The Other N-Words
My recent post about terms for ethnic groups prompted a note from a site visitor proposing that I write about taboo words. I was not niggardly in my gratitude to the correspondent for his suggestion.
Did your eyes just pop out when you read the fourth word in that last sentence? Unlikely, because most DailyWritingTips.com visitors know that niggardly has nothing to do with a similar-sounding offensive term for black people.
But many people persist in thinking it does. In the late 1990s, an employee of the Washington, DC, mayor’s office resigned in the aftermath of his innocent use of the word, and a few years later, a schoolteacher came under fire when she included the term in a vocabulary lesson.
Another person has noted that he avoids using the word renege around black people, even though it has nothing to do with the derogatory word nigger, derived from Negro. Nor does niggling, but some people argue that such near homophones should be tossed from the word-hoard because somebody, somewhere might be offended.
Nitty-gritty, part of the idiomatic expression “get down to the nitty-gritty,” is a hoary word (oops — perhaps I shouldn’t have used that adjective), but it’s also evocative. Unfortunately, some people believe — erroneously — that it originally referred to the excretory debris left in a slave ship after the cargo had been removed. Evidently, nitty-gritty was in fact originally a synonym for an adjective that rhymes with its component words, but now it is merely synonymous to business in “get down to business.”
What about the original n-word? Did you flinch when I used it above? How dare I type the actual word! Well, it’s in the dictionary, for one thing, and I have a valid reason to use it in this dispassionate, scholarly context. (But I admit I’d hesitate to use it in front of one or more black people, even if I were reading this post aloud in a group setting.)
Should nigger be allowed in print or online? It’s absurd to dodge it in a neutral context such as a post about usage. How about in literature? Mark Twain used it in Huckleberry Finn to further identify the fugitive slave Jim. Doing so was proper in the historical context of that work, and no one can deny that Twain considered Jim one of his most admirable characters. And anyone who refrains from using it in a valid literary context — in a novel about young inner-city blacks who blithely bandy it about, for instance — is self-censoring.
The word is, admittedly, broadly unacceptable in written and spoken discourse. But should I be prohibited from using it in an essay about derogatory or allegedly derogatory language? Should it be stricken from reprints of Huckleberry Finn, and — excuse the expression — blacked out in all existing copies? Should a book about the ’hood omit it?
The word is used countless times every day all over the United States. Most writers and speakers are justified in using it because they are black, and they’re taking it back, or because it’s being used in a valid context. Others, racists who use it to denigrate an ethnic group, are also justified because they are exercising a constitutional right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean I like it.
Do we even have a right, if we’re not black, to decide whether to use it? It has eminently painful associations for black people, regardless of whether it has been used against them as a weapon. For that reason, I’m sensitive enough to use it only in this type of context. But I won’t refrain from using it as such, and I certainly won’t avoid writing or saying niggardly or niggling under any circumstances.