Unmasking Slurs

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I'm sympathetic to many of the arguments offered in a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready (HK&M) in response to Geoff Pullum's post on "nigger in the woodpile," no doubt because they are sympathetic to some of the things I said in my reply to Geoff. But I have to object when they scold me for spelling out the word nigger rather than rendering it as n****r. It seems to me that "masking" the letters of slurs with devices such as this is an unwise practice—it reflects a misunderstanding of the taboos surrounding these words, it impedes serious discussion of their features, and most important, it inadvertently creates an impression that works to the advantage of certain racist ideologies. I have to add that it strikes me that HK&M's arguments, like a good part of the linguistic and philosophical literature on slurs, suffer from a certain narrowness of focus, a neglect both of the facts of actual usage of these words and the complicated discourses that they evoke. So, are you sitting comfortably?

HK&M say of nigger (or as they style it, n****r):

The word literally has as part of its semantic content an expression of racial hate, and its history has made that content unavoidably salient. It is that content, and that history, that gives this word (and other slurs) its power over and above other taboo expressions. It is for this reason that the word is literally unutterable for many people, and why we (who are white, not a part of the group that is victimized by the word in question) avoid it here.

Yes, even here on Language Log. There seems to be an unfortunate attitude — even among those whose views on slurs are otherwise similar to our own — that we as linguists are somehow exceptions to the facts surrounding slurs discussed in this post. In Geoffrey Nunberg's otherwise commendable post on July 13, for example, he continues to mention the slur (quite abundantly), despite acknowledging the hurt it can cause. We think this is a mistake. We are not special; our community includes members of oppressed groups (though not nearly enough of them), and the rest of us ought to respect and show courtesy to them.

This position is a version of the doctrine that Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore call "silentism" (see also here). It accords with the widespread view that the word nigger is phonetically toxic: simply to pronounce it is to activate it, and it isn't detoxified by placing it in quotation marks or other devices that indicate that the word is being mentioned rather than used, even written news reports or scholarly discussions. In that way, nigger and words like it seem to resemble strong vulgarities. Toxicity, that is, is a property that's attached to the act of pronouncing a certain phonetic shape, rather than to an act of assertion, which is why some people are disconcerted when all or part of the word appears as a segment of other words, as in niggardly or even denigrate.

Are Slurs Nondisplaceable?

This is, as I say, a widespread view, and HK&M apparently hold that that is reason enough to avoid the unmasked utterance of the word (written or spoken), simply out of courtesy. It doesn't matter whether the insistence on categorial avoidance reflects only the fact that "People have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that referring to the word is not the same as using it," as John McWhorter puts it—people simply don't like to hear it spoken or see it written, so just don't.

But HK&M also suggest that the taboo on mentioning slurs has a linguistic basis:

There is a consensus in the semantic/pragmatic and philosophical literature on the topic that slurs aggressively attach to the speaker, committing them to a racist attitude even in embedded contexts. Consider embedded slurs; imagine Ron Weasley says "Draco thought that Harry was a mudblood", where attributing the thought to Draco isn't enough to absolve Ron of expressing the attitudes associated with the slur. Indeed, even mentioning slurs is fraught territory, which is why the authors of most papers on these issues are careful to distance themselves from the content expressed.

The idea here is that slurs, like other expressives, are always speaker-oriented. A number of semanticists have made this claim, but always on the basis of intuitions about spare constructed examples—in the present case, one involving an imaginary slur: "imagine Ron Weasley says "Draco thought that Harry was a mudblood." This is always a risky method in getting at the features of socially charged words, and particularly with these, since most of the people who write about slurs are not native speakers of them, and their intuitions are apt to be shaped by their preconceptions. The fact is that people routinely produce sentences in which the attitudes implicit in a slur are attributed to someone other than the speaker. The playwright Harvey Fierstein produced a crisp example on MSNBC, "Everybody loves to hate a homo." Here are some others:

In fact We lived, in that time, in a world of enemies, of course… but beyond enemies there were the Micks, and the spics, and the wops, and the fuzzy-wuzzies. A whole world of people not us… (edwardsfrostings.com)

So white people were given their own bathrooms, their own water fountains. You didn't have to ride on public conveyances with niggers anymore. These uncivilized jungle bunnies, darkies.…You had your own cemetery. The niggers will have theirs over there, and everything will be just fine. (Ron Daniels in Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century)

All Alabama governors do enjoy to troll fags and lesbians as both white and black Alabamians agree that homos piss off the almighty God. (Encyclopedia Dramatica)

[Marcus Bachmann] also called for more funding of cancer and Alzheimer's research, probably cuz all those homos get all the money now for all that AIDS research. (Maxdad.com)

And needless to say, slurs are not speaker-oriented when they're quoted. When the New York Times reports that "Kaepernick was called a nigger on social media," no one would assume that the Times endorses the attitudes that the word conveys.

I make this point not so much because it's important here, but because it demonstrates the perils of analyzing slurs without actually looking at how people use them or regard them—a point I'll come back to in a moment.

Toxicity in Speech and Writing

The assimilation of slurs to vulgarities obscures several important differences between the two. For one thing, mentioning slurs is less offensive in writing than in speech. That makes slurs different from vulgarisms like fucking. The New York Times has printed the latter word only twice, most recently in its page one report of Trump's Access Hollywood tapes. But it has printed nigger any number of times [added} presumably with the approval of its African American executive editor Dean Banquet (though in recent years it tends to avoid the word in headlines):

The rhymes include the one beginning, "Eeny, meeny, miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe," and another one that begins, "Ten little niggers …" May 8, 2014

The Word 'Nigger' Is Part of Our Lexicon Jan. 8, 2011

I live in a city where I probably hear the word "nigger" 50 times a day from people of all colors and ages… Jan 6, 2011

In fan enclaves across the web, a subset of Fifth Harmony followers called Ms. Kordei "Normonkey," "coon," and "nigger" Aug 12, 2016

 Gwen [Ifill] came to work one day to find a note in her work space that read "Nigger, go home. Nov. 11, 2016

… on the evening of July 7, 2007, Epstein "bumped into a black woman" on the street in the Georgetown section of Washington … He "called her a 'nigger,' and struck her in the head with an open hand." Charles M. Blow, June 6, 2009.

By contrast, the word is almost never heard in broadcast or free cable (when it does occur, e.g., in a recording, it is invariably bleeped). When I did a Nexis search several years ago on broadcast and cable news transcripts for the year 2012, I found it had been spoken only three times, in each instance by blacks recalling the insults they endured in their childhoods.

To HK&M, this might suggest only that the Times is showing insufficient courtesy to African Americans by printing nigger in full. And it's true that other media are more scrupulous about masking the word than the Times is, notably the New York Post and Fox News and its outlets:

Walmart was in hot water on Monday morning after a product's description of "N___ Brown" was found on their website. Fox32news, 2027

After Thurston intervened, Artiles continued on and blamed "six n——" for letting Negron rise to power. Fox13news.com, April 19, 2017

In a 2007 encounter with his best friend's wife, Hogan unleashed an ugly tirade about his daughter Brooke's black boyfriend."I mean, I'd rather if she was going to f–k some n—-r, I'd rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n—-r worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player! I guess we're all a little racist. F—ing n—-r," Hogan said, according to a transcript of the recording. New York Post May 2, 2016

"Racism, we are not cured of it," Obama said. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say n***** in public." Foxnews.com June 22, 2015

One might conclude from this, following HK&M's line of argument, that the New York Post and Fox News are demonstrating a greater degree of racial sensitivity than the Times. Still, given the ideological bent of these outlets, one might also suspect that masking is doing a different kind of social work.

Slurs in Scholarship

As an aside, I should note that the deficiencies of the masking approach are even more obvious when we turn to the mention of these words in linguistic or philosophical discussions of slurs and derogative terms, which often involve numerous mentions of a variety of terms. In my forthcoming paper "The Social Life of Slurs," I discuss dozens of derogative terms, including not just racial, religious, and ethnic slurs, but political derogatives (libtard, commie), geographical derogations (cracker, It. terrone), and derogations involving disability (cripple, spazz, retard), class (pleb, redneck), sexual orientation (faggot, queer, poofter), and nonconforming gender (tranny). I'm not sure how HK&M would suggest I decide which of these called out for masking with asterisks—just the prototypical ones like nigger and spic, or others that may be no less offensive to the targeted group? Cast the net narrowly and you seem to be singling out certain forms of bigotry for special attention; cast it widely and the texts starts to look circus poster. Better to assume that the readers of linguistics and philosophy journals—and linguistics blogs—are adult discerning enough to deal with the unexpurgated forms.

