Let’s be niggardly with the n-word, but…

but…sometimes it can and should be said.

niggardly
stingy, sparing, parsimonious, e.g. “serving out the rations with a niggardly hand”.

from niggard
mid-14c., nygart, of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests French origin (cf. -ard), but the root word is probably related to O.N. hnøggr “stingy,” from P.Gmc. *khnauwjaz (cf. Swed. njugg “close, careful,” Ger. genau “precise, exact”), and to O.E. hneaw “stingy, niggardly,” which did not survive in M.E. [etymonline.com]

nigger
1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro, from Latin nigrum (nominative form niger) “black,” of unknown origin (perhaps from Proto Indo European *nekw-t- “night,”). From the earliest usage it was “the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks” [cited in Gowers, 1965]. But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person. Also applied by English settlers to dark-skinned native peoples in India, Australia, Polynesia. The reclamation of the word as a neutral or positive term in black culture (not universally regarded as a worthwhile enterprise), often with a suggestion of “soul” or “style,” is attested first in the Amer. South, later (1968) in the Northern, urban-based Black Power movement. [”You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you,” said Scarlett slowly. … There, she thought, I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” [Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind,” 1936] [etymonline.com]

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, radio dispenser of advice and moral judgments, is taking considerable heat for her response to a call involving the word nigger. I don’t even know if WordPress will allow me to spell that word out—and that is what I want to talk about. If you would like to see a transcript of the call and Dr. Laura’s remarks immediately after the call, it is here.

I will say that I think Dr. Laura should apologize, but not for saying a bad word on the radio. For whatever reason, she abandoned her professional role and lost the distance and composure essential to that role. Instead of asking elucidating questions and listening to the caller’s answers, she went off on a rant of her own. As Dear Abby and Ann Landers and others have often decreed, when a spouse hears relatives or friends insulting or taunting his or her spouse, spouse1 must let the relatives/friends know that this is not acceptable, that neither member of the couple will stay to hear such insults and taunts. There are good practical reasons for this, and there is even Biblical justification: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. New American Standard Bible (©1995)

When a black woman married to a white man complained that the word nigger was being used, the therapist-of-the-air should have asked: “How is it being used? Give us an example.” Probably the example will not be a disquisition having to do with Mark Twain’s use of the word in Huckleberry Finn, or the word’s etymology, or a quotation from a black comic using the word. Most likely the remarks are of this nature: “You know niggers, they always/never…” or “Some nigger robbed the convenience store over by where I work…”

These uses are insulting, hostile, and demeaning, like all the other dehumanizing terms used to set some group apart from the rest of us. English has terms like that for Arabs, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, fat people, smart people, stupid people, white people, Hispanic people, gay people, men, women, and people whose ancestors were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Scandinavia, and so on. Other languages have similar terms for the same list, subtracting the words for the speaker’s religion, gender, sexual preference, appearance, and ethnic origin, and adding ones for us Americans. Sometimes there’s intra-group use of such terms; Dr. Laura went off on that tangent but I will not, it’s irrelevant. When outsiders use the term it is almost exclusively insulting and demeaning. Worst of all, these dehumanizing terms are the mental preparation for pogroms, lynchings, beatings, bombings, murders, war, and ethnic cleansing (a shocking euphemism which deserves its own examination, but not here).

No question, nigger is not a word for everyday use by non-blacks, same as the other group-based terms alluded to above.

But when someone wants to excise words from our language, all of us should resist.

When we begin killing words, where will it end?

Some may say, Better words than people! My reply is that manipulating language is the same as manipulating thought, which in turn changes how we act. Dehumanizing the Other is a preparation for war, violence and mistreatment, whether organized or individual. What’s necessary and positive is to continue to educate people not to use these category-based insulting demeaning words to other people. If you want to call someone lazy then do that, but don’t couple it with an insult to the person’s innate or historic self. I can argue with you about whether I am lazy or not, and if convinced that I am, I can choose to change it, but I will always be a black Scandinavian Catholic gay smart woman, if that is what I am.

