Getting worse and also better

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A question from Roy Peter Clark:

Last week I taught a class for a group of middle school young men and their mentors.  Almost everyone in the room was African-American.  The content of the class was the history of the n-word and its current contexts and uses. It was one of the most lively hours I have ever spent in the classroom, mostly because of the candor and fervor of the participants.

What emerged was a clear generational difference.  Each of the mentors — professional men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s — testified that they found the word "nigger" or "nigga," insulting, degrading, and demeaning, no matter who was the speaker.

The students — average age about 13 — had a more nuanced view, more inclined to take into account speaker, audience, purpose, and culture.  One young man said that he understood why some people would find the word insulting, but that "words change," and that he could use it with friends as a term of identification, solidarity, and affection. He also understood that forms of oppression could be appropriated by the oppressed and liberated to some degree from their original meanings.

I'm still processing this and trying to understand it from a linguistic or semantic perspective.  It appears to me that in my lifetime the word "nigger" has shifted in two opposite directions.  It is more pejorative than ever, evidenced by how often it is spelled only with its first letter:  the n-word.  But there is obviously some amelioration going on in some communities, where it can be spoken in a way that inspires a manly hug and not a fist to the face.

Does these sound right to you?  And can anyone think of other words that have changed semantically in opposite directions at the same time?  Thanks, wordinistas.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    Some relevant discussion: Ta-Nehisi Coates, "In Defense of a Loaded Word", NYT 11/23/2013.

    I wonder whether the mentors and the students that you describe might be expressing a difference in social class, or at least in social role, as well as in generation. When I was in the army 45 years ago, African-American enlisted men often called one another "nigger" in an apparently friendly way.

    Of course, enlisted men of all ethnicities often used nominally insulting references in a jocular or even affectionate spirit. As Coates observes, that presupposes a certain kind of relationship, and would mean something very different coming from an outsider.

  2. Dan Holden said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

    I work with at-risk H.S. students who use the word frequently. As a 43-year-old white guy I always find it amusing when they use it with me. It is a constant struggle to teach them to code switch. Because while they may be able to articulate that it is only used in certain setting, the practice is less than perfect.

    They also have problems with other racially charged words such as Chinaman (used to refer to Chinese Food) and pronunciation of Arab with the long initial "A." I live in St. Louis, and these examples may be regional, but the students I work with have no understanding of the taboo.

  3. Stan Carey said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

    NPR's Code Switch blog has looked at this a couple of times; for example: "How Would You Kill The N-Word?"

  4. Eric said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

    There’s a whole book about who can say it, who shouldn’t, and why. As well as an arguably more famous, more bluntly titled tome.

    And, no, the currency in the ’hood of racial designations that would result in the immediate dismissal of, say, a CNN anchor is hardly a phenomenon localized to St. Louis.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

    I think Coates, in the article cited above, puts his finger on the difference between white-racist use of the n-word and black people speaking about themselves. It is denigration of others vs self denigration. Both understand that it is demeaning, but one is insulting and the other endearing.

  6. Dan Holden said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

    In the case of "chinaman" I believe the students when they say that they are totally unaware of the potential for offense. I have never heard it used this way anywhere else, though I don't know if I have been in the right situations.

    I would also say that the word "hood" is racially charged since it is both a shortening of "hoodlum" and "neighborhood."

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

    I don't know the timeline for when "Chinaman" became viewed as taboo in mainstream/elite AmEng discourse (I don't think it was ever part of my active vocabulary but as a child in the '70's I think I understood it more as a vaguely archaic-sounding term than a taboo one), but I happened to be reading Malcolm X's famous "Ballot or the Bullet" speech from 1964 the other day and he uses it very non-pejoratively (referring to the "800 million Chinamen" of the Maoist regime as a shining example of people who weren't afraid of the white man or begging for his approval and thus an inspiration and potential ally for American blacks). But whether a more mainstream and/or white politician seeking to avoid controversy would already have eschewed "Chinamen" as of 1964 is not clear to me, although perhaps some corpus research could shed light on that question.

  8. Stan Carey said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

    Just up on The Toast:

    I don’t understand why this is such a big deal for you, the Lord God rumbled over the garden. There are so many other words to say…

  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    A very philosinitic former senior colleague of mine, responsible for the setting up and vigorous maintenance of links with colleagues in Singapore and Hong Kong, used to use "chinaman" as his usual word for "male Chinese grownup", with absolutely no suggestion of implied humour and certainly no offensive intent. He'd be about 80 by now. Irish, which could conceivably be relevant – I don't know. This was in Scotland.

    I (a generation younger) was even twenty-five years ago a little taken aback by this, though.

  10. Catanea said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

    a very small citation:
    when I was 8 or 9, about 1960, occasionally my father would bring home a black co-worker. That chap would call my father "you ol' honky". At some times he was refered to as "a nigger".
    I don't recall any denigration implied. But I do know I never heard nor read the word "honky" again until is was in my twenties.
    But at the time, it was clear (well…they'd had a few beers) that these were words they were comfortable with in their working and work-related social life. I thin my mother would never have said "nigger" and would have pretended never to have heard "honky". How do I know this?
    We had no pretension to any class at all.
    I wouldn't have had "chap" as a vocabulary word at the time.