What's Wrong with Masking?

The unspoken assumption behind masking taboo words is that they're invested with magical powers—like a conjuror's spell, they are inefficacious unless they are pronounced or written just so. This is how we often think of vulgarisms of course—that writing fuck as f*ck or fug somehow denatures it, even though the reader knows perfectly well what the word is. That's what has led a lot of people in recent years to assimilate racial slurs to vulgarisms—referring to them with the same kind of initialized euphemism used for shit and fuck and describing them with terms like "obscenity" and "curse word" with no sense of speaking figuratively.

But the two cases are very different. Vulgarities rely for their effect on a systematic hypocrisy: we officially stigmatize them in order to preserve their force when they are used transgressively. (Learning to swear involves both being told to avoid the words and hearing them used, ideally by the same people.) But that's exactly the effect that we want to avoid with slurs: we don't want their utterers to experience the flush of guilty pleasure or the sense of complicity that comes of violating a rule of propriety—we don't want people ever to use the words, or even think them. Yet that has been one pernicious effect of the toxification of certain words.

It should give us pause to realize that the assimilation of nigger to naughty words has been embraced not just by many African Americans, but also by a large segment of the cultural and political right. Recall the reactions when President Obama remarked in an interview with Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast that curing racism was "not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public." Some African Americans were unhappy with the remark—the president of the Urban League said the word "ought to be retired from the English language." Others thought it was appropriate.

But the response from many on the right was telling. They, too, disapproved of Obama's use of the word, but only because it betrayed his crudeness. A commentator on Fox News wrote:

And then there's the guy who runs the "WTF" podcast — an acronym for a word I am not allowed to write on this website. President Obama agreed to a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron — a podcast host known for his crude language. But who knew the leader of the free world would be more crude than the host?

The Fox News host Elisabeth Hasselbeck also referenced the name of Maron's podcast and said,

I think many people are wondering if it's only there that he would say it, and not, perhaps, in a State of the Union or more public address.

Also on Fox News, the conservative African American columnist Deneen Borelli said, that Obama "has really dragged in the gutter speak of rap music. So now he is the first president of rap, of street?"

It's presumably not an accident that Fox News's online reports of this story all render nigger as n****r. It reflects the "naughty word" understanding of the taboo that led members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma riding on a charter bus to chant, "There will never be a nigger at SAE/You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me," with the same gusto that male college students of my generation would have brought to a sing-along of "Barnacle Bill the Sailor."

That understanding of nigger as a dirty word also figures in the rhetorical move that some on the right have made, in shifting blame for the usage from white racists to black hip hop artists—taking the reclaimed use of the word as a model for white use. That in turn enables them to assimilate nigger—which they rarely distinguish from nigga—to the vulgarities that proliferate in hip hop. Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe blamed the Oklahoma incident on hip hop, citing the songs of Waka Flocka Flame, who had canceled a concert at the university; as Brzezinski put it:

If you look at every single song, I guess you call these, that he's written, it's a bunch of garbage. It's full of n-words, it's full of f-words. It's wrong. And he shouldn't be disgusted with them, he should be disgusted with himself.

On the same broadcast, Bill Kristol added that "popular culture has become a cesspool," again subsuming the use of racist slurs, via hip hop, under the heading of vulgarity and obscenity in general.

I don't mean to suggest that Brzezinski, Scarborough and Kristol aren't genuinely distressed by the use of racial slurs (I have my doubts about some of the Fox News hosts). But for the respectable sectors of cultural right—I mean as opposed to the unreconstructed bigots who have no qualms about using nigger at Trump rallies or on Reddit forums—the essential problem with powerful slurs is that they're vulgar and coarse, and only secondarily that they're the instruments of social oppression. And the insistence on categorically avoiding unmasked mentions of the words is very easy to interpret as supporting that view. In a way, it takes us back to the disdain for the word among genteel nineteenth-century Northerners. A contributor to an 1894 number of the Century Magazine wrote that "An American feels something vulgar in the word 'nigger'. A 'half-cut' [semi-genteel] American, though he might use it in speech, would hardly print it." And a widely repeated anecdote had William Seward saying of Stephen Douglas that the American people would never elect as president "[a] man who spells negro with two g's," since "the people always mean to elect a gentleman for president." (That expression, "spelling negro with two g's" was popular at the time, a mid-nineteenth-century equivalent to the form n*****r.)

This all calls for care, of course. There are certainly contexts in which writing nigger in full is unwise. But in serious written discussions of slurs and their use, we ought to be able to spell the words out, in the reasonable expectation that our readers will discern our purpose.

As John McWhorter put this point in connection with the remarks Obama made on the Marc Maron podcast:

Obama should not have to say "the N-word" when referring to the word, and I'm glad he didn't. Whites shouldn't have to either, if you ask me. I am now old enough to remember when the euphemism had yet to catch on. In a thoroughly enlightened 1990s journalistic culture, one could still say the whole word when talking about it.… What have we gained since then in barring people from ever uttering the word even to discuss it—other than a fake, ticklish nicety that seems almost designed to create misunderstandings?



78 Comments

  1. Peter Klecha said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 9:22 pm

    Toxicity in Speech and Writing

    The assimilation of slurs to vulgarities obscures several important differences between the two.

    we don't assimilate the two. we don't mention vulgarities, and i'm not even sure what category of words "vulgarities" denotes. we certainly don't believe that slurs are anything like words like "fuck" or "shit".

    For one thing, mentioning slurs is less offensive in writing than in speech.

    what's the support for this claim? is just the relative attestation rates? is this claim at all based on reports by members of the african american community (i.e., native speaker judgments)? also, when you say "offensive", do you mean "hurtful"? we say nothing about offensiveness, unless by "offensive" you actually mean "inflicting emotional distress" or something similar.

    GN: I'm not sure what to make of an objection of the form, "What support is there for this other than quantitative evidence?" The fact is that editors of the major press sources like the NYT, the Washington Post, etc. are willing to print the word while the producers of NBC News, CNN etc. will not allow it to be spoken. This would suggest a difference in the perception of the term's offensiveness or hurtfulness in each medium–presumably one consistent with the impressions of African Americans such as the Times' executive editor Dean BanquetNew York Times reader who encounters the sentence "Kaepernick was called a nigger" experiences emotional distress?

    Slurs in Scholarship

    As an aside, I should note that the deficiencies of the masking approach are even more obvious when we turn to the mention of these words in linguistic or philosophical discussions of slurs and derogative terms, which often involve numerous mentions of a variety of terms. […] I'm not sure how HK&M would suggest I decide which of these called out for masking with asterisks

    we do not advocate full avoidance of depiction of slurs in extremely select environments, like academic journals, legal briefs, and so on, where it's important to have an unambiguous record of what is under discussion. but we do think authors of such papers should take care to minimize the depiction of slurs in such cases. (e.g., list the slurs under discussion once, then use a fictional example for example sentences going forward. this wouldn't work in all cases, it's just one example).

    GN: Why would you expect that there would be any advantage using a fictional example or a porto-slur like Richards "S*"? As I showed in my post, intuitions about imaginary slurs — or for that matter, about real slurs in constructed examples– are not going to be very helpful in understanding the very complicated facts of use. These are not donkey sentences–you gotta get out more.

    more to the point, just because there are difficult cases doesn't mean we can't make any effort at all. just because there are cases where we aren't sure how to apply whatever standard we've decided on doesn't mean have to abandon the standard even for the easy cases.


    Better to assume that the readers of linguistics and philosophy journals—and linguistics blogs—

    i strongly disagree with the collapse of academic journals with blogs. thought experiment: what if we went through the post above and censored all the instances of slurs (and simply removed the gratuitous list of them in this section. what would be lost?

