"Nigga" untrademarkable?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Fri Mar 17 23:30:48 UTC 2006

I'm not surprised by this idea, though I've never heard it enunciated.  In general media usage, "Jewish person" and "Jewish people" have become far more usual than "Jew" or "Jews," which automatically taints the latter (in ways, I suppose, that are almost impossible to enunciate).  More to the point, antisemitic rhetoric and remarks are always aimed at "Jews" rather than "Jewish people."

  Someone long, long ago--possibly Gordon Allport--observed that nominal ethnic designators are blunter, and therefore likely to be more disagreeable, than adj. + n. combinations.  The fact that "Jew" is a monosyllable makes it even blunter when any possible degree of prejudice is suspected (or expected).

  There is (or was recently) a Jewish-interest magazine daringly called _Hebe_. The title aroused plenty of controversy (as it was no doubt intended to), but the publishers insisted that the name was chosen to show how "edgy" and "hip" the magazine was. They also hoped that their efforts would help remove some of the epithet's negative force. Cf. the mostly academic use of "queer," for simlar reasons.

  One seriously wonders whether they considered, and then rejected, _Jew_ as potentially even "more offensive."


Alice Faber <faber at HASKINS.YALE.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Alice Faber
Organization: Haskins Laboratories
Subject: Re: "Nigga" untrademarkable?

Charles Doyle wrote:
> A few years ago, after discoursing with a Shakespeare class
> about The Merchant of Venice, I was informed by a student
> that she found offensive my using the noun "Jew." Taken
> aback, I asked what designation she would prefer; she
> replied, "Jewish person."
> How widespread is that sentiment? (Though it isn't quite
> parallel, the Yid/Yiddish pair reminded me of my student's
> distinction.)
> Of course, many derogatory epithets for
> ethnic/racial/national/religious categories have originated
> as neutral designations (as was the case with the
> unutterable n-word, with its untrademarkable cognate), the
> pejoration of the words resulting from the oppression--dare
> I say denigration?--of the groups to which they refer.

I encountered variations of this attitude several times when I lived in
Texas. When I first went to Austin, in 1974, on my flight down I was
sitting next to a woman who was most intrigued (and pleased as punch)
that a New Yorker thought that the University of Texas was the ideal
place for graduate studies in linguistics. When the conversation turned
to their offerings in Hebrew--one of the attractions of the school--she
asked if I spoke Hebrew and then, to my utter befuddlement, she asked if
I was an "Israelite".

A few years later, when I was teaching the intro to linguistics for
non-majors, in a classroom discussion of taboo and politeness, a student
from Houston raised the issue of "Jew" and "Jewish" as ethnic
designators. Her childhood best friend, who was Jewish, had been
instructed by her parents to tell them immediately if anybody described
her as "a Jew" or "as Jewish". The kids were confused by this (after
all, the friend *was* Jewish), but the parents obviously found such
language potentially offensive.

At this point, it occurred to me that the woman on the plane who had
asked me if I was an Israelite was struggling for a polite, inoffensive
way to ask me what was a totally natural question in the context of our

Alice Faber faber at haskins.yale.edu
Haskins Laboratories tel: (203) 865-6163 x258
New Haven, CT 06511 USA fax (203) 865-8963

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