  11. Joe Fineman said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

    I can't find it on Google at the moment, but George Orwell somewhere recollected that in _Burmese Days_ (1930) he had used the word "Chinaman" because everybody did, that it had suddenly become offensive, and that he had put some effort into getting rid of it in subsequent editions.


    In the parking lot, the young black attendant had a friend hanging out with him…. As I came up to pay the parking fee, the attendant looked at me and said,
    "Don't I know you?"
    I said, "Me?"
    He said, "Weren't you in the slam?"
    I said, "Yeah, I was up in the walls."
    He said to his friend, "I know this dude here. He's all right."
    His friend looked at him somewhat askance…. The attendant saw his friend's unease, and … he said,
    "Hey man. This is my nigger. This is my nigger, man."
    His friend immediately looked closely at my face to see if there was anything in me that could not stand to be called "my nigger".
    I didn't mind. We talk rough in the joint, and I saw it for the friendly gesture that it was, and responded in kind.
    If freedom was like light, that parking lot would have glowed.
    — Stephen Gaskin, _Rendered Infamous_ (1981)

  12. cameron said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

    @ Dan Holden:

    What do you mean by pronouncing "Arab" with "long initial 'A'"?

    I don't think I've ever heard such a pronunciation.

    Do you mean the pronunciation with initial diphthong [eɪ̯] ? As used in the 1962 novelty song "Ahab the Arab"?

  13. BH said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

    From the post: "But there is obviously some amelioration going on in some communities, where it can be spoken in a way that inspires a manly hug and not a fist to the face."

    I'm interested in the "manly hug" part of this. Is the less pejorative use of this term limited to men? Do women use this word for solidarity and affection, or are they more likely to find it offensive? Or was this just accidentally andocentric?

  14. Roy Peter Clark said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    Thanks, Mark for posting this, and for the good comments above. No one yet has addressed the more technical part of my question: Can you think of any words besides the n-word that have shifted semantically in two directions at the same time?

  15. Roy Peter Clark said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    From BH: I'm interested in the "manly hug" part of this. Is the less pejorative use of this term limited to men? Do women use this word for solidarity and affection, or are they more likely to find it offensive? Or was this just accidentally andocentric?

    The class I was teaching last week is a program for African-American young men and their male mentors. That was the context I was describing. I have no evidence as to the use of the n-word among African-American women. I am reminded though, mostly from watching reality TV shows, of how the words "ho" and "bitch" and other versions can be used both in antagonistic and friendly contexts, both among women and against them. Not sure these are parallel semantically to the n-word.

  16. mollymooly said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 5:57 pm

    Relevant Wikipedia pages: Auto-antonym, Reappropriation

  17. Joyce Melton said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    Gay. Among gays and gay-friendly folk, it's a reasonably neutral word or mildly up or mildly down. It's usual meaning changed from the original happy or celebratory to meaning homosexual a long time ago. At the same time, by people unfriendly to gays or oblivious to the subject, such as the very young, gay came to mean weak, useless and uncool, besides whatever bad feeling might be aimed at homosexuals by some segments.

  18. Chris C. said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    @Joyce — But it's possible for even a non-gay and non-gay friendly person to use "gay" inoffensively, as a simple label for a homosexual person. The homophobia fueling the pejorative sense is what's objectionable, not "gay" per se. However, there's almost no way for a white person to say "nigger" inoffensively. Even careful demarcation of a use-mention distinction is fraught with peril.

    A better comparison might be "faggot" or "queer", both of which can be used in certain contexts within the gay community just as "nigger" among African-Americans, but which are almost invariably offensive when coming from the out-group.

    On the possible obsolescence of "Chinaman", I became aware recently of another racist slur that's gone by the boards for lack of use. I play an MMORPG which, while designed for young adults in its original Korean release, has been toned down a bit for a younger player base in the American version and so has a lengthy list of filtered words one is not allowed to say. This list includes obscenities, racial slurs, and general raciness. When a storyline based on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice came out a couple of years ago, many players were puzzled as to why they could not say the name of one of the principal characters. Not a single person under the age of 30 seems to have ever encountered "Shylock" as an anti-Semitic slur.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    I'm not sure I entirely agree with the first half of Mr. Clark's formulation. Is the pejorative sense of the word really "more pejorative than ever" as compared to a few decades back, or just (in most but not all social contexts) more taboo than ever? Taboos regarding particular words (and/or their referents/extensions/etc.) can and do shift, and knowing the relevant set of taboos for the context in which you're speaking is an important part of native-speaker competence, but I'm not sure if characterizing shifting levels of taboo-ness as a semantic shift is the most appropriate or useful analysis.

    As to the generational point, I agree that there is a social-class/professional-status overlay here. The reappropriated/affirmative-etc. usage of the word can be seen quite clearly ("in full effeck," one might say) in for example the first N.W.A. album, which came out a full quarter-century ago (and I'm certainly making no claim the phenomenon can't be antedated beyond that back to myl's Army days and beyond). The guys who made that record in '88 were born between '63 and '69, so they now would range (they're mostly still alive) from their mid-forties to early-fifties, right in Mr. Clark's disapproving cohort.