    GN: Maybe an appreciation of the variety and complexity of the phenomenon. Slurs are not all the same.

    […]are adult enough to deal with the unexpurgated forms.

    this is really insulting. i think our original post makes it pretty clear that we don't think it's about being "adult enough". surely you would not tell a soldier returning from war who has PTSD that they should be "adult enough" to not be triggered by sounds of gunfire?

    GN: The comparison is a little overwrought, but I agree that adult is not the best choice of words. Make it "discerning."

    naturally, of course, you must disagree with our assertion that slurs cause people emotional distress. but your post seems to make no response to this argument whatsoever. you simply assert that people ought to be "adult enough" to deal with them — even if you think of things this way, where do you get off simply asserting this and acting as if we don't take a diametrically opposed stance? this is a bad-faith argument.

    our main contention is that slurs should be avoided because they cause hurt. i see absolutely nothing in this post that addresses that contention.

    The unspoken assumption behind masking taboo words is that they're invested with magical powers—like a conjuror's spell, they are inefficacious unless they are pronounced or written just so.

    again, i think we really stated quite clearly our reasoning behind censoring or avoiding mention of slurs. why wonder about unspoken assumptions when assertions are abundant?

    moreover, attributing to us a belief in a theory that appeals to magical powers is terribly insulting.

    i may have more to say later, but i have to go.

  2. AntC said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 10:06 pm

    Thank you LLog, but I've had a gutsful of this subject.

    I'm sure it's a very helpful distraction for the Maybot from the crushing incompetence her government is showing (which IIRC is GKP's main point).

    All I'm seeing is politically correct peevery and pale pinko liberal hand-wringing. (No I would not use that word. No I would not excuse somebody in the public eye who did. Enough said. Move on now.)

    Let's get back to the linguistic abuses (i.e. lies) that surround the farce into which Brexit has descended. Or the evasions shown by those who should be held accountable for the Grenfell tower tragedy.

    Please.

  3. Margaret Wilson said,

    July 22, 2017 @ 11:40 pm

    I just want to point out that the content of this post is very . . . theoretical. To borrow a turn of phrase from another blog I follow: White people prefer to believe white people's theories over black people's actual reported experiences.

  4. biopower said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 1:07 am

    @Peter Klecha — this is a linguistics blog. You would be doing the author and everyone else a basic courtesy by using standard capitalization. Or to put it another way, what point are you trying to make by flaunting those norms?

  5. RP said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 4:33 am

    "That in turn enables them to assimilate nigger—which they rarely distinguish from nigga—to the vulgarities that proliferate in hip hop."

    The original discussion was about a British politician's use of the word and she probably speaks a non-rhotic variety. If so, there would be no distinction in pronunciation between these two forms. The fact that the words "in the woodpile" begin with a vowel might cause a linking /r/ to (re)appear, especially in rapid and casual speech, but this can happen even when the preceding word ends with a vowel (such as "a") with no written "r": in RP, "linking /r/ and intrusive /r/ are distinct only historically and orthographically" (John Wells cited here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linking_and_intrusive_R#Intrusive_R ).

    So any suggestion of two distinct forms is going to fall at the first hurdle in a BrE context. However, perhaps you are simply proposing that the two words be distinguished as belonging to different dialects or different sociolects, rather than by difference in form?

  6. Riikka said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 5:10 am

    Let me start by two things:

    First, my skin is so pale I have to use sunscreen on the Polar circle from April to October, and I've never been to USA. I have there relatives, though, and the evidence shows the first immigrants from these areas were considered as very low class of people, if even that.

    Second, @Peter Klecha
    It was me who brought the shamanistic word magic up in the comments to the last post. I don't want to repeat it, but I stand by it.

    I do agree that Geoff Nunberg could've managed to write the post with a couple of fewer mentions of the questionable word, so it seems there might be a slight dose of stubborness there. I also do understand the point of avoiding triggering words, and there are ways to avoid them. However, as a woman I refuse to believe that e.g. talking about rape (which can be very triggering to quite a few) using letter-censoring like "r***e" would do much good, nor would euphemisms like "surprise sex" help any. The letters on the paper aren't the real problem, the images and memories they bring to our heads are. The hate and fear and pain isn't on or in the black lines on the white paper, it's elsewhere. To exaggerate the question, would it really be more offensive to say/write "Geoff Nunberg's mentions of uncensored racial slurs like 'nigger' on the Internet raises eyebrows" than yelling "You effing en-word beeyotch, get the eff outta here"? Because I doubt it. Even if the word itself could be problematic, the usage and bile it can be loaded with should be a bigger one, and in that case censoring letters is totally unhelpful.

    The use of racial slurs is not just a linguistic question, it has to do with the society, history and geography. I understand that I cannot comprehend all the effects this one single word can have (had) in the States, because the exported word surely hasn't kept all of the meanings it had back home. I haven't asked, but I'm pretty sure a Finnish citizen that was adopted from Nigeria as a baby or a Kuwaiti royal, not mentioning the Gambian president would have very different reactions to the word 'nigger' than offspring of slaves from southern states of USA would. The authors from USA cannot really expect all the Internet-dwellers adopt – without question, too – their local practices, that haven't even been that successful in the first place.

  7. Levantine said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 7:39 am

    biopower, I think you mean "flouting". Pride comes before a fall and all that . . .

  8. Ellen Kozisek said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 8:34 am

    @AntC

    It's not okay to even mention the word "nigger" when discussing usage of the word, but it's okay to refer to people as "pale pinko liberal"?

    Seems a little backwards to me.

  9. languagehat said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 8:50 am

    I came here to say what Margaret Wilson said. Geoff, I respect the hell out of you, but you seem a lot more interested in theoretical navel-gazing than in the lived experiences of black people. Since you can't possibly have walked in their shoes, maybe you shouldn't tell them whether the shoes pinch or not.

    GN: But dear LH, I wasn't simply picking lint out of my navel. I pointed out that it's the policy of major print outlets like the New York Times to print the word in full, presumably with the approval of their African American executive editor Dean Baquet and columnists like Charles M. Blow and Bob Herbert, both of whom have mentioned the word. I could make the same point about editors and writers at the New Yorker and the Washington Post, where both African American and white writers have spelled out the word. And of course LanguageLog's own John McWhorter defends the unmasked mention of the word by whites. If there's any presumption here, it's when white linguists pronounce that whatever those sources and writers do or say, the practice of printing the word in full shows insufficient respect to the members of an oppressed group and the discourtesy could be remedied by the simple expedient of replacing the vowel letters of the word with asterisks.

  10. languagehat said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 8:51 am

    Also, can we please just ignore AntC and anyone else who drops turds in the punch bowl? It's hard enough dealing with good-faith disagreements on this difficult subject.

  11. AntC said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 9:11 am

    @Ellen K. "Pale pinko" is a reference to political views: washed-out "red"; <a href=" https://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/nov/08/artsfeatures&quot; example usage. No racial overtones at all. Read it as "wet liberal" if you prefer. If you took offence: get over it; there's plenty more substantive issues you should be affronted by.

    On the meta-meta-meta- discussion that the subject has now become: I did not say anything about mentioning, pro or con. I said it's time to cease. Please.

  12. peterv said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    @AntC:

    No one forces you to look at the LL blog, nor read any particular blog post, nor – heaven forfend – to post comments in response to posts on the blog. You have it within your individual power not to participate in this discussion. It is very arrogant of you to try to stop other people having a discussion here they wish to have.

  13. Empiricist said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    As mentioned above, GN's argument is mostly theoretical, and the primary empirical evidence is drawn from speakers (mostly those privileged enough speak on the most valuable platforms in our society). The empirical evidence from many readers (including this one), and apparently from many who are routinely targeted by the slurs in question, is that stubborn, insistent repetition of these slurs in full makes GN appear to be an insensitive jerk, at best. This moral judgment is an empirical one in the sense of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments–our emotional responses to actions like this are the closet we can get to empirical evidence of our moral codes (and maybe objective morality as well). Responding to such sentiments by saying that people who share my sentiments aren't adult or discerning enough is further evidence that GN is placing theory and privileged speaker behavior over the experience of those who sincerely feel that stubborn insistent repetition of slurs makes GN appear to be an insensitive jerk.