If we must substitute the ridiculous circumlocution “the N-word” for nigger, then how do we discuss historical documents that used it? How do we read literature that used it? How do we talk about the word itself and its history that renders it sharp as a sword, clanking with manacles, reeking of hatred and suffering?

James Baldwin used nigger, and not just in the vocative sense (e.g., my example, as some use “man”, “Man, you know I’m…”, “Nigger, you know I’m…”) In fact he and Dick Gregory made a serious movie by that title, and it’s the title of Dick Gregory’s 1990 autobiography. Baldwin and Gregory believed that the word and its various meanings needed to be thought about, talked about, by whites and blacks.

Apparently “the N-word” attained popularity during the OJ Simpson trial, in talking about recorded statements by Mark Fuhrman. Chris Darden, black prosecutor, tried to save Fuhrman’s credibility by letting everyone know how awful he, Darden, thought the word was: “The prosecutor [Christopher Darden], his voice trembling, added that the “N-word” was so vile that he would not utter it. “It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”

But the Bowdlers who gave us first “the F-word” and then “the N-word” won’t stop there. Broadcasters aid and abet them, probably feeling a little frisson of guilty pleasure at being able to allude unmistakably to words the FCC won’t permit them to utter. And some people make up new “[letter] – words” to dramatize their remarks or because they feel victimized. So we have “the B-word”, and words for C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K and on through the alphabet. Some of the words so represented are offensive, others are as inoffensive as “green”.

Let’s let this “N-word” thing stop and fade away. Many times it will be sufficient to say that a person used a “racial slur referring to black people”. If not, then just say the word. “Candidate Joe Smith singled out a black man in the audience for insult, calling him a nigger and a ‘mono’, Spanish for monkey.” Let’s be grown-ups about language and about how we treat others. Hiding behind alphabetical euphemisms makes us sound like giggling 8 year olds, and prevents us from thinking and talking about the issues that euphemisms cover up.

5 thoughts on “Let’s be niggardly with the n-word, but…

  1. I had a friend, now deceased, who was a local politician. I used to lecture him about using the word, “nigger”. As in, “Some of them are black people, but some are just niggers.” I did get him to stop, at least in my presence, and, as far as I know, he treated black people fairly. But I’ve always been amazed at how insistent white people can be about their right to use that word. Some of them really quite bitter about the fact that they can’t use it anymore and yet the black people can. I don’t understand why they care so much.

  2. It’s not the word, per se. The word (okay for blacks to use, “racist” if used by whites) represents other issues. Rapid change in a society is naturally unsettling, but if the very foundations are uncertain—economy, security, family—then people become fearful and look for blame, look for who to fear.

  3. 2 Questions to the writer, please:
    1. What is your point (of your “N” word essay)? In one sentence, or two.
    2. What is the connection of this item to the blog?
    A wise person, when asked for a definition of evil, summed it this way:
    “Evil is the intent to harm.”
    For me, it is the measuring stick in any such discussion, or action.

  4. lulu lupus,

    No intent to harm here. Answering your questions,

    1. Making a word completely unsayable, even in innocent discussions of history or literature, chokes thought and discussion.

    2. The connection is, me. The blog contains posts on whatever I’m interested in, have time to write about, and feel is worth that time. When Dr. Laura’s tirade got her into well-publicized trouble— not because she was insensitive to the caller’s problem, but because she didn’t say “N-word” instead of “nigger”—I thought it was worth writing about. I made it explicitly clear that what I thought of words that have traditionally been used to insult and demean: “these dehumanizing terms are the mental preparation for pogroms, lynchings, beatings, bombings, murders, war, and ethnic cleansing… No question, nigger is not a word for everyday use by non-blacks, same as the other group-based terms alluded to above.” At the same time, as a word and a psychological weapon it’s part of our nation’s history and we need to be able to discuss it without (what I feel are childish) circumlocutions.

    On the subject of evil, another point of view:
    “…good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
    —ALBERT CAMUS, The Plague

    Banning words can be that sort of good intention.

  5. To paraphrase Shakespeare “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much”.

    You might want to take a closer look at your own quote:
    ‘On the subject of evil, another point of view:
    “…good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”’
    —ALBERT CAMUS, The Plague

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