    Now it probably is true (it's certainly my impressionistic sense and it could be probably be quantified) that as that usage has become more ubiquitous in the rap segment of the music business there has been a countervailing trend whereby white musicians (including those who would seem to be in the taboo-defying business) refrain from using the word in lyrics much more strongly than back in the 1970's (when, e.g., both Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello found occasion to rhyme it with "trigger" in hit songs – ok maybe the Costello song was only a big hit in the U.K. but I'm pretty sure I heard it unexpurgated on commercial radio in the U.S.). It is not clear to me whether these divergent trends are entirely driven by diverging semantic senses/usages or instead reflect at least in part the complexity of taboos and the variation across social contexts in either the strength of the taboo or the efficacy of the social mechanisms for its enforcement.

  20. Lazar said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    @Chris C.: I wouldn't characterize "queer" in that way. In recent years I've often seen/heard "queer" used by politically progressive straight people as a sympathetic term for LGBT people. I think this is because the word has been reappropriated not just in a slang context but also in an academic one. In fact I'm not sure that it even has much currency as a slur anymore – I can't recall an instance where I've actually seen it used as in insult.

  21. Simon Holloway said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    While I have certainly heard the word "Jew" used as though it were an insult, I have never considered it a sensitive term. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to discover that many people in Australia feel uncomfortable with it, assuming it to be pejorative. Many whom I have met prefer (and were taught to prefer) "Jewish person".

    As a Jew, I think that's absurd, and while the manner in which I refer to my co-religionists is unlikely to change, I have definitely experienced a certain 'cooling' affect when referring to Jews as "Jews" in conversation. This is similar to the example given in this post, in respect of the fact that a trend appears to have developed within some communities towards perceiving a word as taboo. In this instance, however, it is a perfectly ordinary and perfectly acceptable adjective, and the discomfort is not shared by those who are its referents.

  22. languagehat said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    In reading Russian literature of the early 19th century, it has become clear to me that жид [zhid], now a deeply pejorative word comparable to English kike, was then the normal word for 'Jew'; the modern polite/official word, еврей [evrei], was simply not used in literature. One of these days I'll see if I can find a history of the term; my tentative guess is that it became pejorative in the modern way later on in the century, with the rise of open and official anti-Semitism.

  23. Lazar said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    @Simon Holloway: There's a similar sense among many people here in the US as well. For example, when Joe Lieberman was on the presidential ticket in 2000, it was remarked upon that a lot of journalists would obsessively refer to him as a "Jewish person" rather than a Jew. And at the same time, there's a sense among Jews that it's a bit offensive that other people find their self-identification to be offensive. I identify as a half-Jew, which probably sounds even worse.

  24. Carl Offner said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

    See Gloria Naylor's "The Meanings of a Word" for a remarkable take on this. Unfortunately, the original essay seems to have been so widely used in college courses that most of what you get when you search for it is writing about it that you can copy and turn in as your own. But it's certainly available out there.

  25. Ted said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    @Cameron: Yes, in some dialects, the word "Arab" is pronounced with a long A ("long" in both senses: it's the FACE vowel, and it's of relatively long duration). This is sometimes written in eye dialect as "Ay-rab." For a similar intonation with a different vowel, think of the Oklahoma pronunciation of "insurance."

  26. Narmitaj said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

    A chinaman is the name of a particular type of bowling in cricket (left-arm unorthodox spin), and as far as I know is a pretty uncontroversial term in cricket circles, even with its apparent origin: an England player in the 1930s was out to an unusual ball bowled by a West Indian of Chinese origin and is supposed to have said "fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman!", and the name stuck to the delivery, not the bowler. Maybe it will cease being acceptable if China gets more into cricket.

  27. Frances said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    @Simon Holloway: The noun/adjective distinction applies to the standard terms for some other marginalized groups as well. I've often heard people say that you should refer to black/gay/Jewish people rather than blacks/gays/Jews. However, in my perception the noun form generally seems less offensive in the plural, especially when referring to large groups: "Jews in 19th century Europe" or "gays in the military" is probably fine, but mentioning "the black/gay/Jew in my office" is likely to come across badly (although "Jew" doesn't have as many negative connotations as "black" and "gay" in the noun form)

    I think the idea behind this (whether true or not) is that the noun forms are disproportionately used by people prejudiced against these groups. Therefore the terms, while not actual slurs, have acquired connotations of bigotry. I've also seen people claiming that the adjectives are superior to the nouns for objective grammatical reasons: the noun "Jew" reduces the person solely to their Jewishness, whereas the phrase "Jewish person" recognizes that it's just one part of their identity, everyone's a special unique individual, etc. While this argument is clearly nonsense, it's perfectly reasonable to avoid phrasing with connotations of bigotry even if it is "just" for arbitrary social reasons.

  28. Chris C. said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

    @Lazar — While it's true that "queer" has a broader range of acceptable usage and has to an extent been rehabilitated as a positive term, I have most certainly heard it used as an insult.

  29. GeorgeW said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:27 pm

    According to Mohr in "Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing," the use of the word nigger to refer to dark-skinned people from Africa dates to 1574. She says that its derogatory use dates to around 1775.

    She proposes that as swearing gave way to obscene as taboo language in the history of English, racial epithets may replace obscene language as the new taboo.

  30. M.N. said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 10:11 pm

    For me, "Jew" occupies the same category as "Pole", "Finn", "Swede", etc. I could say "a German" or "an Italian", but demonyms that have special nominal forms sound too much like slurs for me to be able to use them comfortably.

  31. Lazar said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

    @MN: One which has never sounded quite right to me is "Spaniard", because that "-ard" suffix mostly seems to be used for bad things like "bastard", "drunkard", "laggard" or "dullard".

