By Michael R. Collings
Future generations (assuming there will be such) may look back on our times and wonder at the power we ascribe to individuals and to words.
Whenever there is a social problem, a cultural chasm, the first thing our society turns to—and attempts to change—is often not so much the problem itself, the underlying causes that make human beings treat others in specific ways, the assumptions (often unarticulated but influential) that direct our actions, but rather the most superficial manifestations of that problem.
The language used to describe it, talk about it, or denote it.
In other words, the words.
In 2012, the New York Department of Education, concerned about cultural divides among students, published a list of fifty words proscribed from appearing on official, standardized tests, under the assumption that they might irrevocably harm the developing psyches of school children. Among the victims on the hit-list:
Birthday—possibly offensive to Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who for religious or cultural reasons do not celebrate such events;
Dancing—possibly offensive to religious groups that reject such activities—ballet, however is allowed;
Dinosaur—possibly offensive to anti-evolutionists;
Halloween—possibly offensive to religionists because of its associations with paganism;
Homes with swimming pools—possibly offensive to the benighted few who do not have such amenities in their back yards;
Poverty—possibly offensive to anyone associated with it, because, after all, such a state is not any individual’s fault but society’s;
Religion—possibly offensive to those who have none;
Slavery—possibly offensive to young people multiple generations removed from its practice in New York City;
Terrorism—possibly offensive to members of groups tangentially associated with extremists who actually practice this means of radical social change;
War—definitely offensive to any right-minded person to whom violence (expunged) and bloodshed (also expunged) are anathema under any circumstances.
Superficially, such a list of prohibited words might seem over-reaching, perhaps to the extent of becoming ludicrous. Yet in our world, our fear of offending someone—anyone—has reached such epidemic proportions that at times it seems as if words themselves, our primary means of communication, are under attack.
In September, 2012, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to questions about possibly forcing the owner of the Washington Redskins to change the team name. “If one person is offended,” he announced, “we have to listen.”
Curiously enough, I’ve rarely read of any Native Americans objecting to the names.
The brouhaha means, one supposes, that the Kansas City Chiefs will soon be forced to change their name as well, along with the Dallas Cowboys—the latter because of all the mayhem cowboys inflicted upon Native Americans, including their Chiefs, more than a century ago. The Minnesota Vikings are in jeopardy, particularly as the Vikings are now credited (positively) with ‘discovering’ America and judiciously leaving it the way it was…we wouldn’t want to offend any of their descendants. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers bring to mind murder, rapine, and theft—hardly role models for today’s youth. The New England Patriots might offend southerners who find such rabble-rousing inappropriate. The Oakland Raiders definitely need to polish their name; and the Arizona Cardinals need to think about the implications of cardinal, since it is a homograph for a word closely associated with a specific religion—separation of Church and State, after all.
If one person is offended.
And that is just in one sport.
But back to my title.
You will note that I specified “The N-words”—plural.
That was intentional, because I want to look briefly at several near-homophones and explore their differences in meaning…and when they might be useful in writing fiction.
The first is the classic “N-word”: nigger.
In terms of its linguistic history, the word is entirely legitimate. It stems ultimately from the Latin word niger, meaning ‘black,’ and was used descriptively…just as black now is (the latter, by the way, comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, blæc, meaning alternately ‘dark’ or ‘pale’—the usual word for ‘black’ back then was sweart, from which is derived swarthy).
For much of a number of centuries, it remained largely neutral; in the mid-1800s, for example, it became part of the “Mountain Man” lexicon, with the associated sense of ‘pal,’ ‘man,’ even something as colloquial as ‘dude,’ with no definitive racial overtones. Not until the early 1900s did it become specifically and exclusively pejorative—which creates serious difficulties in reading late Victorian literature such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or early 20th-century pieces by, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs. When used in such literature, the word might still be primarily descriptive. In a contemporary effort not to appear offensive, one publisher recently introduced an edition of Huckleberry Finn substituting slave—with the unintended consequence that one of Twain’s most powerful characters becomes “Slave Jim,” diminishing him in ways that I don’t think Twain intended.