  14. languagehat said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    If you took offence: get over it

    This is the counter-position in a nutshell, and I thank AntC for providing it.

  15. Theophylact said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 9:43 am

    Whenever I see words "dashed out", I think of this passage from the introduction of Mark Harris's Southpaw:

    Right up till the time this book went in the mail there was practically a running feud amongst a number of people over the filthy and vulgar language. Pop argued hard that the least I could do was blank in the filthiest and the vulgarest.
    "I can swallow the "damns" and the "hells" and even worse," said he, "but as for the "f—s" they are simply too much for my eyes to bear. I wish you would blank them in, Hank."
    "I suppose I could blank them in at that," I said, "but I cannot see where the gain is."
    "It will protect the women and the children," said Pop.
    Then Aaron whipped out this book called "Tom Jones" by an Englishman with the following underlined in ink in Chapter 10 of Book 4: "D—n un, what a sly b—ch 'tis." "Read it out loud," said Aaron to Pop.
    Pop read out loud as follows: "Damn un, what a sly bitch 'tis."
    "Ho ho," said Aaron, "you have blanked out the blanks in your mind."
    "But at least it is not there for the eye to see," said Pop.
    "How are the women and the children of England protected?" said Aaron to Pop.
    "I do not know," said Pop, "but they are protected nonetheless."
    "Would not England be better off for forcing their eyes to face up to the words?" said Aaron.
    "To hell with England," said I. "I am sick and tired of the wrangling, and the book must go in the mail. I will blank the word in and put an end to the whole rhubarb."
    I suppose the women and the children will fill it in to suit themself, though. That's up to them. I blanked it in, for Pop's sake, and whoever blanks it out again learned the word from somebody else, not me.

  16. Martha said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 9:53 am

    I'm not black, but I am a(n America) woman, and so I've been thinking about the word "cunt"' in all of this (which some others have brought up previously). Every woman I've talked to about this has said that "cunt" is right up there in like the top two or three most offensive English words; it's certainly the most offensive swear word. I'm fairly certain plenty of others agree with this, because I've only ever heard a woman use it once (in real life), and can't think of a time I've heard a man use it either, other than my husband telling me a girl slapped him for using it in high school and he hasn't used it since. I'm aware that this may just be a reflection of the circles I move in.

    I bring this up to say that this is the closest word *I* have to the n-word, offensiveness-wise, being non-black. I'm part white, part Filipino, so there are other racial slurs that could be used against me, but I'm certain none would offend me more than being called a cunt.

    Nevertheless, I don't at all mind saying "cunt" to talk about it, but I can't bring myself to write the n-word.

  17. Peter Klecha said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 10:08 am

    GN: I'm not sure what to make of an objection of the form, "What support is there for this other than quantitative evidence?" The fact is that editors of the major press sources like the NYT, the Washington Post, etc. are willing to print the word while the producers of NBC News, CNN etc. will not allow it to be spoken. This would suggest a difference in the perception of the term's offensiveness or hurtfulness in each medium–presumably one consistent with the impressions of African Americans such as the Times' executive editor Dean Banquet and the columnist Charles M. Blow, who cites the word in its full form (though as I noted, the masked form is used by right-wing sources like foxnews.com, a point which ought to pique one's curiosity).

    the argument presented in our post was that the word shouldn't be used because it causes hurt. so whether or not it is attested is irrelevant to that claim. the only relevant evidence would be something that bears on whether or not people really do feel distress when seeing the word or when hearing it.

    To turn the argument around, what empirical evidence is there that a New York Times reader who encounters the sentence "Kaepernick was called a n*****" experiences emotional distress?

    i don't pretend to have the results of a quantitative study, only what i've read and heard from african americans who say that hearing the word or seeing it in print does indeed cause them pain or distress. (if you haven't ever encountered such accounts, see the comment on our post by Hyacinth for an example.)

    GN: Why would you expect that there would be any advantage using a fictional example or a porto-slur like Richards "S*"? As I showed in my post, intuitions about imaginary slurs — or for that matter, about real slurs in constructed examples– are not going to be very helpful in understanding the very complicated facts of use. These are not donkey sentences–you gotta get out more.

    i already said that this strategy wouldn't be the right one in all cases. but if we're talking about a theoretical linguistics (say, semantics) paper on slurs, the point of presenting the data is not to get the reader to reproduce the judgment in their own head (if that were true, we would never bother presenting data in languages other than english in english-language journals) but simply to make clear what sentence is and what its judgment is claimed to be. this could easily accomplished with censoring or avoidance, if it is explained to the reader how to reconstruct the "actual" sentence from the censored version. this is not rocket science!

    GN: Maybe an appreciation of the variety and complexity of the phenomenon. Slurs are not all the same.

    ok, maybe you're right about that. that maybe goes for the list of slurs. but not for the repeated mention of n***** in this post and the last. i submit that nothing would be lost whatsoever, communicatively, had you censored those.

    GN: The comparison is a little overwrought, but I agree that adult is not the best choice of words. Make it "discerning."

    less insulting now, perhaps, but no less ignorant of our main point.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 10:20 am

    My two cents. The word is degrading and offensive. Masking when quoting or in references acknowledges its offensiveness and is display of sensitivity. When in doubt, default to sensitivity.

  19. languagehat said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 10:21 am

    That's the most valuable two cents I've seen in a long time.

  20. mg said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 10:52 am

    As a member of a group that receives offensive slurs, let me say:

    1) I find them as offensive in writing as I do in speech

    2) I find that when partially masked, there *is* a little less of a shock when I see them – maybe it's the signal that the writer understands that they are using an unacceptable word.

    3) I do *not* object to seeing them written out when being discussed in an academic context (such as LL) as the topics of scholarly discourse.

  21. Levantine said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    Many of the comments here and in previous posts remind me of when people respond to Black Lives Matter by saying that all lives should matter. A lot of people seem unable to grasp the notion that certain historical and present-day realities may render the N-word unique even among slurs.

  22. Haamu said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 11:21 am

    @Peter Klecha:

    On the original question (the topic of the previous thread), I'm firmly with you. That's why I'm dismayed to see you failing in this thread to acknowledge two things:

    First: When, in this context, you rely so heavily on accusations of personal "insult" to counter your critics, you risk dampening appreciation for the very real pain of others that is the basis of your argument. Please recognize this hazard and stick to other ways of making your point.

    Second: You'd do well to admit that Nunberg is not being merely responsive to you, but he's attempting to turn the discussion in a new direction. For instance, when he mentions "assimilation of slurs to vulgarities," he isn't saying that you do it, he's saying that people do it, and that we ought to take account of the trouble that can cause. Among other things, the idea that we may be giving cover to people like Kristol, who may be interested only in a virtuous veneer while tolerating injustice underneath, is worthy of thorough consideration by anyone who truly seeks an fully inclusive society and wonders why we're having so much trouble getting there.

    It feels like you think you checkmated the conversation yesterday, and anything further is tiresome, belaboring, and even personally insulting to you. That's too bad, because Nunberg's contribution today was, to me, genuinely though-provoking. If we want to take real account of people's real pain, then we need to grapple with both reality and theory. We need to address underlying causes. We need to question all of our prescriptions and alter those that might turn out, under legitimate scrutiny, to be counterproductive. And to do that, we need to engage in good faith with those who suggest we might be blunting, rather than sharpening, our analytical tools.

  23. Margaret Wilson said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

    The analogy to the word "rape" isn't useful, because that word is not itself an act of aggression. In contrast, if you're a black person walking down the street, and you hear the word "n——" from a white person, there is an immediate jump in the probability that something very very bad is about to happen to you.

    It's like the difference between a vet with PTSD hearing/seeing the word "bomb" (unpleasant, certainly) vs. hearing an actual explosion, even one that they logically know is benign. (And I would like to go on record that I do not think the analogy to PTSD is overwrought. I think it is pretty exact.)

    Yes, black academics can live with seeing the word spelled out. (By the way, black people in general are *way* better at adulting in the face of microagressions than white people are.) But why do it? I am baffled by the insistence that it is somehow Right and Good to spell it out.