  32. Brett said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

    @M.N.: After reading the first line of your comment, I was expecting you to say something about how innocuous "Jew" sounded to you—just like "Pole," "Finn," "Swede," all of which sound perfectly innocuous to me. It's funny how impressions differ.

    However, it is true that I don't usually tell people, "I'm a Jew." I tend to say, "I'm Jewish," which sounds less emphatic for some reason. There's nothing wrong with "Jew," but it has a different feel to it.

    @Lazar: In contrast to you, I've always thought "Spaniard" was an especially charming term. Of the negative examples you list, "bastard" doesn't feel to me like a word with an "-ard" suffix, so I don't think it affects me. Of the others, the only one I might ever use in normal conversation would be "drunkard," but even that sounds rather affected.

  33. Vicka said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:24 pm

    I think the phrase "like a girl" has gone up, down, and sideways.

    So: "[throw, ride, run, row, bike] like a girl" was a generally derogatory term for athletes of say forty years ago, even when used to describe those actions when done, however competently, by young female people. In the post-Title-9 era, the phrase has been reclaimed by some (notably by the women's-sports-outfitting company, who emblazon it on clothing to be worn by women engaging in such activities). But I still hear it used insultingly in sports bars about men being shown on the television. I wonder how those speakers would interpret it if someone described their daughters' athletic attempts with that phrase.

  34. Neal Goldfarb said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

    When Roy Peter Clark talks about the use by other people of the word nigger, he, like lots of people, uses the euphemism the n-word rather than the word itself. This fastidiousness makes no sense to me at all.

    Presumably what motivates this fear of saying or writing nigger, even when merely discussing someone else's use of the word is a desire to signal that you think the word is awful —sort of the converse of the prohibition among observant Jews of saying or writing the name of God. But if the (racist/hostile) use of the word is really as horrific as all that, discussions of such uses that say the n-word rather than nigger can have the perverse effect of softening the impact of the racist/hostile use of the word.

    For example, here's a headline I found:

    N-word sprawled [sic] all over interracial couple’s burned home. Possible hate crime?

    Wouldn't the hatefulness of the crime have been made even clearer if the headline had said, "Nigger scrawled all over interracial couple’s burned home."

    Also, it's possible to use the word nigger in a way that deliberately calls attention to the racism and injustice that the word evokes. Dick Gregory titled his autobiography, Nigger and he later wrote a book titled Up From Nigger. Would it really have been better if these books had been called N-Word and Up From the N-Word?

    Then there's the "new niggers" trope, in which nigger is used as a rough synonym for 'an ethnic or cultural group that is unjustly reviled':

    Muslims are the new niggers. They have become the "feared" the "scary", the "other". [Link]

    Mexicans are America’s new Niggers

    Before black people gained the same legal status as whites they were treated as second class scum. They lived among us and although they weren’t officially slaves they did all the dirty work of society and were taken advantage of because of their unequal social status that was related to the color of their skin.

    But now we have a new class of nigger, illegal aliens. This time it’s not about the color of their skin but the geographical location where they were born. If you were born on one side of a line on a map you have different rights that if you were born on the other side. So we use them as slaves just like we used to use black people. But I don’t think there any difference between color based slavery and geography based slavery. It’s the same thing. [Link]

    The most vile word on the planet should be reserved for the most hated people, and the most hated people in America are atheist. No single group is subject to the same amount of prejudice, hate, and bias. Atheist are, indeed, the new niggers. [Link]

    Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch, Klayman warns in his WorldNetDaily column that conservatives who oppose President Obama will “soon become the ‘new niggers,’ relegated to the back of the bus – as the bus speeds away to quickly fall over the fiscal, social and moral cliff,” arguing that they are treated just like African Americans were during Jim Crow. [Link]

    Should this subversive repurposing of nigger be taboo?

    It should be obvious what my answers are to the questions I've been asking. But it would be interesting to see someone in the n-word camp (John McWhorter, maybe?) address these issues.

  35. D.O. said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:45 am

    @languagehat. Not to subtract from your larger point, but it's more complicated than that. For example, Veltman (I know, you like him) in The Wanderer uses еврей about 10 times and жид about 25 times. Gogol and Bulgarin use жид often and еврей rarely (but they do use it). Pushkin in his short verses uses еврей about 10 times and жид only 2 times (in contexts where it very well might be a deliberate insult). Karamzin in his History uses еврей and жид almost equally (but rarely).

  36. Mark Mandel said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 2:23 am

    M.N. said:
    “For me, "Jew" occupies the same category as "Pole", "Finn", "Swede", etc. … demonyms that have special nominal forms sound too much like slurs for me to be able to use them comfortably.”

    And Brett replied:
    “After reading the first line of your comment, I was expecting you to say something about how innocuous "Jew" sounded to you—just like "Pole," "Finn," "Swede," all of which sound perfectly innocuous to me. … However, it is true that I don't usually tell people, "I'm a Jew." I tend to say, "I'm Jewish," which sounds less emphatic for some reason. There's nothing wrong with "Jew," but it has a different feel to it.

    @M.N.: I've felt the same way as Brett, and I'm similarly surprised at your reaction to those specific-nominal demonyms. How do you feel about "Frenchman", "Fleming", and "Netherlander"?
    I choose those because I started thinking about this issue when, some time ago (not here, I forget where), someone raised it with respect to names for adherents of religions — "credonyms"? They asked, in effect, "Nobody objects to 'Christian' or 'Moslem', so what's wrong with 'Jew'?"

