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Jan 31 2013

The Daily Show on the use of the n-word

The discussions between Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore about race issues are almost always both amusing and thoughtful. This one from 2011 concerns the controversy I wrote about earlier today about the removal of the n-word from a recent edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As I said before, it is one thing to hear or read such words and quite another to say or write them. I am not arguing that feeling such a difference and being reluctant to use the word, as is the case with me, is perfectly rational. But I am saying that a case can be made that it would be better to phase out the use of such words except in those situations where we need to use it for historical accuracy or to make a specific point, and even then its use should be minimal.

I am trying to think of a word that had once been used as a race or gender or ethnic or sexual slur and ceased to be considered so over time because people started using it casually and repeatedly. I cannot think of an example but perhaps readers can.

(This clip was aired on January 11, 2011. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

19 comments

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  1. 1
    northstar

    Well, the word “sucks” might qualify — it always seemed a pejorative directed at the person (probably female) on the, err, “giving” end. But almost no one thinks this phrase through anymore, and it trips off the lips of little girls and old folks alike, without a second thought.

  2. 2
    Some Old Programmer

    Only within the outgroup itself. Certainly a subset of African Americans have used the n-word amongst themselves, but its use has never (to my understanding, not being a member of the group) been universally acceptable within the larger community of African Americans. I don’t believe that it has ever been acceptable for use by a non-member when use is attempted in the same context.

    Similarly, within the gay community (of whom I am a member), “faggot” may have similar usage patterns and acceptability.

    I don’t have an expectation that these patterns could become mainstream. Off the top of my head, I can only think of the reverse, where clinical descriptions (e.g. “homosexual”) coined for neutral usage, acquired perjorative status.

  3. 3
    gworroll

    I’m not sure it’s what you are looking for, but the word “vandal”, derived from the old Germanic tribe the Vandals. While it’s not praise, or even neutral comment, to use the word of someone, it’s not typically considered particularly mean if the charge is accurate. Negative connotations, but I wouldn’t call it a slur.

    Well, by most people. I do recall a rather vehement World of Warcraft forum thread that use of the word “vandal” should be a bannable offense in game because it insulted descendants of the historical Vandals. I still hope that guy was just a troll.

  4. 4
    Francisco Bacopa

    I always figured “sucks” might have once been meant to imply that the person being described was gay. Earliest book I can think of that uses it a lot is Lord of the Flies where the phrasing is different, but has the same meaning it does today, It’s just a general disparaging term with no sexual overtones of any kind.

    Mano: I am sure that in Sri Lanka there are probably many disparaging racial and cultural terms given the deep historical divisions in that country. Is this part of your sensitivity to the racial term we are discussing here?

  5. 5
    rikitiki

    Well, the usage of “gyp” has changed from an epithet towards gypsies into a common enough term for ripping someone off in a deal. I believe the term “jewed them down” is, however, frowned upon.

  6. 6
    Nathan & the Cynic

    I know quite a few people who do will call you on it if you use the word gyp.

    Perhaps more interesting, I know people who will get upset if you call someone a philistine.

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    I am not sure how and why I acquired this sensitivity. It could well be partly due to the explosive racial undercurrents that were always present in Sri Lanka, It may also be my family background where such usage would have been frowned upon and quickly rebuked.

  8. 8
    wilsim

    I do call out anyone who uses the term “gyp” or “gypped” or any derivative thereof in lieu of “ripped off” or “cheated”. Most of the time they are unaware of the history of the word.

  9. 9
    machintelligence

    Possibly the term cracker as a ethnic slur for whites.
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=cracker

    There is a popcorn snack known as Cracker Jack (with the picture of a cracker in a sailor suit on the box.)

  10. 10
    Rob

    Nope. Can’t think of any. Of course there are some who claim that bitch and cunt have no slur meaning as they have entered common usage. [crickets] Yeah, right. Maybe gay? It started as a euphemism before becoming an epithet and then getting reclaimed. Someone from the LGBT community would be best placed to comment on that one.