Be that as it may, the word became pejorative and remains so, to the extent that several recent instances suggest that it now may not even be spoken (by non-blacks, at least) without fear of legal reprisals. It has replaced the infamous “F-word” as the most impermissible utterance in the English language.
(I don’t want to digress into the morality or the rightness of black speakers using it as a term of endearment or affection—that appears to be in flux at the moment, so I can draw no conclusions about it).
But there it is. A word that, despite a respectable genealogy and reasonably respectable history, is now literally (using literally to mean both ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’) unspeakable.
In Jonathan Maberry’s Ghost Road Blues, a character named Vic Wingate uses the word perhaps half-a-dozen times in as many pages, always referring to Oren Morse, an itinerant farm worker/blues musician whose murder Wingate orchestrates in an early chapter. The word isn’t accidental; the repetition makes that clear. So why does such a careful, conscientious, masterly writer as Maberry include it?
The reason is not difficult to find. The word appears, not to characterize Oren Morse, who has already been established as a key character, one who knows the truth about a siege of deaths in Pine Deep, and the only one with the courage to seek out the monster and slay it; but rather to characterize the speaker, Wingate. By the end of the trilogy of which Ghost Road Blues is the first volume, Wingate is second only to the Great Evil itself in his debasement, his degradation, his corruption. And one of the first indications of this occurs when he speaks to Morse. Through his use of a single word, he lays his dark soul bare and prepares readers to believe any and all of the horrors he will perpetrate over the next 1200 pages. Six appearances of one small word—and we know all that we need to know of Vic Wingate.
Yes, it is pejorative. Yes, it is socially inappropriate. And yes, it no longer describes but characterizes…except that now is characterizes the speaker rather the subject—a complete reversal of its earlier negative meanings.
In a sense, then, it has found a place, although by left-handed means (I’m left-handed, so I can use the phrase prejudicially), as a useful adjunct in story-telling.
But there has been fallout.
Consider one of the synonyms for snicker: snigger. According to some sources, it is simply a variant of snicker, differing in meaning from the original in the slightly increased sense of disrespect it suggests.
On one of the social forums, I found this comment:
I don’t know where I heard it [snigger] first, it has just always been part of my vocabulary. I never once linked it to the N word, which I find horrendously offensive (I have black relatives, and I just like people and don’t like derogatory terms in general!), but when I just typed it into a forum I’m a member of, it censored the middle arrangement of letters. I never use the word “snicker” because it reminds me of the candy bar, and the LAST thing I need to do is create a craving for… oh, drat. Too late. Now I want a candy bar.
Regardless of its meaning, snigger was censored merely because of an adventitious arrangement of letters. The obvious message: MUST NOT USE.
The next post on the forum was explicitly angry, not that snigger had been misused but that it had been used at all:
I am offended when I come across this word. Why do authors use it when it is so close to the “n” word that it is uncomfortable to say? The word “snicker” would have the same meaning and would be less disturbing to the reader. I’m positive that I’m not the only one who feels this way about the use of this word.
One person expresses offense; should snigger therefore be expunged from the language?
If snigger has experienced difficulties, imagine what life must be for the second “N-word”: niggard and its adverbial, niggardly.
Their etymology actually goes farther back, to the 12th and 13th centuries. Nyggard in Middle English paralleled hnøggr in Old Norse, one of the contributory languages to English. Hnøggr, in turn, was cross-related to an Anglo-Saxon adjective, hnēaw, meaning ‘stingy.’ From the beginning, then, niggard and niggardly have carried a single meaning, one utterly divorced from race, color, or social opprobrium (except insofar as it is deemed antisocial to be stingy).
I’ve been told explicitly never to use it.
I wrote it on the greenboard in my classroom once, and the entire class gasped in shock.
An associate of the mayor of Washington, D.C., was forced to resign for using it (appropriately) to describe a proposed budget.
