Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

[Ed. note: this post contains language that is considered extremely inflammatory. Caveat lector.]

People forward language articles to me all the time–usually the same article multiple times, until my inbox is nothing but language links and plaintive requests from to buy more booze, please. But no one forwarded me Talib Kweli’s recent Medium post on language, probably because it was about the history and uses of the word “nigger.” I asked one of my frequent-forwarders if he had seen the post. “I had,” he wrote, “but I figured you’d have already seen it. I was not going to be the one to forward you a post on the n-word.”

The n-word. I think about slurs on a regular basis, in part because I have to explain to people why they’re entered in some of their dictionaries. It’s not unusual for me to open my email in the morning and see a message with the subject “NIGGER”; after a decade of answering these emails, I still wince when I see the subject line, stark in black and white.

Language has power, and slurs are a remarkably tidy way of asserting that power. They are not simply  neutral descriptors for a person or a group of people (“she’s a lexicographer”), nor are they merely expressive terms used as a vent for the speaker’s emotions and which could be used of any person in any group (“she’s a rotten fucker”). Slurs are descriptors that target one characteristic or aspect of a group and denigrate a member of that group (or the whole group) on the basis of that one aspect (“she’s a spic”). They are cruelly ingenious: because they are often taboo, never to be spoken and never to be discussed, they are prone to gathering around them ancillary attitudes and stereotypes about the slurred. Someone called an “uppity nigger” or a “castrating bitch” or a “flamboyant faggot” can only ignore the comment and feel the mottle of rage and misplaced shame creep up their back: to turn around and call out the speaker only confirms the stereotype they were just slammed with.

But people who are denied the dignity of an honest response, over and over again, will get wily. Language belongs to everyone, oppressed and oppressor alike. And so those at the sharp end of those words have sometimes snatched them out of the hands of their attackers and owned them as labels. It’s effective: as Kweli notes, “Why wouldn’t you want to embody that which most scares your oppressor and change its meaning?”

But language is not a political system you can overthrow; it’s personal. Slur reclamation is risky business for both the oppressed, the oppressor, and the lexicographer.

Slurs are never a pleasant thing to define. Reading the citational evidence for them requires some internal preparation: you are about to see centuries of the ugliest ass-end of humanity on parade and it is your job not only to muscle through it, but to engage it, analyze it, explain it in detail. It is a cavalcade of suck, and you are its unwilling but unapologetic emcee. But when slurs are reclaimed, they become Janus-faced and fragmented, and what was once a straightforward (if horrible) usage is no longer.

Kweli ends his piece on “nigger” and “nigga”  with some practical usage advice:

Say nigger or nigga as much as you like, just be prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions. The consequences of context. The word has racial connotations, and those connotations are different for white people and black people, whether we choose to accept that or not. It’s about personal responsibility.

This is true, but the lexicographer looking to provide usage information can’t gloss over the “consequences of context.” If use of “nigger” or “nigga” really is about personal responsibility within context, and a lexicographer’s job is to explain how a word is generally used in context, how can a lexicographer possibly talk about the consequences of usage when they are unique to every individual speaker and his or her context? Some may think it’s socially appropriate to dismiss a white person’s use of the positive “nigga,” but it is not lexicographically appropriate to do so. If a language belongs to the whole of its speakers and a lexicographer must report on use, then for lexicographers, Eminem’s use of “nigger” is just as valid as Ice-T’s use of “nigger” is just as valid as Mark Twain’s is just as valid as Ted Joans’ is just as valid as the frothing racist Internet commenter’s–and that’s just looking at American uses of the word.

In the great ebb and flow of slur reclamation, lexicographers are often stuck knee-deep in the muck left in its wake, grubbing around for something solid to grab on to. Slurs may exist within a context, but much of that context is not just personal, it’s nonlexical. My male friend can complain about an early-morning meeting he didn’t want to participate in yet did so cheerily because he “wasn’t going to be a bitch about it,” and I know that he is not saying that whiny, uncaffeinated petulance before 7am is the purview of nasty women because I know him, and I know he likes turning a vocabularic expectation (“asshole”) on its head (“bitch”). But if the guy next to me on this flight, who I don’t know but who I already assume to be something of a douche because he has taken up the empty seat between us with his papers, his empty soda can, and half of his left leg, complains that he doesn’t want to be a bitch, but could I move my bag from the DMZ of unoccupied  seat, I will damn sure assume that he is denigrating women with that use of “bitch,” because he is, as I have already unerringly determined, something of a douche, and denigrating women is exactly what a douche would do.