  24. Peter Klecha said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

    First: When, in this context, you rely so heavily on accusations of personal "insult" to counter your critics, you risk dampening appreciation for the very real pain of others that is the basis of your argument. Please recognize this hazard and stick to other ways of making your point.

    this is an interesting point. i don't think i quite understand it yet, but i'll think about it very carefully.

    Second: You'd do well to admit that Nunberg is not being merely responsive to you, but he's attempting to turn the discussion in a new direction.

    fair enough, but whatever else the post may be doing, it certainly is at least in part a response and critique of our post. here's nunberg:

    […]I have to object when [HK&M] scold me for spelling out the word […]. It seems to me that "masking" the letters of slurs with devices such as this is an unwise practice—it reflects a misunderstanding of the taboos surrounding these words, it impedes serious discussion of their features, and most important, it inadvertently creates an impression that works to the advantage of certain racist ideologies. […] it strikes me that HK&M's arguments, like a good part of the linguistic and philosophical literature on slurs, suffer from a certain narrowness of focus, a neglect both of the facts of actual usage of these words and the complicated discourses that they evoke.

    these are serious criticisms of our post. i think it's fair that we be able to respond to them.

    It feels like you think you checkmated the conversation yesterday, and anything further is tiresome, belaboring, and even personally insulting to you.

    that's certainly not what i think, but fair enough that you got that impression. i only had a few minutes so i responded to the things that most drew my attention. as indicated in our original, i largely agreed with nunberg's first post — his response here is only a response to the things he disagreed with, so naturally my responses to him are going to consist largely of disagreements.

  25. david said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

    It's been almost two weeks and more than two hundred comments that the use of a word best known as a racial slur has been discussed. This particular slur and some religious slurs have been known to present a clear and present danger and on occasion have led to imminent lawless behavior. IANAL but to me this means they are not protected speech and one could be jailed for using them in public speech in the USA, and perhaps elsewhere.

    Is a Language Log post public speech? Mr. Google says it is. The question is not whether using the word is racist in the mind of the speaker/analyst/linguist but rather does it have the tendency to promote riots which can kill people. For me, Dick Gregory is the only public speaker who has been able own the word and use it with a good purpose.

  26. Noel Hunt said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

    Those who feel strongly about the need for 'masking' should uncover their own reaction formations before using specious arguments to justify their position.

  27. Acilius said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

    @Peter Klecha: "moreover, attributing to us a belief in a theory that appeals to magical powers is terribly insulting."

    I can't think of a single good reason why such an attribution should be insulting at all. A great many people all over the world, and a vast majority of people in many parts of the world, firmly believe in theories that appeal to magical powers. Though I don't think of myself as someone who believes in magic, I am also quite sure that I am not smarter than are all of those people. If it were demonstrated that some belief of mine were dependent on a belief in magical powers, therefore, I would see that as a reason to change that belief, but not as a reason to be ashamed of myself.

    Moreover, what prohibits me from believing in magical powers are several ideologies which present themselves as forms of science and which I have absorbed in the course of my life among educated people in the West. These ideologies are far younger than are the magical beliefs long traditional in Europe. For the last few centuries, Western intellectuals have taken on an immense task in trying to drain the magical notions out of their world-views, and few of them have been so bold as to claim that they had completed the task. Even if you were the most starry-eyed partisan of these efforts possible, therefore, it would be very strange of you to regard it as an insult to be told that you had not yet completed the task of purging all magical beliefs from your mind.

  28. Ryan said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

    I've been mainly silent on this issue, but I have to take offense to one thing in particular. Upfront, I will say that I'm not black, but I am a racial minority and I find it insulting when other people think they can speak for me, especially when it comes to matters of what I should and should not be offended by. I get it from those who say it's my fault if I'm offended by what someone else says, but more often than not, I get it from people like languagehat and Levantine, who act like they must be the voice for people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. I must ask: are you black or racial minorities yourselves? If not, it's not only racist, but also patronizing and hypocritical for you to tell me what I feel about subjects like a printed racial slur. And if you are, it's still insulting to think that you speak for the opinions of an entire group.

    Now, I know you have good intentions, but if you want to combat racism, you should be encouraging others to speak out, not acting like their spokesperson.

  29. Levantine said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 6:40 pm

    Ryan, yes, I am a minority (Muslim, Middle Eastern, and gay). Not that it should matter.

    No, I'm not claiming to speak for a whole race to which I don't belong, nor have I said at any point what black people should and shouldn't be offended by (the same goes for languagehat). I don't think a single one of my comments claims to offer a black person's perspective. Feel free to show me one that you think does.

    I've certainly spoken up when I myself have felt offended, but that isn't the same as feeling offence on another party's behalf. My unwillingness to write the N-word is as much because of my own discomfort with doing so as it is out of consideration for those who might not want to read it. Perhaps I'm being overcautious, but I'd rather that than the opposite.

  30. languagehat said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 6:51 pm

    What Levantine said.

  31. Ellen Kozisek said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 7:28 pm

    The analogy to the word "rape" isn't useful, because that word is not itself an act of aggression.

    But neither is the word under discussion when talked about in a discussion like this one. In both cases, it's a reference to an act of aggression, and the words, both of them, can bring to mind the acts of aggression associated with those words, which might be traumatic for some.

  32. Margaret Wilson said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

    Ellen Kozisek, I think the answer can be found in what I already said. If a word has been a reliable predictor of impending harm, it doesn't matter if you logically know that there is no threat in a certain situation. It's like the vet with PTSD hearing fireworks. The autonomic nervous system doesn't give a rip that the word isn't *actually* an act of aggression in "a discussion like this one."

  33. Ryan said,

    July 23, 2017 @ 11:44 pm

    Levantine, after reading your comments over again, perhaps I was a little hasty to judge. Still though, after reading many of languagehat's comments, some of them had a whiff of condescension with statements like:

    "you seem a lot more interested in theoretical navel-gazing than in the lived experiences of black people. Since you can't possibly have walked in their shoes, maybe you shouldn't tell them whether the shoes pinch or not."
    "It continues to appall me that so many white people have so little interest in the feelings and reactions of black people"
    "Take that, oversensitive minorities and allies of minorities!"

    Maybe it's me making a mountain out of a molehill regarding totally innocuous statements. But I can't tell you how many poorly thought-out thinkpieces I've read where the author would make statements that essentially sounded like they were saying, "These poor, poor [insert group here] are suffering at the hands of you white people!" and not realizing how patronizing they sound. I don't want to be treated like I'm downtrodden.

  34. strawboat said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 1:27 am

    @Peter Klecha: Googling your name reveals that you're pretty committed to this lowercase thing, but I can't imagine I'm the only reader for whom that typing style has associations that damage your chances of being taken seriously.

  35. peterv said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 1:34 am

    @Acilius:

    Further to your point: In attempting to drain magical thinking from explanations of natural phenomena, western science has added some magical thinking of its own. We western moderns all learn about gravitational fields in school, so we think the notion of a field is well-founded. But the notion is not currently more than a placeholder for the absence of an explanation (for the phenomena of some remote effects). The use of a mathematical formalism does not, in itself, provide a causal explanation of the phenomena, although it may aid prediction.

  36. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 2:22 am

    I have been thinking about this further since my comment in the previous discussion, and the sum of my stance is that I avoid the word if at all possible, but I refuse to censor it when it is required. I remain deeply unconvinced that censoring the word improves in any substantive way on the fact that it is present in the first place.

    I used it once in that comment, despite unease, because I did not know how to make the point I wished to make without any mention of the word at all. It still felt gratuitous, because strictly speaking, the discussion thread itself provided ample context to obviate the need for any mention of the word. But all my attempts to make my point without any mention of the word at all rang hollow. So I mentioned it once, and thereafter only referred to it.

    In the same vein, I found that Mr. Nunberg's article contain many more instances of the word than strictly necessary to make his points, as did Mr. Pullum's, and nearly all of the comments.

