I'm sympathetic to many of the arguments offered in a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready (HK&M) in response to Geoff Pullum's post on "nigger in the woodpile," no doubt because they are sympathetic to some of the things I said in my reply to Geoff. But I have to object when they scold me for spelling out the word nigger rather than rendering it as n****r. It seems to me that "masking" the letters of slurs with devices such as this is an unwise practice—it reflects a misunderstanding of the taboos surrounding these words, it impedes serious discussion of their features, and most important, it inadvertently creates an impression that works to the advantage of certain racist ideologies. I have to add that it strikes me that HK&M's arguments, like a good part of the linguistic and philosophical literature on slurs, suffer from a certain narrowness of focus, a neglect both of the facts of actual usage of these words and the complicated discourses that they evoke. So, are you sitting comfortably?
HK&M say of nigger (or as they style it, n****r):
The word literally has as part of its semantic content an expression of racial hate, and its history has made that content unavoidably salient. It is that content, and that history, that gives this word (and other slurs) its power over and above other taboo expressions. It is for this reason that the word is literally unutterable for many people, and why we (who are white, not a part of the group that is victimized by the word in question) avoid it here.
Yes, even here on Language Log. There seems to be an unfortunate attitude — even among those whose views on slurs are otherwise similar to our own — that we as linguists are somehow exceptions to the facts surrounding slurs discussed in this post. In Geoffrey Nunberg’s otherwise commendable post on July 13, for example, he continues to mention the slur (quite abundantly), despite acknowledging the hurt it can cause. We think this is a mistake. We are not special; our community includes members of oppressed groups (though not nearly enough of them), and the rest of us ought to respect and show courtesy to them.
This position is a version of the doctrine that Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore call "silentism" (see also here). It accords with the widespread view that the word nigger is phonetically toxic: simply to pronounce it is to activate it, and it isn’t detoxified by placing it in quotation marks or other devices that indicate that the word is being mentioned rather than used, even written news reports or scholarly discussions. In that way, nigger and words like it seem to resemble strong vulgarities. Toxicity, that is, is a property that’s attached to the act of pronouncing a certain phonetic shape, rather than to an act of assertion, which is why some people are disconcerted when all or part of the word appears as a segment of other words, as in niggardly or even denigrate.
Are Slurs Nondisplaceable?
This is, as I say, a widespread view, and HK&M apparently hold that that is reason enough to avoid the unmasked utterance of the word (written or spoken), simply out of courtesy. It doesn't matter whether the insistence on categorial avoidance reflects only the fact that “People have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that referring to the word is not the same as using it,” as John McWhorter puts it—people simply don't like to hear it spoken or see it written, so just don't.
But HK&M also suggest that the taboo on mentioning slurs has a linguistic basis:
There is a consensus in the semantic/pragmatic and philosophical literature on the topic that slurs aggressively attach to the speaker, committing them to a racist attitude even in embedded contexts. Consider embedded slurs; imagine Ron Weasley says “Draco thought that Harry was a mudblood”, where attributing the thought to Draco isn’t enough to absolve Ron of expressing the attitudes associated with the slur. Indeed, even mentioning slurs is fraught territory, which is why the authors of most papers on these issues are careful to distance themselves from the content expressed.
The idea here is that slurs, like other expressives, are always speaker-oriented. A number of semanticists have made this claim, but always on the basis of intuitions about spare constructed examples—in the present case, one involving an imaginary slur: “imagine Ron Weasley says “Draco thought that Harry was a mudblood.” This is always a risky method in getting at the features of socially charged words, and particularly with these, since most of the people who write about slurs are not native speakers of them, and their intuitions are apt to be shaped by their preconceptions. The fact is that people routinely produce sentences in which the attitudes implicit in a slur are attributed to someone other than the speaker. The playwright Harvey Fierstein produced a crisp example on MSNBC, “Everybody loves to hate a homo.” Here are some others:
In fact We lived, in that time, in a world of enemies, of course… but beyond enemies there were the Micks, and the spics, and the wops, and the fuzzy-wuzzies. A whole world of people not us… (edwardsfrostings.com)
So white people were given their own bathrooms, their own water fountains. You didn’t have to ride on public conveyances with niggers anymore. These uncivilized jungle bunnies, darkies.…You had your own cemetery. The niggers will have theirs over there, and everything will be just fine. (Ron Daniels in Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century)
All Alabama governors do enjoy to troll fags and lesbians as both white and black Alabamians agree that homos piss off the almighty God. (Encyclopedia Dramatica)
[Marcus Bachmann] also called for more funding of cancer and Alzheimer’s research, probably cuz all those homos get all the money now for all that AIDS research. (Maxdad.com)
And needless to say, slurs are not speaker-oriented when they're quoted. When the New York Times reports that “Kaepernick was called a nigger on social media,” no one would assume that the Times endorses the attitudes that the word conveys.