Names good and bad are used in relationship, and lexicographers cannot possibly parse the intricacies of every relationship on the planet (because lexicographers’ closest relationships are with their favorite pens and their coffee mugs, and these are generally nonverbal entities). This goes triple for reclaimed slurs. You’re asking people who took a job specifically because it promised almost no human interaction to delve into the grossest, wrongest human interactions in history and the efforts to right or repair or avenge those interactions, and then concisely describe the lexical fallout from centuries of that. Can you imagine the sort of usage paragraph that would appear at an entry for “nigga” if we tried to accurately describe the word as it’s used by every American who uses or has opinions about it?

The positive “nigga” is derived from “nigger,” and as such, has a share in the controversy surrounding “nigger.” It is generally spoken and used primarily within groups of young black men who are friends, except when it is used in groups of young white men who are friends, or young Latino or Hispanic men who are friends, or young Asian men who are friends, or other groups of young men of various races and ethnicities who are friends. It is rarely used among friends without permission (usually implicit) from the majority of the group, or from the person in the group who may take the most offense at use of this word. Though current evidence shows its use is most common among men, it is also sometimes used by women who are socialized within a community where use of “nigga” is tolerated or encouraged, unless that woman is considered an outsider to the community regardless of whether she truly is or not. The earliest modern uses of  the positive “nigga” are attested to in rap and hip-hop songs by black artists, though its use within the black community is hotly contested from both within the black community (in so far as you can call the majority of black Americans “the black community” without being reductionist and therefore possibly racist) and without. Use of “nigga” between different  groups considered minority or marginalized is also a point of contention. Only use “nigga” if your friends use “nigga” and you feel comfortable enough within that social circle to risk alienating people you love, or unless you are a rap or hip-hop recording artist who feels the same about his or her or thon’s listening community.

The result is that dictionaries and lexicographers have taken an imperfect tack: we sit and wait until “usage settles out,” as we say. We are reticent–and sometimes, not equipped–to enter into the difficult conversation about how slurs are used and how they are changing, because that involves entering into the difficult conversation about human pain and oppression. And this is hard for us, because lexicography has been the province of privilege since the year dot. You look at old pictures of any dictionary company and what do you see? A tweed of old, white guys with Ivy League degrees. Hell, the biggest scandals to come out of lexicography  are that the Oxford English Dictionary was edited by a Scotsman and that the editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary had abandoned all human decency and entered “ain’t” (a word that had been around for centuries, had been in dictionaries before the Third, and has not incited riots or led to anyone’s death, as far as I know). There are plenty of modern lexicographers who don’t fit the old paradigm, who want to delve into some of these questions thoughtfully and objectively. We are nonetheless scared shitless that, even with all the facts in front of us, and even with all our training, we are still blinded enough by our privilege and institutional baggage that the minute we ask “What about ‘nigga’?”, we will unwittingly perpetuate oppression.

It’s a funny thing: lexicography as a discipline has to deal with the dirty, ugly ways that language has been used and abused by and for power, and yet the tradition is one of British genteelness, of Yankee restraint, of safe distance from the political realities of some words. We bleat out the caveat that dictionary definitions describe “words, not things,” but as often as we draw that line in the sand, lexicographers also must admit that sometimes, the word is the thing.

About ten years ago, I got a phone call from a gentleman who found “nigger” in his family dictionary. I vividly remember the call; his polite but bristling questions, the stuffiness of the little phone booth I was in. I assumed that he wanted the word removed from the dictionary, so I explained to him why it was entered, gave some of the history of the word, how we don’t make up the words that go into the language but just record them. He listened–thoughtfully, honestly–to my explanation, and then said, “I understand that. But I’m thinking of my 10-year-old daughter. The word ‘nigger’ shouldn’t exist for her. She should not have to confront that in a dictionary, which is supposed to tell her what words really mean. So I want you to explain to her–she’s sitting right here–that the first part of that last sentence in that definition is wrong.”

I blinked hard. The first part of that last sentence. We don’t write definitions in sentences. While I stared at the entry, it hit me over the head like a shelf of Unabridgeds: he was not complaining about any of the definitions of “nigger” which we mark as “offensive.” He was referring to the last sentence of the usage paragraph. That sentence begins, “Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive.”  The offense was that “nigger” is not always offensive.

