live in better times.

  80. Ken Brown said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    montgomery said: "Let me be the first to say directly: it is profoundly racially insensitive of you to think that just because the N word is in a set phrase, it is okay to use it. Particularly when the set phrase, as Dance noted above, has obvious connections to slavery. FWIW, I emailed my (black) cousins in England to find out if this would pass unnoticed in Britain as a "set phrase" and they said it most definitely would not. At least by black people."

    Or white. I'm English and in my fifties and I think I have only ever heard the word "nigger" used in a deliberate attempt to shock or insult. To be honest I hardly ever do hear it used in real life – as I said before its mentioned, talked about, used as an example far more than its used in ordinary speech.

    As far as I remember the BBC sacked a radio announcer for using that word as long ago as the 1940s.

    Probably three-quarters of all the uses of the word I've heard in recent years have been from the same man, who I think does it deliberately to offend me because he thinks my anti-racism is naive. (It usually comes along with nonsense like "the white man has no rights in his own country") Though I've never heard him use it when any black people are actually present.

    The situation described by two or three of the posters above bears little resemblance to life in Britain as I know it.

  81. language hat said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    'Work like a nigger' is a set phrase. Same in Spanish ('trabajar como un negro'). Despite the racial origin of the phrase no more a sign of racism in the people that use it than 'blacklist' or 'welch'. People can quite easily avoid offensive phrases by flagging the term in their mental dictionary as 'objectionable'; we do that all the time when we change register. But flagging 'nigger' as objectionable doesn't make 'work like a nigger' flagged as objectionable because it's stored as a synonym for 'work very hard.', not as its constituent parts.

    Ridiculous. I agree with montgomery: it is profoundly racially insensitive to think that a word as offensive as "nigger" somehow slips under the radar with it's part of a phrase. I don't want to make assumptions about Stephen Jones, but I know what I would think about anyone who used such a phrase in my hearing, and it wouldn't be pretty. I suggest Mr. Jones make fewer self-justificatory and unprovable statements about how phrases are allegedly stored and work harder on figuring out why the phrase is in fact offensive. He seems to think it's all over-the-top PC.

  82. language hat said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    (Oops: make that "when it's part of a phrase.")

  83. Sili said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    Mary,

    Not that it matters, but by the sound of it, you navigate this modern world far better than I do at 32. I'm not on Twitter for instance.

    I do love to learn how broad the readership of LL is – and how varied the population of the internet.

    Thank you.

  84. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    But I've never heard a jewish person refer to themselves as a "Kike", an Italian refer to themselves as "wop" or "itai", or a black person call themselves a "coon" or "wog".

    Me neither, but I'm told the late Gian-Carlo Rota used to refer to a form of entertainment he liked as the "wopera".

    A search for "I'm a wop" will turn up some hits that aren't discussions of ethnonyms, such as What, no Zulu? Best damn film of all time…well, that and the Godfather…but I'm a wop…thats how we roll…

  85. Ellen said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    It's reasonable to think that some people, some of the time, would use a phrase with "nigger" without thinking about the individual words. But it's an error, in my view, to suggest that most people could hear and use such a phrase and never think about the individual words that make it up, and especially never notice and think about that word "nigger" being part of it.

    I think there's some truth to the idea that Stephen Jones expresses, that people use a phrase as a whole without thinking about the words that make it up. "Could care less" being a good example of a phrase where this applies. But I seriously doubt that most people would use a phrase with "nigger" and not notice the word "nigger" in it.

  86. Stephen Jones said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    But I seriously doubt that most people would use a phrase with "nigger" and not notice the word "nigger" in it.

    As I said I noticed it fifteen seconds afterwards, when I was told to go back to the phrase. It could hardly be that I'm not aware the 'N' word has joined Carlin's list of taboo words with a vengeance and I'm hardly unaware of it; I had discussed embedded 'nigger' phrases in language log threads a hundred and fifty posts long.

    But when we say something we normally think of the meaning, not of the exact words. Ask somebody 'What did you just say and you'll often get a different wording'. I had said 'K. had worked very hard all weekend on this'
    and to have express 'worked very hard' have a battery of idiomatic phrases including 'worked like a donkey'. 'slaved away', or 'worked his 'arse off'. Funnily enough the last phrase would probably be flagged by me for not using in polite society, because I had learnt that for the word 'arse' before I learnt the set phrase. However the phrase 'work like a nigger' would have entered my vocabulary at a stage when in the UK 'nigger' did not have any negative connotations for the majority of people; it was a word you found in Mark Twain. Thus the phrase would not be flagged as inappropriate, in the way that I know not to substitute ' I couldn't give a toss' for 'I couldn't care less' in front of the dean or vice-rector.