    Nevertheless, if I were to quote Ms. Anne Marie Morris's original remark, I would not blank the word. For this, I did find the constructed fictional example instructive. As Ron Weasley, I would not say that Draco thought Harry "an M-word" or "racially inferior" or some such circumlocution, but would rather make abundantly clear that the use of the slur was Draco's, along with my distaste for it. On further reflection, I find that my motivation is a refusal to cover for Draco's foul attitude: I want his attitude to reflect on him in full. I confess that at heart this is a vindictive impulse; with further age I may work my way out of that.

    But all in all, I feel comfortable in my attitude that I would rather avoid the word at all cost than censor it. The circumstances in which I avoid it may still expand… but given that I am not a linguist or otherwise have much call to discuss the word, the result is already only theoretical.

    This has been a useful conversation to reflect on. Thanks.

  37. Margaret Wilson said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 4:32 am

    Ryan, I really gotta super duper disagree with you on this. I have heard repeatedly from black people how exhausted they are trying to explain this stuff to white people, and how they need white people to take on some of the load of explaining it to other white people. A white ally may not always get it totally right, but it's important to try.

  38. Ellen K. said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 10:58 am

    Margaret Wilson, "the answer can be found"? I didn't ask a question, I stated my viewpoint.

  39. Ellen K. said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 10:58 am

    Margaret Wilson, "the answer can be found"? I didn't ask a question, I stated my viewpoint.

  40. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

    I am surprised by the total absence of history from the lengthy discussion of the word in question. Niger (as the word was spelled before about 1800, when literate English-speakers still knew their Latin) was simply an alternative to negro, and (in its respelled form) acquired a pejorative cast only around the middle of the 19th century. But as recently as 2008, I heard an NPR reporter, covering the presidential election, interviewing white folk in the Ohio valley, one of whom told him, "I'm going to vote for the nigger." Didn't sound like a slur to me.

  41. James Wimberley said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

    In support of Aristotle's position, consider a prosecution in a European court for hate speech. Clearly the mentions in the proceedings and in their record must be explicit and unmasked. This will be painful to the victims of the hate speech, as criminal trials often are in other ways. Can't be helped, the interests if justice dominate hurt feelings. A scholarly article? My feeling is that the same applies. You certainly could not discuss etymology and phonetics without being explicit. A scholarly blog like Language Log? Harder to make the claim.of necessity. I would bow to the judgement of AA regular readers.

  42. Levantine said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

    Coby Lubliner, by your own account, the word acquired a pejorative cast over a hundred and fifty years ago. That an ill-informed voter in Ohio employed it in a way that you interpret as positive (I personally don't agree) doesn't change the fact that, in general usage, it is a highly offensive slur, and openly embraced as such by the racists who favour it.

    As you well know, a word's historical connotations often have little bearing on present-day usage. Would you be happy to be described as a silly and awful person with egregious views?

  43. RP said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

    To me the Ohio voter's sentence, as recalled by Coby Lubliner, sounds as though it implies something along the lines of "I'll vote for the black guy despite him being black". It is still a slur as I read it.

  44. languagehat said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

    Of course it's still a slur; you'd have to be willfully clueless to think (or pretend to think) otherwise.

  45. languagehat said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

    I must say, this has been an extraordinarily depressing series of posts and threads. I wish Geoff Pullum hadn't felt compelled to make his original contrarian post, and I wish (that being a fait accompli) the rest of the LL posters had condemned it as a group. Instead, we've had some good pushback accompanied by a lot of fumfering and academic navel-gazing. It reminds me of the worst aspects of my depressing stint in grad school, where human emotions were at best irrelevant and at worst an offense, and a lofty position above the fray was mandatory. I know at least one person who has given up on the Log as a result of all this, and I'm sure there have been others. Speech has consequences.

  46. Nicole Holliday said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 3:04 pm

    There are at least a few dozen black linguists who have done research relevant to this question. The fact that the LL posts, as well as many of the commentators here have continued to have a theoretical debate without consulting or even referring to the research of the people who have both relevant lived experience and linguistic training is more offensive than any piece of the original discussion itself. It's really exhausting to keep existing in these spaces and have people keep forgetting that we're even here to hear the conversation they're having about us.

    GN: Other than John McWhorter and Luvell Anderson (who's a philosopher of language), both of whom I cited in the post, I'm not aware of any black scholars who have addressed the relevance (or not) of the use-mention distinction with regard to slurs–that is, the question of whether silentism should be categorical, or whether an exception should be made for their appearance in written quotations, per the style of the New York Times and the Washington Post. But I certainly may have missed some of these discussions, and I would be grateful for references.

  47. Levantine said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 3:17 pm

    languagehat, while I too have found all the apologism in these posts and threads depressing, it's also been an important wake-up call. When even Language Log becomes a forum for rampant racism and prejudice, you know we have a long, long way to go to achieve a fair and safe society. Perhaps some of those reading and engaging in these discussions have been shaken out of their complacency. That, at least, would be something.

  48. GeorgeW said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

    Levantine, Although differing views have been expressed, I think it is quite an overstatement to describe the discussion as "a forum for rampant racism and prejudice."

  49. Levantine said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    GeorgeW, I don't think it is an overstatement. We've had people claiming that the treatment of British schoolboys was no worse than slavery, that the N-word can be uttered by a white American in 2008 without being a slur, and that being 60 years of age somehow makes it OK to use a grossly offensive word that fell out of polite conversation decades ago.

  50. Lazar said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

    For what it's worth, I'd tentatively say that I align with Geoff Nunberg both in his criticism of Pullum's basic argument and in his response to HK&M. I think there's something weirdly navel-gazey to all sides of this argument given the dearth or absence of black participants in it – but I've heard many black people say that non-black people should be allowed or even encouraged to say the word out when discussing it – and, yes, I've said the word aloud when discussing lyrics with black people in real life – so I'm puzzled by the presupposition here of a "party line" that seems to need no particular confirmation by a black person (cf. McWhorter, Baquet and others cited for the "other" camp). My engagement with linguistics has also instilled in me a strong respect for the use-mention distinction, and – though this will sound like pearl-clutching concern trolling – I'm honestly surprised by the resistance to it in a linguistic venue like this.

    And what George W says above. I think it's true that prejudiced thinking has been evinced by a few participants here – but rampant racism is alive and well both in the world and on the Internet, and the discussion here does not come close to it. There's a trend to add superlatives to any denunciation these days as a matter of course (incredibly, unbelievably): I'd suggest saving them for when they count.

  51. Levantine said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

    If "rampant" means "YouTube levels of", I take it back. But it's still a hell of a lot of bigotry we've seen on these pages in recent days.

  52. Guy said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 4:51 pm

    @RP

    I've always been somewhat skeptical of claims that "nigger" and "nigga" should be viewed as two distinct lexical items, or at least that that way of presenting that difference is misleading. "Nigga" is a representation of the pronunciation of "nigger" in certain non-rhotic dialects, and although it's true that in AAVE the usage of the word is different, it's misleading to suggest that the two usages exist side-by-side with distinct pronunciations. It's probably better viewed as a form of polysemy than a matter of "different words".

  53. Ryan said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

    Margaret Wilson, perhaps so. It's just that in my experience, oftentimes when a white person or a person not of a certain group tries to speak on behalf of that group, I feel like there's a sense of pity being exuded, which I find objectionable. I think the name of the game here is that if greater sensitivity is what's being called for, then people coming to a group's defense could also work on being more sensitive. I didn't mean to suggest that they shouldn't try.

  54. D.O. said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

    I didn't see any bigotry in the discussions in the several threads on the topic. Just people having different views and discussing it. And if you spotted a really wrong argument or a flippant attitude, it's not bigotry either. I think, whatever else is going on, we can keep it civil. And Ms. Holliday, can you link to the relevant research?

  55. Russell said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 6:37 pm

    @ Lazar,

    An alternative is to say that, given evidence that mentions of slurs do in fact have many of the same effects of using them, the use/mention distinction is in fact inadequate to describe what slurs are, and is in need of revision.

    In fact, IIRC Chris Potts (Pullum's student) even pointed out this fact the book version of his thesis, and reiterated it at the 2007 LSA institute. Though he did not attempt a critique of use/mention that I recall, he observed that the mention of racial slurs "aggressively attach" to the speaker, even in cases where curse words would not.