Our conversation continued, but did not go well. Though we were each listening carefully, we talked past each other, worried that the other might be missing our point and so preemptively overexplaining our positions.

“Let me ask,” he said suddenly. “Do you have children?”

“Two,” I said. “Two daughters. In fact, one is almost your daughter’s age.”

“And how would you feel,” he continued, “if your children had grown up–I don’t know what race you are–hearing their friends use this word and then being told it was fine? How would you as a parent feel if you had been called this word all your life by people who set fire to your yard and chased you out of your town, or threw rocks and bottles at you on your way to school, even after Jim Crow was defeated; if everywhere you went, this was the word that the world saw you as and threw at you until you believed that was all you’d amount to–how would you feel, after all that, if your little girl came home and told you the dictionary said that being called a nigger was no big deal?”

I couldn’t give him a lexicographer’s answer. We weren’t just talking about words any more.



Filed under general, lexicography, making word sausage

71 responses to “Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography

  1. Having written about a society where slurs were the standard – the late Sixties, that book couldn’t be written and represent those times without using the language. I know because others have tried to write about the Sixties and used none of the language. It’s sad.
    The words you mostly describe have existed in the black community for a few centuries. They are disparaging yet they are still used mostly in the Black community, blacks labeling other blacks, the words showing up in black media, words reaching the remainder of society. So long as the words and usage are acceptable there, they will be used elsewhere.
    In the Mexican-American (Chicano) (Hispanic) (Latino) community, I grew up with a spate of slurs. Except as jokes in the Sixties, I’ve never heard a Latino use one and they’ve properly fallen from usage. For a writing using those words today, any writer should not employ them haphazardly.
    A character who says some words, might be identified by age, region and ethnicity. The words, speech and descriptions are a means to define that character and perhaps the persons hearing him/her. Note there are slurs once describing Black Americans that are little used. One of those words is “black.” During the Civil Rights movement in the South, there are disagreements, sometimes violent disagreements, whether to call themselves Black or Negroes.
    Any writer not being careful and using the words for emphasis of to define where none is needed is not much of a writer.

    • I see how people find the word offensive, and honestly I find it offensive, too. When j hear that word I cringe and start to feel very uncomfortable, but you have a point: that word is used in society. However, the father also has s point, I would not want my children growing up with the belief it is not offensive, because it is. I however do think that we should take words like “faggot” and “bitch” more seriously, too, like you suggested. People forget those are slur words, myself included, and we all need to be reminded that they are.

    • thesitrep

      Bitch is the name for a dog that has had a liter of whelps.
      Any appellation for a group of people can and will become a pejorative if the group behaves outside of excepted behaviour of what other groups see as normal and acceptable.

      • Kory Stamper

        “Bitch” is the word that describes a female dog; it is also a word that is often used to disparage women. It can have both meanings, and it can be inoffensive in one context (like the Westminster Dog Show) and offensive in others. That’s the problem with a blanket denunciation of a word like “bitch,” or a blithe claim that the word is fine: either approach ends up being reductionist.

        • As a philosopher, I thought I was familiar with the term “reductionist.” I’m not sure how it fits the context in which you used it.

          • davidly

            As you know, reductionism states that psychological and biological phenomenon can be understood by analyzing the phenomenon’s simplest mechanical functions.

            Well, the term reductionist was derived at some point from a negative view of this concept to mean the simplifying of something complex to the extent that something important is minimized or lost. A crude example: the insistence that the word “reductionist” only be used in the philosophical context might itself be seen as reductionist.

            Hence reducing the word “bitch” to either “offensive” or “not offensive” rather than “either… or” would be in the derived sense likewise reductionist.

            • David, I didn’t notice your comment when you first posted it. I apologize for my inattention.

              I was unaware that the concept of reductionism had left the philosophical reservation. I don’t object in principle to such transitions, but I am disappointed, though not surprised, that it kept only a negative connotation. I happen to accept reductionism in its philosophical sense, denying of course that it results in minimizing or losing anything of importance.

              I agree with Kory’s observation about blanket denunciations or blanket approvals of certain words, but I would have said, “either approach ends up being a gross oversimplification.” You are telling me that “reductionism” has become a synonym for “gross oversimplification.” So be it. I wish it hadn’t happened, but I understand why it did.