    The phrase will no doubt die out in English. For decades now people in the UK have known 'nigger' is a taboo word, and thus if they came across the set phrase they would flag it as inappropriate. In Spanish no doubt the phrase will continue for a long time because 'un negro' is not considered taboo.

  87. Ellen said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

    The phrase in Spanish doesn't contain the word "nigger". "Negro" is the word for "black", the color. Though I can't personally vouch for how it's used for people.

  88. Mark F. said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 12:32 am

    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the "that's so gay" thread. The debate seems pretty similar – "I'm not using word X to disparage group Y, so group Y shouldn't be offended," met by "But refusing to acknowledge group Y's very well-founded sensitivities is offensive in itself."

    Some authors on this blog seem to view taboo avoidance as hopelessly irrational. I'm not so sure that's true. Elsewhere I've read commentaries insisting that the use-mention distinction is a bright line. One writer was furious at a publisher for being reluctant (refusing?) to publish a linguistics book that used, as examples of syntax, sentences that disparaged Richard Nixon. The writer argued that the content of the sentences was completely inconsequential, because they were being mentioned, not used. This particular argument strikes me as disingenuous. All this by way of explaining why I'm tempted to break (what I perceive to be) this site's taboo on taboo avoidance by saying "the n-word" instead of "nigger." But in the end the taboo on taboo avoidance makes sense here, when language is the topic of study. I'm just not sure it makes sense everywhere.

    (The example sentences were a bit of a different situation than taboo avoidance; the common point is just the use-mention thing. Just to be clear.)

  89. Ellen said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 12:36 am

    The "gay" thing is different. The word itself isn't offensive. It's more like if we insulting a non-black person by calling them black.

  90. Nathan Myers said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 4:12 am

    My only substantial exposure to "nigger" until Pulp Fiction was the song about Daniel Boone, who upon encountering a bear that was "bigger", "ran like a nigger / up a tree". I have sought, occasionally, since, for an adjective other than "big" that might be rhymed with something else, to teach to my kids. Thus far nothing has availed. I have come to doubt that anything will serve, and Daniel Boone will necessarily vanish into oblivion.

  91. Lysander said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 6:32 am

    Speaking as a middle school educator in the northern reaches of Louisiana in the United States (Shreveport, to be exact), I hear the word "niggah" quite frequently used among students of nearly every possible descent when referring to one another.

    I am 24 and this shocked me *immensley*. Growing up in the deep south, I mixed with an incredible array of "ethnic" groups and was originally normatized to view the so-called "n" word with great hostility.

    However, I could never deny my experience of hearing it used by my peers. This may not speak to its inherent offensiveness – it still disturbs me to this day and I once spent too much time trying to teach my students not to use it – but it means this word is losing its grip on the future generations, and fast. What word will be next? They have no concept of kaffir or koolee or nigger as offense. My grandmother used "coloreds", but in no offensive way – where do we go? What is the point when the youngest don't flinch at a word, like "niggah" that still makes me cringe to even type?

  92. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 7:10 am

    As in :

    Daniel Boone was a man
    Yes, a big man
    But the bear was bigger
    So he ran like a nigger up a tree ?

    If so, how about :

    Daniel Boone was a man
    Yes, a big man
    But the bear was scary
    So he flew like a fairy up a tree

    I suppose there's a risk that your children will find a /double entendre/ in "flew like a fairy" as they get older, but by then they will probably have forgotten the rhyme anyway !

  93. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    irt. Nathan Myers:

    Well, if I'm allowed to change both adjectives how about "[met a bear that was] brown/ ran like a clown/ up a tree". Brown as in grizzly and not the smaller (though no less vicious) black bear variety. Hopefully not too offensive to clowns. Whatever.

    If "bigger" must stay, then "ran like a frigger/ up a tree". Makes as little sense as the original, with the added bonus of requiring awkward explanations for the kids.

    irt. Mark F.: about the Nixon-bashing sentences.

    I for one think that use-mention is a pretty clear line. In that case, were those sentences produced by somebody else and were quoted by the writer you mention, or they were in fact produced by that writer and only "happened" to refer repeatedly to Nixon? The second case may indicate more an axe to grind with a specific person and less a study of how some word or construction is deployed.

