slur & epithet, "racially derogatory word"
nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Sat Mar 30 15:08:40 UTC 2013
I’m trying to figure out when “(racial) slur” entered the mainstream vocabulary in the sense of “derogatory word,” as opposed simply to an insulting or defamatory remark. Ngrams shows the phrase "racial slur" as quite rare before the 60s. In Google Books and Proquest, it seems to have been used in this sense before then predominantly in African American publications like Ebony, Jet, and the Chicago Defender (where early cites refer, to a 1942 NAACP objection Lucky Strike’s “nigger head” brand tobacco and complaints from black students in the same year about being required to sing Stephen Foster songs about “darkies”). In other sources, it seems to be chiefly used in this period mostly to refer to insults or disparaging remarks or actions having to do with race (in one case when an officer in Korea tells white soldiers that the colored officers have stuck with the troops more than they have; in another, by Nixon to describe the charge that he was anti-Semitic; in another when!
a NY barber posts a sign charging patrons more for “kinky” haircuts).
I don't know that it matters exactly when the word was first used in this sense, but it would be important to know how and when the sense developed and spread. Did it first take root among African Americans and spread to the white mainstream media in the context of the civil rights movement or growing white sensitivity about racial issues?
This sense of the word isn’t recorded in the OED, which hasn’t updated the entry for ‘slur’ since 1912. Odd that this word hasn’t been singled out for out-of-sequence revision, given its cultural significance. (Jesse, you must have scads of stuff on this your files.) It also isn't in M-W or the AHD, unless you allow that it's accounted for with "A disparaging remark; an aspersion." I don't think that's an accurate description of "nigger" or "fag"; at least it doesn't suggest that these are particular words.
"Racial epithet" seems to have undergone a parallel development. The first nine cites for "racial epithete" in Proquest Hist Newspapers (and 47 of the first 50 from 1942 to 1961) are all from the Chicago Defender. The OED does have this sense for 'epithet' ("An offensive or derogatory expression used of a person; an abusive term; a profanity"), though the cites involve only words like "bastard" and "swine." (Nowadays, it seems to me, when someone is described as having "used an epithet," it's dollars to doughnuts the word in question was either "fuck" or "nigger.")
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