          • davidly

            Hi Doug. Thanks for the reply. I understand your disappointment, probably cannot appreciate it because I never poured my soul into that field of study, which is basically another way of saying that I don’t appreciate your disappointment as fully as I would appreciate, say, being annoyed at one’s misuse of “question begging”. Though, in fairness, I reckon the origins of that term are argumentation on a philosophical level, as well. Hm.

            What I do fully appreciate is the way you have broached the subject and have now replied. A lot of people cannot refrain from being “too” impolite when they feel their territory infringed upon. Myself included. So now you have taught me (and anyone else who’s bothered to read and didn’t already know) something: the full scope and origin of reductionism.

            I also appreciate that about our host’s vocational attitude: as a prescriptivist lexicographer she only gets snarky with pedantic control freaks who bury her in extracurricular whining via email. As far as I know.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post.

  3. Jerry Grimes

    The man who called you and vented his (self-)righteous indignation at you regarding the first part of that last sentence in the dictionary entry defining the word “nigger” SHOULD have directed his indignation at the members of the black community who use it that way, not at the people who merely record usage.

    • Kory Stamper

      Probably, but when people take the dictionary to be an authority granting permission instead of a record of the language, then it makes sense to lash out against that perceived authority.

      Hey, at least he was polite.

  4. davidly

    1) But the caller mischaracterized the assertion that it is “not always intended or taken as offensive” as (assuming you are paraphrasing with any accuracy) “being called a nigger [is] no big deal”. Whatever reason you chose not to confront him on that point, you were, in fact, still talking about words enough that there was a distinction to be drawn.

    2) You taking calls in a phone booth? Circa 2004?

    • Kory Stamper

      1) True enough, but given what he had just said, I was not really in a confrontational sort of mood. It was not a great conversation to begin with; I was terrified I was going to really offend.

      2) Yup! There are two phone booths on the editorial floor, and in 2004, it was expected that if you got a phone call, that’s where you took it. Most editors didn’t have phones at their desks, for which they were all grateful.

      • davidly

        Yeah, I can see why you didn’t feel up to pressing the point. I cannot imagine how you managed to end the call in anything resembling a satisfactory manner for either of you.

        And to think I imagined you in a phone booth at the bus station, or some such:-/

  5. afrenning

    Hi Kory, your piece popped up as a link in my LinkedIn account today, and so, I have a corollary account for you. As you may know, we live in Medford, Mass. Sometimes, folks call it “Meffa” in a teasing, pejorative, and/or derogatory fashion. The name of the City is pronounced “Med-fed” by residents with the prevailing local accent (just call City Hall after hours 781-396-5500 to verify). Yet, I feel a certain bit of solidarity amongst us denizens where we can use (or flip) it positive, like “nigga” is derived from “nigger,” so “meffa” derives from “Medford.” I have observed this usage is generally spoken and used primarily within groups of Medfordians who are friends, but when an outsider uses the term, one cringes. Currently, I’m attempting to launch a local education foundation called “Medford Education Foundation.” I have been wanting to take the term “Meffa” and flip it, much like the word “yankee” was once flipped, or even “queer,” more recently. (You know, it’s fabulous, get used to it… call it macaroni!) So, I wanted to call it MEDFORD EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION but then in small letters on each page I wanted to have in script “for academics” or “for achievement” or even “for all” (hence the acronym MEFFA). I want to seize, reclaim, or repossess that strength that comes from being an insider of a group, the strength that comes from knowing — yeah, that’s what you call us, and so what what? We know! We know you call us that and we are throwing it back in your face. And thus, in a very small way, I would like to have our own victory over the language.

  6. This is an interesting take on the use of slurs. I’ve always wondered if the casual use of the word didn’t have some unintended meaning for those using it, even in the most informal setting, and even if all the parties standing around the fire throwing the word at each other are in agreement as to its use. This merits careful thought. Thanks for posting.

  7. In French, however, any neutral description can become a slur by a simple piece of machinery: someone who knows you are a lexicographer just has to refer to you (or address you!) as une espèce de lexicographe. Instant insult!

  8. NG

    Thank you for another insightful essay. What a mess!

    Coincidentally, a valuable essay on a related theme appeared in the NY Times OP-Ed section Nov 19:

    In it, Prof Lori Tharps of Temple U summarizes some of the history of the terms Negro, African-American and Black and argues persuasively that “Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct.” Indeed.

    • Kory Stamper

      I actually went back and forth between “black” and “Black” when writing. I followed Kweli’s lead and went with lower-case, but I know it’s an issue that’s been simmering in the black/Black community for a long time.