    GN: Actual usage doesn't support this claim — see egs in the post. These aren't hard to find. I believe Chris has pulled back on it in later discussions (with regard to both slurs and expressives in general) but I don't have a reference to hand.

    This is pure speculation, but one might even ask if the origins of the use/mention concept were divorced from such considerations, the people involved possibly not having experienced slurs or consulting those who had.

  56. Nicole Holliday said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

    Mr. D.O.-

    At best, the entire argument is shocking detached from the humans who use language, or the opinions of linguists who actually study how language works in society.

    Here are a few resources:

    Arthur Spears had a great article on the issues a few years back: http://arthurkspears.com/papers/n-word.pdf

    "Talkin that Talk" the book, by Geneva Smitherman has several sections on it.

    Professor Renee Blake's blog also has a number of good entries on the topic as well: https://africanamericanenglish.com/2010/09/10/the-n-word-who-you-callin-a/#more-1750

    -Professor Nicole Holliday, PhD

    GN: Thanks very much for these. I'm familiar with Spears and Smitherman, but not with Renee Blake's blog, which strikes me as very thoughtful and interesting. But while they cover a lot of issues, such as reappropriation, none of them addresses the specific question of whether the word can be written out in full in a quotation in a news report, such as the Times does. There's also nothing on this in Jabari's excellent history The N-Word.

    Randall Kennedy does discuss some relevant incidents in his 2008 book Nigger:The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, notably one in 1998 in which an adjunct professor at a Kentucky community college lost his job for mentioning the word in a class discussion on taboo words. Kennedy describes that dismissal as "deplorable," which I suppose would put him in the McWhorter camp. (Of course this was a spoken use, but it's fair to assume Kennedy would be even more indignant if the instructor had been dismissed for writing out the word in an article on taboo words.) Kennedy adds:

    Nigger has long been used as a weapon of abuse and continues to be so used today; we ought to be keenly attentive to that fact. The problem is that insofar as nigger is is deployed for other, socially useful purposes–satire, comedy, social criticism–we should also be careful to make distinctions between various usages. Unwillingness to make distinctions–the upshot of the eradicationist approach–generates all too many pathetic episodes like [the dismissal of the Kentucky instructor.]

  57. Levantine said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 7:27 pm

    D.O., slavery apologism, which has been openly expressed in some of the comments (not yours), is necessarily racist, and therefore a form of bigotry. Not all opinions deserve to be taken seriously or treated with respect. That more people didn't call out the offender is shocking to say the least.

  58. languagehat said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 7:37 pm

    On the one hand, it's easy to go overboard (at least tonally) with accusations of racism, especially when one is shocked to find it where one didn't expect it. On the other hand, white people sure are easily offended by even the slightest suggestion that it might be evident somewhere in their vicinity. If it doesn't involve actual members of the KKK waving a burning cross, surely "racism" is too harsh a word! Can't we all discuss these things with polite circumlocutions, like gentlemen?

  59. RP said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 7:43 pm

    Levantine, some of the comments on these threads were of such poor quality (unusually for LL) that I for one didn't wish to respond to them for fear of encouraging the culprits to contribute more in the same vein, but I completely associate myself with your assessment of such contributions. The risk might be that if everyone weighed into call out the offender, they would have effectively succeeded in hijacking the thread.

  60. Levantine said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

    RP, thank you for that excellent point. You're right, of course, and perhaps I would have done well not to prompt further comments from the contributors in question. I suppose the shock I feel isn't really to do with people keeping understandably quiet, but with the repeated claims that nothing very bad has been said in the comments.

  61. D.O. said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 8:45 pm

    Prof. Holliday, thank you very much for references. The first one, though, is a very short note on what is and is not an element of hate crime and asks more questions than it answers. It also spells the word with -gg- fully. It also note that there is a tendency in a youth communities of every color to adopt the -a version of the word to any male person. Let's hope it will hapen and English language will lose one slur and gain one ordinary slang word with weird history.

  62. D.O. said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

    Prof. Blake's blog post doesn't provide any information (even anecdotal) that the -gg- word causes some people a strong emotional distress. He also uses a few instances of the unmasked word among many masked ones, supporting the thesis that it is not a nice word to keep in your mouth (or at your fingertips), but can be referenced in full when the alternative would look pretentious. Note, that this is a behavior advocated by many in these threads, but clearly not the one you adopt if you think your readers will fill strong emotional distress.

  63. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 11:23 pm

    languagehat said (July 24, 2017 @ 7:37 pm):

    "Can't we all discuss these things with polite circumlocutions, like gentlemen?"

    languagehat said (July 22, 2017 @ 8:01 am [related thread]):

    "… I and many Americans will apply the label "asshole" to them …."

  64. Acilius said,

    July 24, 2017 @ 11:42 pm

    I'm sure languagehat is making a bitter little joke in the latest comment above; I wish I were sure Cory Lubliner's comment above represented a similar attempt at humor. But count me firmly among those who say that this whole discussion has drifted from unpleasant to obnoxious to disgusting. Please stop.

  65. D.O. said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 1:21 am

    Languagehat, let me answer you against my better judgement. I could care less (or maybe couldn't, both expression mean the same thing despite being opposite on combinatorial semantics grounds. How do we call that? Not auto-antonyms, those are single expression with opposite meaning. Maybe idem-negating. Ok, I'll stop now) about polite circumlocution. But I care for rational discussion. And my humble observation is that when insults are in and polite circumlocution is out the rational discussion goes out as well. I would really truly be interested in going to the bottom of the main theme of this discussion, whether saying or writing a certain word even in sterilized contexts, like quotations or in a semi-academic discussions causes some (and how many) people a rush of emotional discomfort. So far, there was little evidence either way (one self-reported instance, if I remember).

  66. ryan said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 1:37 am

    I just want to distinguish myself from Ryan.

    Not that his arguments are right or wrong. But to point out that there seem to be two of us. I've consistently posted here with a lower-case r.

  67. david said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 7:56 am

    @D.O.

    I would really truly be interested in going to the bottom of the main theme of this discussion, whether saying or writing a certain word even in sterilized contexts, like quotations or in a semi-academic discussions causes some (and how many) people a rush of emotional discomfort.

    You could start by counting the responses to this series of LL messages.

  68. languagehat said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 8:05 am

    I'm sure languagehat is making a bitter little joke in the latest comment above

    Yup, and I find it hard to believe that Prof. Aman (for whom I have the greatest respect) would not understand that.

    I would really truly be interested in going to the bottom of the main theme of this discussion, whether saying or writing a certain word even in sterilized contexts, like quotations or in a semi-academic discussions causes some (and how many) people a rush of emotional discomfort. So far, there was little evidence either way (one self-reported instance, if I remember).

    I agree, and I look forward to more such evidence. But you can hardly expect that such a topic will be discussed in an exclusively academic manner; it affects too many people's lives too viscerally. I actually think the discussions here have generated a fair amount of light along with all the heat.

  69. Geoff Nunberg said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

    One thing strikes me as I read over these comments: other than Haamu, none of the commenters has addressed what I take to be the only original contribution I have to make to this matter: what does masking communicate about the word that makes the practice so appealing to right-wing media like the New York Post and Fox News? Is it because it's consistent with a "naughty word" theory of nigger, as I argue, which is congenial to a kind of second-order racism that officially condemns the use of the word but invests the private use of the word with a transgressive pleasure per the OU kids? Or is there some other reason? Should we be concerned about the effect that masking has on whites — particularly those with racist predispositions– or only on the effects that unmasked mentions might possibly have on African Americans, Baquet, McWhorter and Kennedy notwithstanding? Should scholars and journalists be concerned about this, or is it not our responsibility? As with some similar questions, it's as if the whole controversy is being played out between factions of the cultural left, with no regard for its broader political implications.

  70. Levantine said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

    I would argue that masking for such outlets is a handy of way of pretending that they are not racist. It's a cheap kind of lip service that aims to give them a veneer of respectability and convince their viewers/readers that that they are not, in fact, indulging in bigotry when they treat Obama as the devil.

