Frank Abate abatefr at EARTHLINK.NET
Fri Jun 13 09:46:21 UTC 2003

To add a bit to what Joanne says (cc'd below), from experience on the Oxford
American dictionaries . . .

We were contacted in the late 90s by someone who wanted OUP to change its
treatment of the n-word.  In fact, she wanted the entry removed, the basic
idea being that it is "not a word"; she referred to recent press coverage on
the effort to get it out of dictionaries, including the involvement of the
NAACP in this.  I pointed out that it is indeed a word, in fact a word heard
many times daily in the US, and quite often by blacks, who seemed to use it
in a non-derogatory way.  I was thinking of its use by Chris Rock, for
instance, and other black comedians.  We finally sent a letter in reply
stating our policy on _nigger_ and all racial and ethnic slurs, which was
essentially that it is not our job as lexicographers to judge, but merely to
report, and that it is not for us to decide or write about, in the
dictionary, at least, how we might wish the language to be.

So we did some further research on the n-word, checked with some black
colleagues, and wrote an entry and accompanying usage note for the New
Oxford American Dictionary in light of this.  We got advice from our
academic advisory board, including especially (on this particular item) Ron
Butters and Joan Hall.

The relevant parts of the NOAD entry follow:

nigger  [pron.]  n.  derogatory  a contemptuous term for a black or
dark-skinned person.


USAGE: the word ~nigger~ was used as an adjective denoting a black person as
early as the 17th century and has long had strong offensive connotations.
Today it remains one of the most racially offensive words in the language.
Also, referred to as 'the n-word,' ~nigger~ is sometimes used by black
people in reference to other black people in a jocular or disparaging
manner, or some variant in between (in somewhat the same way that _queer_
has been adopted by some gay and lesbian people as a term of self-reference,
acceptable only when used by those within the community).

It is important to constantly remind the public (and our colleagues, and
ourselves) that it is the main job of synchronic lexicography to report, to
hold up a microphone to the language, record what we hear (and read), and
then present the most frequently occurring and salient facts in the space

Frank Abate

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
Of Joanne M. Despres
Sent: Thursday, June 12, 2003 10:38 AM
Subject: Re: Fwd: FW: NAACP WINS

This is a strangely belated and rather exaggerated response to a
slight alteration in M-W's treatment of slur words.

The piece seems to suggest that ethnic slurs had never been
labelled as offensive in the Collegiate before, when they have been
for many years.  In fact, not only is the N-word stigmatized, it's
given a usage paragraph which states in no uncertain terms how
badly offensive it is. The paragraph has been in the Collegiate since
the tenth edition, in 1993.

The only real change in M-W's policy is that the "usu offensive"
label was moved from the end to the beginning of the definition; this
happened several years ago.

If the NAACP wants to interpret that as a victory, that's great, but it
would be an injustice to suggest that M-W has ever endorsed
racist definitions in its dictionaries.  Unfortunately, many people
have difficulty understanding the concept that dictionary definitions
explain what English speakers mean when they use a particular
word, not what something or someone "is" in ontological sense.

But I'm preaching to the choir, of course.

Joanne Despres

On 11 Jun 2003, at 19:44, Laurence Horn wrote:

> f.y.i.
> >Subject: FW: NAACP WINS
> >Date: Wed, 11 Jun 2003 17:04:51 -0400
> >
> >
> >This is a great victory for all African Americans.
> >
> >
> >NAACP wins on "nigger" in dictionary
> >A Small Victory...A Giant Step ( Thanks NAACP )
> >There has been a change in Webster's Dictionary.
> >Kweisi Mfume, President and CEO of the National Association for the
> >Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), recently gave a speech at
> >Virginia Tech.
> >
> >Everyone was informed that a landmark decision was made last week
> >with the people at Merriam-Webster Dictionary. They have recognized
> >the error of their ways.
> >
> >So, beginning with the next edition, the word nigger will no longer be
> >synonymous with African-Americans. It shall be duly noted that it's a
> >racial slur and not what African-Americans themselves are. Along
> >with this, all racial and religious slurs will finally be indicated
> >for what they really are - cruel and evil slurs too often used to
> >degrade people.
> >
> >Please pass this information on to others. This change should serve
> >to people, corporations, etc., that when individuals stick together to
> >right a wrong, a change is gonna come. This wasn't just a victory for
> >African-Americans, but for everyone.
> >
> >Now if we can only get some of our young black men to stop using it
> >so freely... then we will truly win.
> >
> >
> >Terry J. Pierce
> >The Alliance...the premier organization for the telecom professional!
> >National Secretary & Chief Information Officer
> >1100 Walnut St/11th Flr
> >Kansas City, MO 64106
> >816-654-3406 (Office)
> >816-654-2259 (Fax)
> >

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