A college student in Wisconsin complained that a professor used the word repeatedly during lectures on Chaucer, in spite of her being deeply offended by it.
A teacher in North Carolina was reprimanded for using the word during a discussion of literary characters and was required to attend sensitivity training.
Newspapers and magazines have officially banned the word, fearing the public consequences.
An accidental arrangement of letters that results in a near-homophone.
And the word is banned.
Curiously, a second near-homograph/homophone has largely escaped controversy. Niggle comes from the identical root as niggard—the aforementioned Old Norse hnøggr. It has a related meaning: Whereas niggardly means ‘parsimonious’ or ‘penurious,’ niggle means to criticize repeatedly, albeit in a peevish, petty, rather miserly way. It is, admittedly, not common in contemporary English, although J. R. R. Tolkien used it magnificently in one of his lesser-known stories, “Leaf by Niggle.” Niggle is the main character, appropriately enough described as a “little man.” One of the points of the story is the way in which he is niggled by others, to the extent that his greatest artistic achievement—a landscape painting—is eventually allowed to deteriorate until all that remains is a small scrap with a single leaf…hence the title. In the end, the tale becomes a story of redemption and validation, and the name “Niggle” becomes synonymous with Heaven.
I’m not aware of any particular fuss about him—or anyone else—using niggle, and the reason, I think, has largely to do with pronunciation.
Niggard ends with a low plosive—‘d.’ That means that the final sound literally explodes from the throat as the tongue drops from the palate and allows built-up air to be released. It cannot be prolonged, and for that reason, in speech, it frequently disappears, leaving behind only the lingering sense of the guttural ‘r.’ And in that context, the unaccented -ar sounds exactly like the unaccented -er. In effect, niggard can become another word entirely when heard.
Niggle, on the other hand, lacks the final plosive. In fact, its final sound—the high liquid ‘l’—allows the speaker to hang on to the word, to let it continue until the speaker simply runs out of breath if so chosen, and in doing so, it effectively defuses the implicitly negative sense of the first letters: nigg. The ‘g’ becomes less rough, less thick, and the physiological effect of the word is much lighter, much higher. Niggle becomes acceptable.
In both cases—snigger and niggard—the words’ disrepute stems not from meaning but from sound. Neither is in any way related linguistically to the infamous N-word. Nor does either bear any connection to racial comments. Indeed, if embedded racism were the primary criterion for choosing which words to avoid, then the ubiquitous boy, given its usage history, should join the list.
Yet from the evidence provided by our society it would be difficult to tell which word is the most undesirable: dinosaur, war, or niggardly.
Fortunately, the New York City Board of Education’s attempt met with the scorn I think it deserved. And attempts to can nigardly from college campuses resulted, in at least one instance, in a broadening of freedom of expression rather than a narrowing.
Now to bring the discussion down to my ultimate purpose—talking about story-telling and fictions.
No words are too sacrosanct to use in a story; and no words are so horrific—especially in writing darkness, horror—that they cannot appear. Even the most socially inappropriate of words, used carefully and with the intent to characterize the moral failings, not of the subject, but of the speaker can become effective.
All that is needed is a clear understanding on the part of writers of four points:
* The way the readers might react to the words and how that will impact the story’s reception—as can be seen from the case of Huckleberry Finn, merely using a certain word might be enough to turn a portion of the readership away;
* The possibility of using synonyms that lack the emotional charge but that will allow the story to remain true to itself—remembering always that there are almost no true and complete synonyms in the English language;
* The responsibilities writers have to themselves, to their characters, and to the world in which they live—in Maberry’s novel, for instance, the word is almost required, given the choices that his characters will eventually have to make between Good and Evil…and his language is expressly designed to allow readers to see, understand, and accept those choices; and
* The freedom of writers to self-censor and choose responsibly, fully aware of implications and consequences; but when a society identifies certain words that must never be used, that society has overstepped its legitimate bounds
Fortunately, in spite of NFL commissioners, boards of education, college administrators, and others who would restrict the language to meet their view of the world, authors remain free to choose and to explore.