  71. D.O. said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

    Prof. Nunberg, I am of a more benevolent predisposition than Levantine to the right-of-center news outlets. They might use masking defensively. There is enough staff from these outlets that lends them with accusations of racism and they just don't want to be fighting on this fairly irrelevant point as well. And as our discussion shows, they would have been taken to task if they weren't masking. They also might be linguistically less sophisticated than you are and don't see the difference between slurs and swear words.

  72. Guy said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 5:13 pm

    @D.O.

    I'm not sure the conflation between slurs and swears on the right (which I have noticed and admit to finding bewildering) should be forgiven as a lack of "sophistication". At best it shows a total lack of understanding about why slurs shouldn't be used which isn't shared by other people, many of whom also lack linguistic sophistication. And honestly I'm not convinced that this conflation is really made in good faith. It seems to occur when the speaker is reciting what seems to be a preconstructed rhetorical argument that aims for "winning points" with sound bites rather than meaningfully engaging with the issues, as is typical of the talking head discourse I see it in.

  73. chris said,

    July 25, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

    I'm not touching some parts of this thread with a ten-foot pole, but I generally agree with Guy's point at July 24, 2017 @ 4:51 pm, and also think it would be difficult to make or discuss without a license to mention.

    Also, I think that Randall Kennedy makes a good point (quoted in Geoff's inserted response at July 24, 2017 @ 7:00 pm), regardless of the fact that I have no idea what race he is.

    So I'm generally sympathetic to the idea that a license to mention slurs for non-malicious purposes has benefit to society. Although that might be counteracted by actual distress (if any) suffered by members of targeted groups upon encountering the slurs even when being mentioned rather than used.

    However, I do think that Geoff is off target in his response to the very first comment when he says GN: I'm not sure what to make of an objection of the form, "What support is there for this other than quantitative evidence?" The quantitative evidence is for a proposition like "Media outlets are more willing to mention a slur in its uncensored form in writing than in speech", but what Geoff actually said in the OP, that the first comment was responding to, was "mentioning slurs is less offensive in writing than in speech"; it's possible that the media outlets are simply *wrong* that a written mention is less offensive than a spoken mention, or they believe that their audience is narrower and won't include people who will be offended, or they just don't care.

    Actual offensiveness, to the extent that such a thing can be quantified at all, I suppose would have to involve some kind of poll of potential readers/audience members (or, even more definitively, some kind of physiological indicator of an offended reaction — pulse? blood pressure?).

    Offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder, but where public speech (or publication) is concerned, the speaker has an obligation to consider who is reasonably likely to behold it (on the Internet this is generally "everybody except maybe small children"). Or, if you object to the moral framing, at the very least it is pragmatically prudent to do so.

  74. a George said,

    July 26, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

    Now that these threads are slowly disappearing below the event horizon due to further posting about other fascinating language matters, I think it is proper to reflect that the present thread seems to be more academic, whereas the previous one is more emotional concerning the infamous slurs.

    One point came through, though in the previous thread, which also has a bearing on the present one. Levantine made a reference to a chapter on political correctness by Dr. Caroline Bressey in the book "New Geographies of Race and Racism" (2008). He wanted to prove a specific point. However, in a different place in that same chapter (p. 30) discussing a recent remake of a 1955 film, in which a more or less prominent dog was called "Nigger", she says "Personally I agree with Jonathan Falconer that 'N' the dog should keep his name. If such a film is to be (re)made, it is important for the sake of historical accuracy, not only in and for itself, but also as a reflection of the ignorance and racism that existwed in British society during the 1940s". Now, such a film is for general consumption, not aimed at racists who might be confirmed in their attitude, nor is it intended to hurt those who choose to be or are usually hurt, nor is it provided for academic discussion, where some have grudgingly accepted correct spelling. Dr. Bressey as an academic uses it on and off, apparently — not all pages are available in googlebooks, and the notes and references are also gone. I think it is worthwhile to follow Dr. Bressey, because she has written extensively on this subject.

  75. Peter Klecha said,

    July 27, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

    @Geoff Nunberg:

    One thing strikes me as I read over these comments: other than Haamu, none of the commenters has addressed what I take to be the only original contribution I have to make to this matter:

    thanks for restating your main point and soliciting this response. with long posts like yours and ours, and long comment threads like these, it can be easy to lose the main thread.

    what does masking communicate about the word that makes the practice so appealing to right-wing media like the New York Post and Fox News? Is it because it's consistent with a "naughty word" theory of n*****, as I argue, which is congenial to a kind of second-order racism that officially condemns the use of the word but invests the private use of the word with a transgressive pleasure per the OU kids? Or is there some other reason?

    as i think some have said, we should not dismiss the possibility that it is at least in part to avoid censure and controversy; but i certainly concede that a part, perhaps a very large part, of the reason is just as you say: that they treat it as a mere swear word, and thus treat it as far less pernicious than it really is, probably for racist reasons.

    Should we be concerned about the effect that masking has on whites — particularly those with racist predispositions– or only on the effects that unmasked mentions might possibly have on African Americans, Baquet, McWhorter and Kennedy notwithstanding? Should scholars and journalists be concerned about this, or is it not our responsibility? As with some similar questions, it's as if the whole controversy is being played out between factions of the cultural left, with no regard for its broader political implications.

    we should certainly be concerned about both. but your implicature is that it is more important to avoiding emboldening the oppressors than it is to avoid further oppressing the oppressed. i think the opposite. and i guess we could argue about that?

    but i'm not convinced by the premise that a policy of silentism has the opportunity cost you suggest it does. imagine fox news and the like *didn't* censor, i.e., freely mentioned, the slur, and others like it. would that be a better world? don't you think their underlying racist attitudes would lead them into different problematic behaviors (e.g., gratuitously mentioning the word as much as they can)?

    more directly: i agree with you that the way in which certain right-wing outlets handle the censoring of the mention of the slur *indicates* an ultimately racist underlying attitude, i don't understand how it actually *furthers* the oppression of black people or anyone else. maybe i'm missing something in your argument.

  76. Emma said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

    I tell my students that this word is the equivalent of a live grenade. Its power does not come from *treating it* as something delicate. Its power comes from hundreds of years of despicable history. Maybe someday the bomb will have burned itself out such that we can touch it safely. But we are not at that point, and only a consensus from the African-American community could tell us once we reached that point. The rest of us – especially the white people (of which I am one) – do not get to decide that. 'Unmasking' the word as a way of attempting to rid it of its power is like ripping out surgical stitches as a way of attempting to heal a very bad wound. No one outside the community that this word targets has a right to say what this word *should* mean or how it *should* be interpreted or whether we *should* uncensor it. Every time we do that, we're picking off a scab in order to see whether the wound has healed (spoiler warning: nope). Already this discussion has done a lot to risk driving away those who have felt, and continue to feel, the effects of this word. Of course it is the individual's decision to walk away, but why exactly would the rest of us want to be so eager to pursue a path that leads to a bunch of non-African-Americans trying to decide how to manage African-Americans? I know I don't like the sound of that one bit.

  77. Emma said,

    July 29, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

    It's also not encouraging to see people here pressing African-Americans for "proof," talking over Professor Holliday (…while barely even *looking* at the links and the work of those she pointed towards), and/or deciding that the problem must be emotionality. Academic linguistics could use a lot more African-American voices, and it's not going to get them by acting like a space full of people who have little to no exposure to African-American viewpoints but want to make a decision involving African-Americans anyway. There's way, waaaaaaaaaaaaay too much of that in American history, and this far into history, there's no good excuse for it. If you're going to write about slurs, you need to have a thorough understanding of how these things go over *in the communities they target*, and I'm not seeing a lot of that. Which means that most of this discussion is (lively, but) ultimately useless because it doesn't truly take into account the population that is affected. As a contrast to recent Language Log postings, Taylor Jones (languagejones.com) is an example of a white man who writes about slurs and the grammatical change of pronouns derived from the N-word, but does it a) in collaboration with people who are actually of African-American descent, and b) with a lot of thoughtful disclaimers. That's the *very least* we can do to acknowledge that we the white people have a drastically fundamentally different experience of this word than, you know, the people who have been on the receiving end.

  78. languagehat said,

    July 30, 2017 @ 8:33 am

    Emma: Thank you.

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