    The crucial difference, it seems to me, is multi-sided:
    • Unlike the other credonyms here, "Jew" is a noun, distinct from the corresponding adjective.
    • Also unlike the others, it is monosyllabic.
    • Crucially, it can be, and all too often has been and still is, spat out as an insult.
    Which is why I ask how M.N. feels about a few polysyllabic non-adjectival demonyms.
    @Brett, might that account for the different feel of "Jew" to you?

  37. Vanya said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 3:11 am

    Crucially, it can be, and all too often has been and still is, spat out as an insult.

    Yes, that's the key. That's why I actually would have a much stronger reaction to someone saying, "That Jew in the office" than I would to "That kike in the office". In the latter case I would probably initially assume the person speaking was joking around. I have never actually heard anyone in modern life use the word "kike" as a real insult, only ironically. I have heard many people use "Jew" in a disparaging way, either alone or combined with a disparaging modifier. I am fine with "Pole, Swinn or Fede"

  38. Vanya said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 3:12 am

    Or even Swede and Finn.

  39. GeorgeW said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 6:38 am

    It seems to me that referring to nationalities with nouns (particularly shortened forms) can be more pejorative than using adjectives – like Jew/Jewish, Jap/Japanese, Polak/Polish, Brit(?)/British, etc.

    I have no reaction to 'Swede' per se, but 'Swedish' sounds more polite.

  40. GeorgeW said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 6:52 am

    P.S. Also, where the noun 'Jew' may be neutral, using it as an adjective is not, e.g., 'Jew boy' vs 'Jewish boy.'

  41. Karl Weber said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    @Neal Goldfarb: Using the word "nigger" to mean "a member of a group unjustly reviled" is not totally new. Yoko Ono and John Lennon wrote "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" in 1972.

  42. Martin J Ball said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 7:37 am

    Appropriation of 'bitch' by feminists also comes to mind. As in Lily Allen's latest song.

  43. languagehat said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    D.O.: Thanks for the clarification; as soon as I posted the comment I realized I had probably oversimplified the situation.

  44. Roy Peter Clark said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    In the Harry Potter series, the most evil wizard of all is Voldemort, known by his followers as the Dark Lord, and by his enemies as something like "he who cannot be named." Harry, of course, violates this taboo often, and in the end, calls him by his human name Tom. By naming him, Harry neutralizes his poisonous power. So in the context of this discussion, does the euphemism n-word have the opposite of the desired effect. Does it wind up magnifying the status of "nigger" as a hate word. This thought is inspired by Neal Goldfarb's comment.

  45. Mar Rojo said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    How about "nazi" in "grammar nazi"?

  46. Mark Mandel said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    @GeorgeW: "Polack" (usu. so spelled in Eng.) is certainly insulting, but "Pole", the normal English noun there, is not – and is monosyllabic, unlike "Pola(c)k".

    @Mar Rojo: I'm quite sure that for most Americans any use of "Nazi" outside the literal one is an insult. At least I hope so.

  47. wally said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 11:23 am

    I had an aunt – my grandfathers first cousin actually – who was born in 1876 and lived her whole life in Austin Texas. She was educated enough that she was for many years the reference librarian at the University of Texas, a five minute walk from her house. I became acquainted with her and started visiting when she was 96 or 97 years old and still very sharp. She lived with her two sisters, also in their 90's, and had what I assume was a full time helper. I was amazed when at one point she said with no apparent malice something like "I will finish the story as soon at the nigger brings me a class of water" in reference to the lady who was just a few feet away.

  48. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    The Lennon/Ono usage is not unlike the broader rhetorical phenomenon of emphasizing the importance of your pet social/political issue by claiming that whatever you're condemning is just like slavery/the Holocaust/apartheid (which always runs the risk of being in bad taste if not worse, but a substantial number people nonetheless keep doing it . . .), with the only difference being the question of whether you get tripped up by a word-specific taboo or manage to qualify for a pass because of how you were using the contested word and supposed purity of motive.

    The overall point of the Coates column linked way upthread by myl seems inarguable (that it's silly and impracticable for there to be a absolute taboo, rather it depends on who is using the word to whom in what context), but elides the practical problem. Coates seems very confident in his own particular examples of acceptable v. unacceptable uses but seems blind to the possibility that not everyone else would uniformly make the same judgments in particular cases. Even if it's as simple as saying that "outsiders" should never use the word while it's sometimes ok for "insiders," there will probably be cases where not everyone's perception as to who's an insider and who's an outsider in the particular context is in perfect harmony. It might be useful to think of this as a higher-stakes variation of the endemic problem in languages with T/V distinctions when particular people in a particular situation do not have congruent views of who should be using which pronoun to whom. So there's a sense in which the safest strategy (given the inevitability of varying judgments as to exactly what uses are exempt from the taboo) is never to use the word, especially as there are probably comparatively few contexts, other than scholarly meta-discussions firmly on one side of the use/mention distinction, where you are likely to give offense by NOT using the word – so in that sense it doesn't have the damned if you do / damned if you don't problem that borderline T/V cases can cause.

