More radical mis-speaking

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At about 6:38 a.m. today Jak Beula, chairman of a community trust, was talking on BBC Radio 4's "Today" program about Smethwick, a town in the Midlands of England, where there were famous incidents of racism in the 1960s, leading to an important visit by Malcolm X nine days before his assassination in New York. Beula wanted to explain about a disgracefully racist election leaflet that was going around at the time, aimed at discrediting the Labour Party. He knew that because he was on the BBC he was under a constraint (which Language Log does not impose on itself): he must not utter the word nigger. So he struggled to walk round what he had to say without ever uttering that word. And the result was a total disaster of mis-speech.

What he tried to do was to replace nigger by N-word. So he was attempting to explain the content of the offending leaflet by reporting its headline as If you want an N-word for a neighbour, vote Labour. But the suppressed word was bubbling in his consciousness and he was tense from being on national radio, and out came If you want an N-word for a nigger…

"Oops!" he said, "Sorry about that." And then he started again and said it the way he had intended. But that meant he managed to utter the taboo word without ever actually telling us what the actual pamphlet said, which was, of course, If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.

What a slapstick catastrophe of failed taboo avoidance. It was like listening to John Cleese trying to avoid mentioning the war.

And in my view, the slapstick was triggered by the attempt to adhere to an absurd policy. Saying "N-word" just gives the offensive epithet additional power. I think we should be open with it. It's an offensive noun that brainless and unpleasant people use for referring to anyone with African ancestors, and when we need to talk about its use we should be free to mention it. That will not do any harm: everyone knows the word anyway.

My son, whose mother is black, was about 6 years old when a white girl in his elementary school class walked over to him to tell him firmly and politely, "I hate you, because you're a nigger." That's how it was back then when he was young. He was disgusted, I was disgusted; we dealt with it.

Today we should be able to say, on the radio, that politics was so disgusting in Smethwick in the 1960s that people could distribute a leaflet saying If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour (some variants of it had If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour), and succeed thereby in winning votes for Member of Parliament Peter Griffiths (elected against the national trend in a crudely racist campaign in 1964). It's an appalling fact about England's history, an anecdote from a period I hope we never go back to, and we should confront it in the original, not decorate it with silly anodyne substitutes in a pathetic attempt to avoid giving offense to pusillanimous logophobes.

Say the damn word. Quote the disgusting original unchanged. If Beula had been allowed to quote the original, he would of course have said it right first time. Those of us old enough to remember the 1960s would have been shocked to hear it again, and the shock would have been good for us.

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