the n word: on its way out?

Landau, James James.Landau at NGC.COM
Thu Mar 8 14:49:26 UTC 2007

I dispute the word "inextricably".  Linguistic drift does strange things
over time.  Note in the very next sentence "its popularity among those
African Americans who put a positive spin on it as a term of solidarity
or  endearment." If it does become the standard term of endearment among
African Americans (unlikely but possible), it will inevitably lose its
connotations of "racism and hate".

Or consider the following scenario, which I concede is VERY unlikely:
In some state there is a schism in the Democratic Party, a schism
serious enough that in the next primary the ballot has to have two
separate columns for what previously were simply "Democratic"
candidates.  One faction will claim to be the "Regular Democrats", of
course.  One of the main reasons for the schism is that a number of
African American candidates got fed up with the policies of the Party
leadership in that state, so these schismatics (which include a good
number of whites and other non-blacks, of course) choose to call
themselves the "N****r Democrats".  Just imagine the bumper stickers and
billboards and newspaper headlines in that state going into the general
election.  Now to makes things tighter, let's suppose a significant
number of the "N****r" candidates win in the general election, but the
Regular Democrats win a court order banning the other faction from using
the name "Democrat".  Stories from Washington DC will have to refer to
"Senator Smith (Nr, [state abbreviation])", which will be doubly
interesting because Senator Smith is white.  Worse, in this one state
"N****r" will no longer be an offensive term for an African American but
rather a purely descriptive term for a member, any race, of a particular
political party.

More likely: I imagine a Republican (race unspecified) running in a
district with a high percentage of African American voters who plasters
the district with bumper stickers reading "ALL N****RS VOTE THE STRAIGHT

Now for two non-hypothetical questions.
1) Why is the term "n****r" so offensive while the similar-sounding but
now-long-forgotten term "Negro" was the proper choice for those who
wished to be polite?  My guess is that since "Negro" was the original
term, "n****r" originated as an illiteracy among white trash, and became
stereotyped as an insult because white trash were more likely to be
insulting to blacks than higher-class whites were.  If this be true,
then we have the paradox that the n-word became so offensive due to
black stereotyping of a particular class of whites!

2) In Gone With The Wind, a book which to the eternal misfortune of the
United States failed to live up to the promise of its title, the n-word
does not (if I remember correctly) appear, but instead there are
frequent uses of the word "nigra".  I cannot recall ever having heard or
seen "nigra" elsewhere, so I ask if it were a one-shot euphemism
invented by either the author or an editor for this particular book?

    - Jim Landau
      Test Engineer
      Northrop-Grumman Information Technology
      8025 Black Horse Pike, Suite 300
      West Atlantic City NJ 08232 USA

-----Original Message-----
From: Dennis Baron [mailto:debaron at UIUC.EDU]
Sent: Wednesday, March 07, 2007 6:57 PM
Subject: the n word: on its way out?

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

The n-word: on its way out?

The New York City Council has called for a symbolic moratorium on the
use of the "N" word, joining a growing movement to ban a word
inextricably associated with racism and hate.  Angry over Michael
Richards' explosive use of the word, and disturbed by its popularity
among those African Americans who put a positive spin on it as a term of
solidarity or  endearment <snip>

The American Dialect Society -

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