Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Jan 10 22:03:40 UTC 2001

mark mandel:
 >For that matter, I once stayed for a week with the family of a white
 >man for whom "nigger" was simply the word for a {Black |
 >African-American | ...  } person, and he used it without pejoration
 >or insult. "Negro" wasn't in his vocabulary. This was in the summer
 >of 1966, in rural Kentucky near Corbin. There was certainly a lot of
 >racism in that region, but as far as I could tell there was none in

i've heard any number of such reports, about people of considerable
age or geographical isolation or both.  at one level, this is just
like my grandmother's continuing to refer to cars/automobiles as
"machines", and refrigerators as "iceboxes", all her life, long after
everyone else around her had either shifted their usages or had never
acquired hers in the first place.  she was entirely aware that other
people used different words, but then we all know that different
people talk differently, so as long as she was understood there was no
particular reason for her to change.

but there's the problem with "nigger".  no one, even in rural kentucky
in 1966, is so isolated as not to have come into contact with plenty
of speakers for whom the word is pejorative, indeed strongly so, so
that if you use the word you risk being misunderstood.  perhaps you
have a tin ear, and don't notice how other people use this word.
perhaps you are socially incurious and unobservant.  perhaps you are
resistant to change, to the point where your linguistic inertia is
stronger than your concern for being understood. perhaps you just
don't care if other people think you're talking pejoratively; *you*
know what you think.

but it's not *just* a matter of your continuing to use a word the way
you learned as a child.

arnold (zwicky at

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