    Unless Nixon became a synonym for fraudulent peeping or something.

  94. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    PS: I noticed that I got ninja-ed on the Language Log comments. That means, Language Log's audience is definitely increasing!

  95. Peter Taylor said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 8:38 am

    @Mark F: the very first comment on this thread indicates the problem with strict taboo avoidance. I had the same question, went away to Google, came back to enquire whether "the k-word" in question was "kike", and discovered that in the meantime the answer had been posted. Taboo avoidance only works when everyone knows the taboo and the method of avoiding it.

  96. Mark F. said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    Ellen — It's different but the same. Using "gay" as a generic insult is insulting to gay people; using "nigger" at all is insulting to black people. But in both cases some people want to say "I didn't learn that construction (or some particular variant of it) as an insult, so I should still get to use it."

    I shouldn't have brought up taboo avoidance at all. I was really making multiple points in one comment, which is of course a bad idea. One point was about this attitude of "when I say it, it's not offensive because I'm not trying to offend". The other was the permeability of the use-mention boundary, and implicit there was the idea that the n-word had reached a point where, in at least some in contexts, you had better call it that or people would interpret that as a sign you didn't mind offending black people. (And saying "I don't care about your sensitivities" is definitely a putdown.) But this latter point about taboos doesn't apply to "gay" at all, so it really didn't belong in the same comment.

    Peter Taylor — Yeah, I basically ended up conceding that.

  97. Stephen Jones said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    The phrase in Spanish doesn't contain the word "nigger". "Negro" is the word for "black", the color. Though I can't personally vouch for how it's used for people.

    'Nigger' comes from the Spanish word 'negro'.

  98. Stephen Jones said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    The "gay" thing is different. The word itself isn't offensive. It's more like if we insulting a non-black person by calling them black.

    Depends on the meaning. If you say of somebody or something 'it/he is just so gay', your being highly disparaging, just as if you said, 'he/it is so lame' or 'it/he's so spastic' even if in other contexts the words are entirely neutral.

    Most disparaging words at one time weren't disparaging, and of course often the PC words that replace the word that has become disparaging end up being used disparagingly themselves, and a new one becomes de rigeur (coloreds > blacks > Afro-Americans).

  99. Ellen said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    It may come from the word "negro", but it's still not the same word, and does not have the same range of meanings. Black is a closer equivelent to negro, even if not (I assume) etymologically related.

  100. Multilingual Mania said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    It's times likes this that we need to have open dialogue about cultural miscommunications through productive dialogue. Well, if it was a cultural misunderstanding and not blatant racism. It's interesting that twitter took it down-I am always offended by the woman hating misogynistic trending topics, or the time that KKK was on the trending topics for two days, and it wasn't taken down. Maybe twitter will start taking down other sensitive trending topics-but then when does it stop!

  101. mdl said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Re the Daniel Boone song: You guys know this song has real lyrics, right?

    The "bear was bigger" version was just a schoolyard distortion. The original lyrics come from the TV show. It has the same rhythm but no internal rhyme.

  102. Stephen Jones said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    but it's still not the same word, and does not have the same range of meanings

    Black, negro, nigger.

  103. Stephen Jones said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

    but it's still not the same word, and does not have the same range of meanings

    It's got a wider range of meanings: Black, negro, nigger.

  104. Mary said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    Multilingual Mania
    replied, quoting Stephen Jones,
    November 14, 2009 @ 1:31 pm
    {QUOTE]Stephen Jones said,
    November 14, 2009 @ 7:06 pm
    but it's still not the same word, and does not have the same range of meanings[/QUOTE]

    Multilingual Mania's reply:
    [QUOTE]It's got a wider range of meanings: Black, negro, nigger.[/QUOTE]
    Also, what about Nigeria (famously called "NIger" in the limerick "There was a young lady from Niger) ? According to Merriam-Webster on-line, the derivation is ultimately from the Latin, through Spanish or Portuguese:
    [QUOTE]Main Entry: Ne·gro
    Pronunciation: \ˈnē-(ˌ)grō\
    Function: noun
    Inflected Form(s): plural Negroes
    Etymology: Spanish or Portuguese, from negro black, from Latin nigr-, niger
    Date: 1555

    sometimes offensive : a member of a race of humankind native to Africa and classified according to physical features (as dark skin pigmentation)[/QUOTE]

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Negro

  105. Ellen said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    Yes, wider = not the same.

  106. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    The limerick rhymes "Niger" with "tiger", but I've always heard the River Niger and the country Nigeria pronounced with the soft g, [dzh], the same affricate as we hear in "badger". And my father used to work in Nigeria, in the British West African Medical Service, as it then was.