  9. fabrizio

    Let’s be honest about one thing: There is an intellectual milieu, black or white, who would never use the words “nigger” or “nigga” in every-day discourse.

    Similarly, sixty years ago provocative words such as, “fuck”, “shit” etc. were never used in public discourse. Today these kinds of expressions are quite prolific and consequently less provocative, and in a way less meaningful.

    Nevertheless, there is a group of people who would avoid using expletives in conversation and might be offended by those who use such words. My point being is that there is a social distinction between people that find the need to use “nigger” and “nigga” in conversation, opposed to the people that find the terminology coarse and inflammatory.

    I cannot assert categorically that only a specific socio-economic group would employ those words, but I can say unequivocally that the predilection for the usage favors one group over the other.

    We can distinguish and choose the group with whom we wish to associate, but we cannot discriminate against the people who wish to apply those words in conversation. As well, we cannot, and never should, eliminate the words from the English lexicon; we can only gradually change their meanings.

  10. biomirth

    For fuck’s sake you can write nigga.

    I wonder if the Urban Dictionary and sites like it can smooth the way, Is our language is changing more quickly, and how much more quickly because of those two things?; (a-grammatical use of semicolon alert), You know, our rapid changes in terms of objects and experiences we relate with in our technological age and also the diversification of our means of communication.

    But whatevs sistra, maybe pawning off “Nigger” to some ghetto site is just shuffling the problem off rather than facing it. But there seems to me to be something else required than a dictionary to address the word. If M. Websta wants to define it I think it needs an article like yours to do it any bit of justice. Some words are not just simple communications but are so incredibly dependent on context, tone, and intention that they are less words and more like facial expressions: Capable of delivering everything with subtlety not found in text….at all…..ever.

    Yeah, take that…text.

  11. Thank you for all your great posts. Can you please address the word “niggardly”. I have self censored it from my vocabulary. Although definitions I have found point away from nigger, to some Norse language, niggardly still resonates as a racial slur for me.

  12. Roy

    I feel for that father. He has already figured out that this is an imperfect world, but not that he can never protect his daughter from it. As for words, the biggest protection from them is to be able to define them.

  13. Absolutely agree with Kweli. Use it as much as you want, as long as you’re willing to take responsibility. Otherwise, keep it clean please 🙂

  14. newell1943

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well-written piece. Slurs will be with us as long as there are people. Shielding ourselves behind “political correctness” and pretending that certain words don’t exist is, itself, a kind of social lie, a conceit that we are too pure to be around such language. Political correctness is like the High Victorian attitude of referring to bulls as “gentlemen cows,” putting pantalones on the legs of pianos, and referring to legs as “limbs,” because calling a spade a spade might offend blue-nosed sensibilities. The best protection against the slings and arrows of an imperfect world is to know that slurs exist and learn to distinguish between them.

  15. > Some may think it’s socially appropriate to dismiss a white person’s use of the positive “nigga,” but it is not lexicographically appropriate to do so.

    Of course the very concept of a ‘white person’ in relation to racism (and specifically racism against black people) is itself a problematic area. Why should it be assumed that a white person is racist or prone to racism or in any other way affected by the immoral actions of some of his/ her ancestors?

    Slavery was widespread in Africa itself and white people purchasing slaves bought them from black slave owners. And the majority of black slaves crossing the Atlantic to the Americas ended up owned by non whites. The very fact that the black population survived to become free people in the US demonstrates how they were treated better than most slaves were in other parts of the world- such as those shipped east – who were slaughtered when they became unproductive and certainly never got to live as families and so never stayed alive long enough to achieve freedom.

    Throughout history EVERYBODY was barbaric and EVERY race enslaved their own people and whoever else they could get their hands on. In a world where history books were a bit more true to the facts white people might be thought of as ‘the least worst’ slave owners. And let’s not forget it was white people who spearheaded the abolition of slavery throughout the world.

    A great deal of the potency of the word ‘nigger’ comes from the unfair and factually inaccurate (or at best over simplistic) notion of ‘white privilege’ and ‘white oppression’ which is – ironically – a form of racism against whites. The historically inaccurate (or rather incomplete) narrative about whites being the sole tyrants of history makes whites (and their racial slurs) out to be superior, when in reality everybody and his dog was busy being tyrannical to everybody else, and their dogs.