    But perhaps one thing that is distinctive about the younger group Mr. Clark is dealing with is that they perhaps are not by temperament all the way at the cautious/risk-averse end of the spectrum (and thus not likely to default to the lowest-risk strategy with its accompanying costs in terms of limiting their sense of self-expression/assertiveness/spontaneity etc.), whereas successful bourgeois adults who have agreed to mentor adolescent boys from non-privileged backgrounds are by and large probably going to think (and probably correctly, given the realities of the society we live in) that developing a greater sensitivity to the possible long-run downside consequences of short-term decisions (including the possibility of casually offending people whom it might be imprudent to offend by using taboo vocabulary) is one of the key life skills that adolescent boys from non-privileged backgrounds ought to be encouraged to work on. How adolescent boys react in practice to well-intentioned advice from adults that boils down to "stop acting the way adolescent boys will naturally tend to act if left to their own devices" is another question . . .

  49. wally said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 11:42 am

    er, a glass of water
    even tho I proofread about 10 times
    I must have had UT on my mind.

  50. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    Lazar: I'm not sure of how commonly "queer" is used as a pejorative epithet these days, but I would wager at least a modest amount of money that the fairly rough playground game which was standardly called "Smear the Queer" when I was in elementary school in the '70's is probably no longer called that, at least within earshot of teachers. (It is also possible that the increased regimentation and bubble-wrapification of K-12 education means the game by whatever name is no longer tolerated at recess because it's too rough, although maybe it still happens in less supervised environments outside school hours.) I fwiw suspect that when we started playing that game as fairly young boys we understood in context that "queer" was an epithet meaning something like "socially-reviled person / person acceptable to pick on or victimize" but may have been at age 7 or 8 or whatever still naively unaware of the specific sexual-orientation sense.

    More broadly, it is my sense that the increased reappropriation/affectionate-ingroup-usage of certain slang terms for "homosexual" over the last few decades (although maybe "queer" has had a different trajectory than others?)* has historically coincided with a heightening/strengthening of social taboos about the pejorative use of the same terms by outsiders, which would seem like a pretty good parallel example for Mr. Clark. Similarly, I'm not sure if the words in question have become "more pejorative" as such, or rather than social changes have made the public expression (in polite/elite contexts, at least) of the particular attitudes associated with the pejorative sense more taboo than it used to be.

  51. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    My take on "Jew" as offensive (which it certainly seems to be to some, apparently most often not themselves Jewish) is that it's been caught up in the same linguistic preciousness as has led to the condemnation of, say, "the blind" in favour of "blind people." Leaving aside the fact that this presumably betrays an unconscious assumption that to be Jewish is to be handicapped in some way, one can at least say in favour of this particular fetish that it rightly reminds us that there is more to a human being than just one of their attributes, however important it may be to them or to others.

    More to the point, if one hears "Jew" and especially "the Jews" most frequently in the discourse of avowed antisemites, the word is going to end up offensive by association no matter how irrational or regrettable that may be to us normal people. Possibly that might explain the fact (if it is a fact) that Jews are less likely to be offended by the word "Jew" than gentiles are offended on Jews' behalf.

  52. KathrynM said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    Mar Rojo and Mark Mandel: The number of people who describe themselves with obvious pride as "a real grammar nazi" never ceases to amaze me. I haven't encountered any other "noun nazi" phrase which is used with approbation by the person to whom it applies. I suspect this has something to do with the unfortunately common perception of those who so describe themselves, that most of the world doesn't care about, or is actively hostile to, correct use of the language, and that those who do care about it are a select and beleaguered group. Just why "nazi" would be chosen to convey that sense still eludes me, though.

  53. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    Didn't make that very clear: I mean that if you're Jewish and associate a lot with other Jews, you'll probably use and hear the word "Jew" most frequently in neutral settings, so the word is not nearly as likely to get associated with prejudice from context.

  54. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    KathrynM: I have heard "bedtime Nazi" used as a positive self-description by parents (both Jewish and non-) who believe that they are stricter about enforcing bedtime discipline on their children than some amorphous control group of perceived-as-slacker/latitudinarian parents to whom they feel superior in this regard. Google confirms both that usage and a mildly pejorative usage (which I can't recall hearing myself but seems a plausible extension) on the part of old-enough-to-talk children who would like their parents to be less strict on this front.

    Overheated political rhetoric being what it is, I believe that both right-of-center political types who get used to being mischaracterized as Nazis/fascists/Klansmen/what-have-you by intemperate opponents and left-of-center types who get used to being similarly mischaracterized as Commies/pinkos/etc. sometimes develop in-group black-humor self-references playing on these epithets, although in both cases these are liable to be misunderstood and/or considered in poor taste by outsiders and are thus perhaps sensibly kept quiet when company is present. I'm not quite sure of the etymology of the BrEng adjective "bolshie" (clipped from "Bolshevik") meaning militant/stroppy/shirty w/o being a literal Communist, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was a result of this sort of in-group humor that then experienced some semantic drift as it migrated to the more general population.

  55. mollymooly said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    An overgeneral hypothesis: nouns define the essence of the referent, whereas adjectives merely name one attribute among an unknown number. People object more to being defined by others than to being described by them.

    Even if my hypothesis is at all true of English, I won't risk extending it to other languages. There was a UK-German kerfuffle in 1997 over "der Jude Rifkind" and whether that sounds more or less off than "the Jew Rifkind".

  56. Mar Rojo said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    I'm not so sure that it's the same in Britain. Membership of forums with "nazis/Nazis" in the site name seems to be on the increase: (Almost 48,000 likes).

