[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 Wine.com 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.