    The very insistence that nigger/ nigga is the most offensive word in the universe – such that it cannot be spoken out loud even when reporting speech – can itself be thought of as an assertion of white superiority/ black inferiority.

    What causes this relentless laying of egg shells is the fact that we live in an inherently violent and intolerant society (ie statism) where being offended (being perceived as an oppressed victim) can be very profitable.

    In a world without legalised violence we would all have a much more relaxed and empowered attitude towards slurs because being offended would not be nearly as profitable.

  16. As a Black man born in 1977, I find it ridiculous to even have this conversation. It is a stereotyoe to think the word is used primarily by Blacks and other non-whites. I dont use that word. In fact, i was taught it is unnacceptable to refer to myself or anyone as such. The word is used by people who are lacking a certain level of social decorum- meaning they probably say a lot of other questionable things too. No one should use that word. For any reason. So to all who want to focus on what demographic majoritively uses that word.. How about this… Just make sure you’re never hard using it, and you’ll have little to worry about. Don’t worry about who’s saying it. It doesnt make it okay. Aslo, Eminem is on record for stating specifically why he DOESN’T use that word..

    Correct me if im wrong, but I dont believe i saw the word accurately defined here either. Not going there, it’s irrelevant.

    For argument’s sake.. How does a group of people reclaim a word they never orginated?

    People don’t often use that word around me. Because most people know better.There is more than enough reason for someone to fear retaliation.. There is no excuse for using that word. I think we all know that.

    Historically, that word was taught to the Black community. We just live in a time now where most of the people using it are to far removed from the pain and suffering associated with thay word.

    With all due respect, and in the interest of conversation and the exchange of ideas.. Why did you write this?

    • Kory Stamper

      I wrote it because the process of defining slurs is something that I’ve thought a lot about, and watching slurs and their use is something that lexicographers do. And I wonder how well lexicographers and linguists track and record the complexity of slur use.

      I don’t make any claims that people should or shouldn’t use slurs–I don’t use them myself and I don’t like to hear them used, but I can only control my own usage, not anyone else’s. The fact is that people use them, and my interests lie mostly in how lexicographers deal with that.

      As for Eminem, even that seems like it’s not that simple. But, mea culpas where mea culpas are due: Eminem has come out and said that he is not personally comfortable using it:

      If you’re using the word faggot in the way of [name calling], that’s different than a racial slur to me…. Some people may feel different. Some White kids feel comfortable throwing [nigga] around all day. I don’t. I’m not saying I’ve never used the word in my entire life. But now, I just don’t say it in casual conversation. It doesn’t feel right to come out of my mouth.” [excerpted from a Rolling Stone interview, 2004]

      • In fairness to you, my comments were triggered by some of the comments I read. I have to say, I’m puzzled by this post.

        I’m looking a definitions for the word, and I can tell you it has changed over time. Wikipedia, for example, shares a history that in no way resembles what’s taught in the Black community in regards to the etymology of that word.

    • I like to learn and play songs that often have a message of protest. The recent police violence had an emotional impact on me, and I’m pissed off, so I want to learn NWA’s “Fuck tha Police”. I consider lyrics to be poetry, and believe it would be disrespectful to the author to change them. Should I just forget it, and pretend they never existed?

      • I suggest considering how your message will be received by ALL who hear it. How do you personally identify with the lyrics of that song?

        I think it’s awesome you feel moved to speak out againt police violence. However, that particular song is from the perspective of (self-professed) angry, inner-city, urban male Blacks (with questionable histories by their own numerous recorded accounts). Is that something your audience will connect/identify with? Or will it simply be just a way proclaiming “Fuck The Police”? If it’s the latter, I think as an artist you can find a more succinct way to express yourself- perhaps best with your own words.

        It’s a complicated issue you’ll be addressing, so give a lot of thought to who you’re trying to reach, what the message is, and why you in particular choose to support and deliver that message… Then, consider all the other people you will reach, and what they may take from it. If all they’re gonna hear is the “F” and the “N” words and street life references, you may actually reaffirm their notions, not convince them of your argument.

        The message about police violence must be inclusive of everyone. Not just a particular demographic.

        In my opinion, more people need to take more ACTIVE interest in their communities -nationwide- and form a cooperative (and essentially) working relationship with the police in their area, so that those disrupting the community can be clearly identified to the police by the local citizenry.

        Make it known that the good citizens are actively planning to take matters into their own hands, and assist the police in disrupting the bad citizens- it’s called “deterrence”.