I make this point not so much because it's important here, but because it demonstrates the perils of analyzing slurs without actually looking at how people use them or regard them—a point I'll come back to in a moment.
Toxicity in Speech and Writing
The assimilation of slurs to vulgarities obscures several important differences between the two. For one thing, mentioning slurs is less offensive in writing than in speech. That makes slurs different from vulgarisms like fucking. The New York Times has printed the latter word only twice, most recently in its page one report of Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes. But it has printed nigger any number of times (though in recent years it tends to avoid the word in headlines):
The rhymes include the one beginning, “Eeny, meeny, miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe,” and another one that begins, “Ten little niggers …” May 8, 2014
The Word 'Nigger' Is Part of Our Lexicon Jan. 8, 2011
I live in a city where I probably hear the word “nigger” 50 times a day from people of all colors and ages… Jan 6, 2011
In fan enclaves across the web, a subset of Fifth Harmony followers called Ms. Kordei “Normonkey,” “coon,” and “nigger” Aug 12, 2016
Gwen [Ifill] came to work one day to find a note in her work space that read “Nigger, go home. Nov. 11, 2016
… on the evening of July 7, 2007, Epstein "bumped into a black woman" on the street in the Georgetown section of Washington … He "called her a 'nigger,' and struck her in the head with an open hand." Charles M. Blow, June 6, 2009.
By contrast, the word is almost never heard in broadcast or free cable (when it does occur, e.g., in a recording, it is invariably bleeped). When I did a Nexis search several years ago on broadcast and cable news transcripts for the year 2012, I found it had been spoken only three times, in each instance by blacks recalling the insults they endured in their childhoods.
To HK&M, this might suggest only that the Times is showing insufficient courtesy to African Americans by printing nigger in full. And it's true that other media are more scrupulous about masking the word than the Times is, notably the New York Post and Fox News and its outlets:
Walmart was in hot water on Monday morning after a product’s description of “N___ Brown” was found on their website. Fox32news, 2027
After Thurston intervened, Artiles continued on and blamed "six n——" for letting Negron rise to power. Fox13news.com, April 19, 2017
In a 2007 encounter with his best friend’s wife, Hogan unleashed an ugly tirade about his daughter Brooke’s black boyfriend.“I mean, I’d rather if she was going to f–k some n—-r, I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n—-r worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player! I guess we’re all a little racist. F—ing n—-r,” Hogan said, according to a transcript of the recording. New York Post May 2, 2016
"Racism, we are not cured of it," Obama said. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say n***** in public." Foxnews.com June 22, 2015
One might conclude from this, following HK&M's line of argument, that the New York Post and Fox News are demonstrating a greater degree of racial sensitivity than the Times. Still, given the ideological bent of these outlets, one might also suspect that masking is doing a different kind of social work.
Slurs in Scholarship
As an aside, I should note that the deficiencies of the masking approach are even more obvious when we turn to the mention of these words in linguistic or philosophical discussions of slurs and derogative terms, which often involve numerous mentions of a variety of terms. In my forthcoming paper “The Social Life of Slurs,” I discuss dozens of derogative terms, including not just racial, religious, and ethnic slurs, but political derogatives (libtard, commie), geographical derogations (cracker, It. terrone), and derogations involving disability (cripple, spazz, retard), class (pleb, redneck), sexual orientation (faggot, queer, poofter), and nonconforming gender (tranny). I'm not sure how HK&M would suggest I decide which of these called out for masking with asterisks—just the prototypical ones like nigger and spic, or others that may be no less offensive to the targeted group? Cast the net narrowly and you seem to be singling out certain forms of bigotry for special attention; cast it widely and the texts starts to look circus poster. Better to assume that the readers of linguistics and philosophy journals—and linguistics blogs—are adult discerning enough to deal with the unexpurgated forms.
What's Wrong with Masking?
The unspoken assumption behind masking taboo words is that they’re invested with magical powers—like a conjuror’s spell, they are inefficacious unless they are pronounced or written just so. This is how we often think of vulgarisms of course—that writing fuck as f*ck or fug somehow denatures it, even though the reader knows perfectly well what the word is. That's what has led a lot of people in recent years to assimilate racial slurs to vulgarisms—referring to them with the same kind of initialized euphemism used for shit and fuck and describing them with terms like “obscenity” and “curse word” with no sense of speaking figuratively.