    I've also heard many such members put forward an argument that when the lower case "n" is used, the semantic force, the classic inference and, possibly, the classic implication is weakened.

  57. Mar Rojo said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    In Castilian Spanish, "coño" has gone its own merry way and is found on the lips of citizens from all walks of life.

  58. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    I happen to believe that nigger began to be used in England in the 16th century as simply the Latin word for black, at a time when latinisms were common in English speech (e.g. pater and mater). In fact, most of the older citations in the OED have the Latin spelling with one g, and I suspect that the second g was added to keep the "short i" sound in speech (so that it would not rhyme with tiger). Others preferred the Spanish/Portuguese negro — it was probably just a matter of style. It even seems to me that what the OED cites as the earliest supposedly pejorative uses are not necessarily so. How the word came to be "the vilest word in the English language" (Christopher Darden at the O.J. Simpson trial) must be through a very complex psychological process that I don't fully understand.

    As regards Chinaman, it's been my belief that it's a literal translation of 中国人 (zhōngguórén in Mandarin, zung1gwok3jan4 in Cantonese — help from Victor Mair?), probably used by the Chinese themselves. Just as the people to whom the media now generally call Roma or Romani were the ones to represent themselves as Egyptians, which was naturally shortened to Gypsy at a time when the digraph ti stood for [sɪ] rather than [ʃ]. Some of them now choose to regard Gypsy as a pejorative, probably because of the derived gyp. By the same token, of course, the Welsh and the Jews ought to regard their English exonyms as pejorative.

  59. Mar Rojo said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    "The Soup Nazi is also the nickname of the eponymous character played by Larry Thomas. The term "Nazi" is used as an exaggeration of the excessively strict regimentation he constantly demands of his patrons.[1]"

  60. GeorgeW said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

    @David Eddyshaw:". . . if one hears "Jew" and especially "the Jews" most frequently in the discourse of avowed antisemites, the word is going to end up offensive by association no matter how irrational or regrettable that may be to us normal people."

    Agreed. And, I would find the term 'Jewish' (as opposed to 'Jew') to be a strange fit in an anti-semitic diatribe.

  61. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

    Yes, there's something about the noun that sounds more hostile than the adjective: witness "Democrat" vs. "Democratic."

  62. D.O. said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: I you sure you are describing the right phenomenon? "He is a life-long Democrat" is neutral to me. It's the use of Democrat as a noun modifier that became a shibboleth. Democrat party, Democrat-controlled legislature etc.

  63. Jill said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

    As a non-black person I've sometimes wondered whether it is considered appropriate for me to say the word "nigger" when I sing along to Kanye West's enormously popular song "Gold Digger". If so, is this because it's essentially quoting somebody who is black and is "allowed" to say this? (E.g. is it the same as quoting verbatim from somebody's speech?) Or, if not, then that seems quite wrong in the context of the song, because the word is an integral part of the lyrics.

  64. Robert Coren said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    @Jill: This puts me in mind of a problem that the makers of the film Topsy Turvy neatly evaded. (I should say at the outset that I have no inside knowledge, but am merely speculating on their thought process based on the outcome.)

    The movie is a fictionalized account of the creation of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Mikado. In the original operetta, the title character sings a song whose first verse contains the lines: "The lady who dyes a chemical yellow / Or stains her grey hair puce / Or pinches her figger / is blacked like a nigger / with permanent walnut juice". This usage would presumably have been unremarkable to Gilbert and to his audience. Not so for modern audiences, of course, so the last two lines are universally sung today (and have been throughout my lifetime) as "is blackened with vigor / and permanent walnut-juice", incidentally introducing a not-un-Gilbertian use of zeugma.

    The movie includes a scene in which this song is sung at rehearsal, presenting the filmmakers with a seemingly intractable problem: To use the modern version would be an unpardonable anachronism, but the original would have had an emotional impact that would be equally anachronistic, and would furthermore involve the film in an unfortunate amount of controversy.

    Like many of G&S's songs, this one has an introduction and two verses, and in the interests of time it's not unreasonable to quote only one of the verses in the course of the film. In the case of the Mikado's song, the performer sang the introduction and the second verse, thereby avoiding the problem passage altogether.

  65. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 13, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    Further to D.O.'s point, referring to e.g. "Jew bankers" rather than "Jewish bankers" is certainly at least in recent times a pretty strong "tell" of anti-Semitism. (At least in the standard/prestige dialect of AmEng – I don't think I have enough data to completely foreclose the possibility that the facts might be different in other dialects.) On the other hand, it doesn't work the other way. It's easy to find instances of "Jewish bankers" in the middle of an anti-Semitic diatribe without it seeming like a "tell" of moderation . . . My own sense is that the notion that one should generally say e.g. "Jewish person" in preference to "Jew" was stronger in polite/elite U.S. discourse circa the 1950's than it is now (this could be checked via corpus linguistics, but you'd need to structure things to screen out various sorts of false positives and negatives), perhaps because the decreasing marginality of Jews in American life gave them the communal self-confidence to move on to other issues and/or because some strands of intra-Jewish opinion thought that using locutions like that was a sign of self-censorship and/or an insufficiently robust sense of self-identity. You can certainly see from the google books n- gram viewer the long-term decline of the old locution "of the Jewish persuasion."