        That same community action can also deter officers from abusing their badge, if they know the citizenry has a cooperative funcriinal realtionship with their police.

        Unfortunately, we are still stuck at the fingerpointing stage. Police are trained to not trust citizens, and now the actions of some officers are training some citizens to not trust the police. That dysfunctional trend does not bode well for society as a whole. It’s time for outreach.

        • Excellent point. I don’t identify with the gentlemen in the song at all, but I don’t doubt police harassment was a very real and frequent occurrence for them. I guess my hope in playing that song for others would be to show that racial tensions were, and are still, a reality, and all the more reason to address it and try to eliminate it now. Some people won’t get it, take offense, or… believe gangsta rappers really did mow down cops with assault rifles? We certainly don’t need more of that.
          And I do have great respect for officers who do the best they can for everybody. It must feel like a thankless job sometimes, and I like the idea of the police and community working together on something. Anything. Anything to integrate our community, and I’m in.
          Still, I think I’ll hold on to that NWA vinyl…

  17. Jason Preater

    In Spain there is a range of discriminatory words for immigrants from South America: “sudaca” being probably the most offensive. These words, however, are only partially to do with origins. Obviously if you are a rich businessman you are not a “sudaca”. The word is always offensive, like the word “patera” for a black immigrant who has paddled across the Gibraltar Strait. Adolescents are drawn to the transgression of using these words and sprinkle their conversation with offensive terms as if it were smart. The usual defense is that youth culture, like the Urban Dictionary for example, is moving things along by sucking the venom out of these loaded terms, but I don’t buy that. When you grow up you realise that taking things lightly does not mean you are not being aggressive and offensive, that a racist joke is still racist and that politeness and kindness are advances in civilization.
    All of this just to add my grain of salt to an excellent post that had me thinking this morning.

    • Definitely a youth driven occurrence. Anyone who’s has lived longer than 35 years knows the magnitude of that word well enough so as not be fooled into thinking it’s “okay”. Youth lends to naïveté. The fact that some commenters have attempted rationalize use or support of the use of such an ugly word is not surprising, but nonetheless absolutely alarming. I recoiled every time I saw that word printed in this post or one of it’s comments. I can only assume most of them have no direct experience with the power or damage associated with that word. It’s not stylish to use. Frankly, it’s only “okay” if people you are saying it to are “okay” with it.

  18. I think this is a thoughtful and honest post. I often don’t know what the right stance to take on using the word is even though I grew up in a place where it was acceptable to use among friends exactly the way you described it. I never felt it was detrimental or ignorant but at the same time I would feel angry if a non person of color referred to me that way. So it does make me wonder if a word that can be so easily misused should be a part of my everyday language.

  19. I liked it, thanks. But yeah, Eminem have had never used the word “Nigger” throughout his carrier.

  20. Reblogged this on TwisterReed's Blog and commented:
    Not just words

  21. Sticks and stones…and all that is all very well; but some people are “language cruel” and many people will still be hurt. A problem that sadly may never be totally addressed.

  22. Reblogged this on The Uninteresting Self… and commented:
    Insightful. Brought to mind the Autobiography of Dick Gregory. Thank you.

  23. I am a hobbiest of words, the type who enjoys puns and cleverly worded lyrics, and gets irritated with incorrect word usage (particularly when I’m the guilty party, which happens progressively more often thanks to too much time spent on Facebook). I’m also a writer and blogger and activist on racial issues. Every part of this piece spoke to my word-and-race-conscious brain and I think you’ve written my thoughts down, ones I wasn’t even sure how to capture, because these words have individual meanings for me and I have played devil’s advocate for both sides–in too many conversations–to the point where I’m not sure where I stand on it emotionally… probably because I view it primarily as a linguist. I guess I’d never realized that. It makes me ponder how much of that personal view is as a gate, keeping the pain of the word out. Thanks for inspiring my Wednesday blog on Monday.

  24. youngjamaican

    interesting take on slurs

  25. Taking slurs more seriously only gives them more power to subjugate others. When I hear them used by people in a derogatory way, it’s ALWAYS used in private, anonymously online, or in a group of others where they are “safe”. This cowardly behavior reflects a self-confidence issue, I would guess. Personally, I call them out, and tell them I have friends I care about who they’re seriously disrespecting. I never let it slide, because it’s true!
    So I disagree about tiptoeing around the matter. I hear gays call each other faggots, women call each other bitches, and they are best friends just teasing. If we continue treating these offensive words as trivial, they will integrate into our lexicon as trivial insults; their effectiveness disintegrates. Racist cops have to think up something new.
    I believe we don’t have to take responsibility for our ancestors’ cruel acts of bigotry, but we should learn what the sources were and act against them to avoid future mistakes. You honky scum.