But the two cases are very different. Vulgarities rely for their effect on a systematic hypocrisy: we officially stigmatize them in order to preserve their force when they are used transgressively. (Learning to swear involves both being told to avoid the words and hearing them used, ideally by the same people.) But that’s exactly the effect that we want to avoid with slurs: we don’t want their utterers to experience the flush of guilty pleasure or the sense of complicity that comes of violating a rule of propriety—we don't want people ever to use the words, or even think them. Yet that has been one pernicious effect of the toxification of certain words.
It should give us pause to realize that the assimilation of nigger to naughty words has been embraced not just by many African Americans, but also by a large segment of the cultural and political right. Recall the reactions when President Obama remarked in an interview with Marc Maron’s "WTF" podcast that curing racism was “not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” Some African Americans were unhappy with the remark—the president of the Urban League said the word "ought to be retired from the English language." Others thought it was appropriate.
But the response from many on the right was telling. They, too, disapproved of Obama’s use of the word, but only because it betrayed his crudeness. A commentator on Fox News wrote:
And then there's the guy who runs the "WTF" podcast — an acronym for a word I am not allowed to write on this website. President Obama agreed to a podcast interview with comedian Marc Maron — a podcast host known for his crude language. But who knew the leader of the free world would be more crude than the host?
The Fox News host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck also referenced the name of Maron’s podcast and said,
I think many people are wondering if it’s only there that he would say it, and not, perhaps, in a State of the Union or more public address.
Also on Fox News, the conservative African American columnist Deneen Borelli said, that Obama “has really dragged in the gutter speak of rap music. So now he is the first president of rap, of street?”
It’s presumably not an accident that Fox News’s online reports of this story all render nigger as n****r. It reflects the "naughty word" understanding of the taboo that led members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma riding on a charter bus to chant, “There will never be a nigger at SAE/You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me,” with the same gusto that male college students of my generation would have brought to a sing-along of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”
That understanding of nigger as a dirty word also figures in the rhetorical move that some on the right have made, in shifting blame for the usage from white racists to black hip hop artists—taking the reclaimed use of the word as a model for white use. That in turn enables them to assimilate nigger—which they rarely distinguish from nigga—to the vulgarities that proliferate in hip hop. Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe blamed the Oklahoma incident on hip hop, citing the songs of Waka Flocka Flame, who had canceled a concert at the university; as Brzezinski put it:
If you look at every single song, I guess you call these, that he’s written, it’s a bunch of garbage. It’s full of n-words, it’s full of f-words. It’s wrong. And he shouldn’t be disgusted with them, he should be disgusted with himself.
On the same broadcast, Bill Kristol added that “popular culture has become a cesspool,” again subsuming the use of racist slurs, via hip hop, under the heading of vulgarity and obscenity in general.
I don’t mean to suggest that Brzezinski, Scarborough and Kristol aren’t genuinely distressed by the use of racial slurs (I have my doubts about some of the Fox News hosts). But for the respectable sectors of cultural right—I mean as opposed to the unreconstructed bigots who have no qualms about using nigger at Trump rallies or on Reddit forums—the essential problem with powerful slurs is that they’re vulgar and coarse, and only secondarily that they’re the instruments of social oppression. And the insistence on categorically avoiding unmasked mentions of the words is very easy to interpret as supporting that view. In a way, it takes us back to the disdain for the word among genteel nineteenth-century Northerners. A contributor to an 1894 number of the Century Magazine wrote that “An American feels something vulgar in the word ‘nigger’. A ‘half-cut’ [semi-genteel] American, though he might use it in speech, would hardly print it.” And a widely repeated anecdote had William Seward saying of Stephen Douglas that the American people would never elect as president “[a] man who spells negro with two g’s,” since “the people always mean to elect a gentleman for president.” (That expression, "spelling negro with two g's" was popular at the time, a mid-nineteenth-century equivalent to the form n*****r.)
This all calls for care, of course. There are certainly contexts in which writing nigger in full is unwise. But in serious written discussions of slurs and their use, we ought to be able to spell the words out, in the reasonable expectation that our readers will discern our purpose.
As John McWhorter put this point in connection with the remarks Obama made on the Marc Maron podcast:
Obama should not have to say “the N-word” when referring to the word, and I’m glad he didn’t. Whites shouldn’t have to either, if you ask me. I am now old enough to remember when the euphemism had yet to catch on. In a thoroughly enlightened 1990s journalistic culture, one could still say the whole word when talking about it.… What have we gained since then in barring people from ever uttering the word even to discuss it—other than a fake, ticklish nicety that seems almost designed to create misunderstandings?