  107. sharon said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    Stephen Jones does seem a bit special.

  108. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 5:09 am

    Can report a little on "Brit" from an Irish perspective.

    I would say in Ireland the term is uniformly pejorative, though persons so designated are expected to put up with it. Not having to tolerate Brits getting hoity-toity with us is the major gain of Irish independence, in most people's subconscious. I would say the role of a preceding f***ing as a modifier has a purely rhythmic function and does not affect the pungency of the epithet either way.

    One of the worse insults in the country is West Brit, a label most people of former Southern Unionist descent try to avoid. Doing so successfully can lead to interesting insights, such as the following anecdote, several years ago in the rural south-east: an Englishman had bought and renovated a local cottage as a holiday home, which was then burgled in his absence, with the loss of the modern household appliances. Over a cup of tea, two neighbours were discussing the possible implications for home security (given that the practice of locking one's front door was not yet widespread in the area) and one said to the other "Ah, sure he was only a Protestant". Thus inadvertently supplying the protestant family of the other woman with a thigh-slapping joke.

  109. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 5:28 am

    "'Jews' and 'dues' are homophones"

    Oh indeed. As a pair of colleagues of mine at a language school in Austria found out. A being a loquacious Irishwoman and B an upstate New Yorker of Russian-Jewish descent. B really thought for a few years that A was using (several times a day) the phrase "Fair Jews", but had been too polite to inquire. Of course, where B comes from, a phonetic mixup between " Jews" and "Dues" is, I suppose, all but inconceivable.

  110. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 5:51 am

    On the "Kaffir" front, I can contribute that in Austria, "bleder Koffer" (stupid K) and "Vollkoffer" are absolutely current swearwords. There is no consensus as to whether or not they have a racial connotation; more fastidious spirits certainly think they do. The current Mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl, got a fair bit of attention a few years ago when he referred to someone as "Vollkoffer" in public.

  111. Vlad said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 2:33 am

    Just wanted to add more 'spaz' references.
    The performer known as Spazz Attack:

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0040925/

    Famous for his dancing(Devo fans might remember him):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89oiYT_6C8M

  112. Stan Carey said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    The top two trending topics on Twitter tonight are '#BlackThoughts' and '#whitethoughts'.

  113. Happy Hanabi said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    I ran into some linguistic troubles when I went to the U.K. for these very reasons.

    First of, 'British' or 'Brit' both refer to a citizen of Great Britain, do they not? What is the proper term to use for a citizen of the United Kingdom? Can you still use 'British' for that? UKer? (That sounds dreadful.)

    Also, I was always taught to refer to people as 'African-American' for politeness' sake… but that doesn't work so well when they are, in fact, UK citizens. African-British? Black? What is the most polite term in the UK?

  114. Richard said,

    July 25, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    As someone who has been on the internet from the very early days, I've found language & cultural differences a fascinating subject. I'm British by the way.

    For instance, on a forum discussion about people I once used the word 'Oriental.' An American was shocked – he considered it totally unacceptable. He said to use 'Asian.' But 'oriental' is perfectly acceptable in the UK, and 'Asian' in respect of people means Indian, Pakistani, etc.

    As for "Brits" – it's colloquial, I consider it neutral, and is probably something I'd use in writing more than in conversation. Like anything, the tone is far more important than the word itself – something the PC brigade totally overlook.

    @Happy Hanabi – The country's full name is 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. 'Great Britain' refers to the geographic island (which contains the countries England, Scotland and Wales), while Northern Ireland is part of the island of Ireland. So, the short form of the country's name is 'the UK'; generally 'Great Britain' is acceptable (Irish and Northern Irish people please comment!) The nationality of citizens is 'British' (UKers??? – horrible – and never heard it used!)

    Generally, I think we're less sensitive (uptight?!) than the Americans. I've never heard terms like 'African-British' or 'Asian British' – although, I'm sure someone somewhere uses it. The government does use 'Black British' as an ethnic category. I've never heard any of these in everyday speech – just use the word 'Black.' That's what my Black friends use.

    @Simon Cauchi I always thought that traditionally 'Niger' was pronounced with a hard 'g' (as in the limerick), and that the softening came about because of French influence. No evidence – just something I always assumed!

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