  66. Eric said,

    December 14, 2013 @ 2:42 am

    "As a non-black person I've sometimes wondered whether it is considered appropriate for me to…"
    "Not even…"
    "You're not even letting me…"
    "Hell no."


    that seems quite wrong in the context of the song

    You'll live.

  67. C.N. Wilson said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 4:04 am

    I can't believe we made it through this many comments without anybody mentioning the Louis C.K. bit on "the n word".

  68. Bill said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

    One parallel might be "retarted."
    There are two distinct slang definitions:

    meaning bad, of poor quality:
    (1) That party was retarded!

    meaning excellent; "cool"; "awesome".
    (2) That outfit is retarted!

    You can see:

  69. Chris C. said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

    Now that I think about it, I recall a startling discovery the first time I read one of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, "How the Leopard Got his Spots", aloud to one of my kids. I hadn't read it before, but skimmed it beforehand and despite one or two questionable ideas in it, it seemed harmless enough. Until I got to, "'Oh, plain black's best for a nigger,' said the Ethiopian."

    Very easy to read around, even if you're already partway through the sentence before you realize what you have come upon, but I really hadn't expected it.

  70. Robert Coren said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    @Chris C.: How old is your edition of Just So Stories? The edition I grew up on, which dated from my mother's childhood (1920s) agrees with yours, but I believe that later editions (1960s onward?) removed the last three words. Maybe only some publishers did this?

  71. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    There seem to have been trans-Atlantic differences in how taboo the word was at least as early as 1939, when it was still acceptable as part of the title of an Agatha Christie book in the U.K. but not for the American edition I'm not sure whether taboos were looser in the U.K. as far back as when Kipling was writing, although I wouldn't it find it surprising. OTOH I recently read a reaction by someone who found the word quite jarring in the context of the famous poem "American Names" by the American Stephen Vincent Benet (first published 1931, says wikipedia, and best known for its closing line "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee"), so maybe not.

  72. Chris C. said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    @Robert — It was a reprint of the original text, including Kipling's original illustrations, and may have been intended more as a collector's edition than something to read to the kids.

    I read it aloud as "Oh, plain black's best for me."

  73. Robert Coren said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    @Chris C.: Oh, yes, that's the edition we had. Actually, I now recall that someone had changed it to "for me" in pencil, but I somehow managed to overlook that when reading it.

    I should look and see if I still have the copy, or if my brother ended up with it (I'll be very upset if neither of these things turns out to be the case).

  74. Robert Coren said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    @J. W. Brewer: Different levels of taboo between the UK and the US are observable as late as the 1970s, when Fawlty Towers was able to use the word for comic effect, something I can't imagine an American show from the same period attempting.

    (Summary of the joke in question: The Major is rambling on, as he does, and talks about a woman he had taken to some match who referred to the Indian players as "niggers", and he scolded her — not for using the word, but for misapplying it: "These are wogs; the niggers are the West Indians.")

  75. Chris C. said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 9:28 pm

    @Robert — At that time in the US, it was acceptable for a laugh on a sitcom as long as a black person used it. But even racial-epithet-spewing Archie Bunker was never seen to utter it on-camera.

  76. Robert Coren said,

    December 19, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    And, interestingly, I just watched an episode of the British crime series George Gently (the series is being written/produced more or less currently but is set in the 1960s) that centered largely on race relations (and racial hatred), and on reflection realized that none of the characters used the word once. Was it less likely to be used by racists in northern England at that time? If the events depicted had occurred in the US at that time, it surely would have been, and I wonder if modern sensitivities/sensibilities led the writers to avoid it.

  77. Ross Presser said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    A thought that occurred to me, somewhat connected to the "Pole / Swede" above:

    At least to my American ear, to name someone as a Pole means you are naming the country of which they are a citizen — Pope John Paul II was a Pole. To name someone as Polish, you may only be referring to their ancestry — he's Polish because his grandfather came from Warsaw. There is an implied "-American" there — he's a Polish-American; an American citizen with Polish ancestry.

    Likewise, naming someone as Jewish seems less emphatic because the implication is he's a Jewish-American: an American citizen with Jewish ancestry. Naming someone as a Jew, you're excluding his citizenship completely: he's not an American, he's a Jew, an outlander.

    (I do not myself hold these opinions! I am in fact Jewish, and I name myself a Jew quite often. I am just trying to see it from another angle and come up with an explanation.)

    Since the -American suffix convention seems to me to be a product of the 50s, 60s or 70s, this may once again be a generational issue. Certainly it seems to me that modern Orthodox Jewish movements like Chabad are actively reclaiming the word Jew: they want their members to think of Jewishness as the primary trait and political citizenship as a secondary trait.

  78. Ross Presser said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    Finally, жид [zhid] comes directly from the Yiddish word ייד [yid] which means Jew, coming from the Hebrew name יהודה Judah. Certainly it acquired pejorative meaning in Russia but it couldn't have a more straightforward origin. еврей [evrei] would again be a direct import from Hebrew עִברִי "ivri", translated as "Hebrew" (person).

  79. Harold said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

    I believe there was a conscious, concerted campaign by Paul Robeson, Josh White, and some other popular front members to ban the word "nigger" from polite conversation. Before that Porgy and Bess was referred to in newspapers as the "nigger opera" and so on. I think the word specifically designated lower-class black people in its least insulting interpretation, but was always deprecating.

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