  26. Pingback: Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography | Dr. Daniel Tenorio

  27. Pingback: A Response to Repossession: Reclaimed Slurs and Lexicography | hypheNation

  28. I’ve written a short response post. If you’d like to see it, please take a look, and I welcome any and all comments.

  29. Im glad to have read youre post beacause however people wanna word it or justify it….the n word is still an ugly and demeaning word. We as blacks should not place any honor on that because of the history behind it.

  30. Pingback: Falling in Love with Words | The Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties

  31. thank you for this thoughtful 🙂

  32. Nunya Biz

    You may be the bravest person I’ve yet discovered

    It amazes me how personal words can be – and how impossible it is to create a dictionary that supposedly records the meaning of a word that has so many meanings. I marveled, for instance, at your story about the word “bitch.” I’m a man who grew up in CA, and in my youth, “bitchin'” was a word that meant something was cool … or that one should “quit bitchin’,” which meant one should stop complaining or whining. There was never any gender association in my mind. And as I think of it now, I guess I understand that a bitch could be a sort of female dick or asshole, but I don’t really think of any of those as gender-specific. To my ignorant mind – a jerk is a jerk, no matter what word one selects, and a complainer is irritating, whether male or female.

    This is also my tendency with other words. Although others have intended to insult me verbally, it doesn’t work on me. I’m just not bothered by words like (I suppose) normal people. Only actions bother me, since I generally assume when others speak they don’t intend harm; or they are dishonest, defensive, ignorant or selling something.

    As a result, I often offend people unintentionally. O. Salim Thornton, who comments above, would despise me and think me a hateful, awful person, I suspect, even though it would not be my intention.

    This is why I talk to computers nowadays. There’s no hidden meaning, no one is insulted or upset. I’ve been in Toastmasters and a paid professional speaker, and I’m pretty good. But one thing that most tripped me up was the baffling minefield of ignorance. People’s misunderstanding of my words got me in trouble often. I was like the accountant some years back who was fired for using the term “niggardly,” and then told “he should have known” people would be too ignorant to know the word wasn’t a racist slur. Or when Ross Perot, speaking to a Black audience, referred to them as “you people” – I was stymied, as I’m sure I’d have made a similar blunder.

    The sensitivity control on most people is set way, way higher than my own. I tried to fight it for a while, but it’s no use. I’ll stick to computers, where the only thing that matters is precision.

    I think this article reveals that you one of the bravest people on earth. I’d never have the courage to write such a thing where others could see it. I just discovered you today, and now I’m a new fan forever.

    • thesitrep

      Bitch has many other meanings:
      1. Something hard to do.
      2. something that you don’t want to do.
      3. A man that behaves less than manly.
      4. anyone that is picky about something.
      5. anyone that will not F&^king stop complaining.
      6. A complaint.
      7. Often used to refer to a female (non pejorative).
      8. Often used to refer to a female (pejorative).
      9. a stroke of bad luck.
      10. A subservient sexual partner in prison..
      as used here:

  33. Jack

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    Liking and being fascinated by both language and psychology I liked this post. It was an interesting set of considerations.

  34. Pingback: Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs | Sentence first

  35. Teri Anne Hairston

    Wow ! I feel for the man who has been bullied with the word “nigger”. I hear Black’s around me use the word ” Nigga” instead of ” Nigger “. I know some Blacks who hate the word ” Nigger “. Used as slang its insulting to them. If I was Black it would insult me too. We need to have respect for others. So maybe the word ” Nigger ” shouldn’t be in a dictionary. Maybe in a book on Slurs instead. That would be a real good idea. Write a Book of Slurs and the meanings of the Slurs. What do you think ? Because all people use a Dictionary that would the right thing to do.

  36. EmuEmu

    I’ve been a fan of your MW vignettes for years. I just heard your interview on Fresh Air. Kory, you are all kinds of awesome.

    Pardon my forwardness. I know that you’re married with kids and all but in our next lives can we get coffee?

  37. Pingback: The “natural meanings” of words | Everyday linguistic anthropology

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