The New York City Council has called for a symbolic moratorium on the use of the “N” word, joining a growing movement to ban a word inextricably associated with racism and hate. Angry over Michael Richards’ explosive use of the word, and disturbed by its popularity among those African Americans who put a positive spin on it as a term of solidarity or endearment, black leaders like Jesse Jackson are also calling for a ban; Ebony and Jet magazines will drop the n-word from their pages; and at least one African American comedian has pulled it from his routines.
There’s a website called abolishthenword.com which is trying to do just what its name implies (while also marketing t-shirts), and the word has become a hot issue at schools and colleges around the country, with discussions about its appropriateness taking place at Indiana University, Syracuse, Augusta State, and Penn State, to name only a few. Stillman College is hosting an academic conference to consider the n-word’s origins, its variations, and the controversies that frequently attach to its use as a word emphasizing racial division. New York’s public schools held a contest asking students to write why the word should be abolished. And the town of Brazoria, Texas, considered fining residents $500 if they used the word (the proposal was withdrawn after both black and white residents strongly objected).
This isn’t the first attempt to ban the n-word, which has become for everyone but rap artists or white supremacists the most offensive of our linguistic taboos. Ten years ago, responding to a campaign to boycott dictionaries that defined the word, Merriam-Webster revised its definition, which already stressed the n-word’s strongly negative associations, to further emphasize the fact that the word is often bigoted and offensive.
But dictionaries didn’t drop the n-word, because they don’t control language use, they record it. And even if governments ban it, the n-word won’t go away, because laws can’t really control what we say. Even without a First Amendment to back them, speakers of every language seem to need an assortment of “bad” words to deploy when they’re angry, hostile, or just letting off steam.
Speakers who don’t like such words have a number of options. They can call for bans. They can cajole and shame others into abandoning the taboo terms. The comedian George Carlin once advocated using bad words over and over until their effect is blunted. After all, the more we hear something, the less it means, and many of the words on Carlin’s list of seven dirty words are now so common that their offensiveness quotient has gone down and they’re heard regularly on television. But perhaps the most popular alternative is not to avoid it, but to take the word back by flipping it from negative to positive.
Putting a positive spin on gay helped turn it from insult to symbol of pride, and the strong negative sense of black as a racial term was consciously and successfully reversed during the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s. But the attempt by comedians, rappers, and some young African Americans to turn the n-word into a positive symbol of group identity is stumbling, perhaps because the word has so negative a history.
Maybe the best way to disappear a word from the language is not to ban it or reverse its polarity, but to render it useless. English lost many of the words associated with horse-drawn vehicles when the internal combustion engine marginalized horses, and the terms for warfare changed when bullets replaced arrows as weapons of mass destruction.
But unlike obsolete technologies, hate won't go away. Nor will the need to vent. Language reflects human nature, after all. But the n-word will sink into oblivion as race plays less and less of a role in what we do and how we think, and that’s already starting to happen.
A small but significant number of people – many of them African American – seem surprised to discover that the n-word, which they recognize as negative, has significant racial connotations. For them it simply means a shiftless or unmotivated person, whether white or black or other.
That meaning change may show a conscious de-racializing of the word. But while identity politics remains strong, and often necessary, the American social profile is also changing in ways that are rendering traditional racial and ethnic categories less significant, and the gradual and inevitable blurring and mixing of who we are may ultimately have more of an impact on negative racial slurs than concerted efforts to ban or blunt them.