    I always thought sucks related back to a contraction of ‘like sucking on a lemon’, which I remember both my parents and grandparents using as an expression of distaste or disappoint.

  11. 11
    Funkopolis

    As far as I know ‘suck’ is a nautical term to refer to a boat so poorly constructed that it not only leaks, it actually sucks water.

  12. 12
    Funkopolis

    I only learned recently that the adjective “Celestial” was once applied to the Chinese.

  13. 13
    Funkopolis

    The word “idiot” used to be banned on television (1960s or so) , as it used to be the common term (if not medical term) for the severely mentally disabled.

  14. 14
    ashleymoore

    Both “Berber” and “Welsh” started out as disparaging terms for the people they describe. Although, I do not know how strong or insulting they were.

    “Berber” comes from the Greek “barbarian”, and “Welsh” from the Saxon word for “foreigner”.

  15. 15
    Some Old Programmer

    Speaking as an individual gay man, I have to say that context is everything for using “gay”.

    In normal conversation it can be a simple descriptive–even the preferred term, having displaced “homosexual”.

    In middle schools where “that’s so gay” is a put-down, even when divorced from the descriptive meaning, it’s a battle that’s being fought for the right of gay kids to not be subjected to casual slander.

  16. 16
    Didaktylos

    I think that those slurs only cease to have their power to cause offense once there are no longer substantial numbers of people who self-identify as members of the groups in question. There probably are modern people who are lineal descendants of Vandals – but who now self-identifies as a Vandal? (Or a Philistine)

    A possible (partial) candidate – “bugger” in reference to homosexual activity is apparently a corruption of “Bulgar”.

  17. 17
    Vote for Pedro

    I don’t know about middle schools, but “that’s so gay” does seem to be dying out on the high school level, in my experience. I remember it being much more common when I was a student than I observe it now.

    A word that might fit the bill of the OP is “queer” which has been the subject of a specific reclaiming effort by the LGBT community and has mostly lost its pejorative sense as far as I can tell. (I am straight, myself, so I might be missing something.)

    On the other hand, I remember a rather unfortunately named playground game from when I was a child where the object was to go after whoever had the ball until they gave it up – sort of a more vicious cousin of Keepaway, I guess – which was commonly called “Smear the Queer.” Definitely the pejorative usage. Hopefully that has gone by the wayside as well, though I wouldn’t know.

    There are other slurs which have lost their power, including those for Italian, Irish, and Polish folks. I am only the latter, and I’ve met many people who had no idea “Pollock” was a slur and the preferred nomenclature is “Pole.” But that’s not really the same thing as an active attempt to reclaim a word as in the OP.

  18. 18
    clamboy

    My example is not really what you were speaking of in your question, but I think it is interesting. In American Sign Language (ASL), the old sign AFRICA has mostly disappeared from use, due to its offensive nature (it was an A-shape that went around the face and landed on the nose, an explicit stereotype of the noses of black Africans), and been replaced with the newer sign AFRICA (a modified O-shape pointing away from the body, opening and then closing as it makes a shape in space like that of the continent). The old sign is now having a resurgence, but as the A-shape making a circle around the face, starting and ending in the middle of the top of the forehead, without the nose-landing. The reason for this (as I understand it) is that Deaf Africans themselves have indicated that this is the prevalent sign in use among affiliated Deaf African communities (sign languages differ, of course, from country to country, but affiliated Deaf communities may establish some commonalities such as the one I mention). ASL has been changing in this manner for a number of years: the old signs CHINA, JAPAN, AUSTRALIA, RUSSIA, etc., have come to be replaced, often with signs from the Deaf communities in those countries. Additionally, the old sign HOMOSEXUAL has also practically disappeared from use, due to its offensive nature, to be replaced by other signs.

  19. 19
    Mano Singham

    I’m really glad that you posted this. It sheds an interesting light on the evolution of attitudes towards words.

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