Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Being Conscious of Word Usage

Have words with negative connotations such as nigger become acceptable? Personally, I never speak such offensive words and rarely use them unless I'm writing and trying to make a specific point. Have words with negative connotations such as nigger become acceptable? Personally, I never speak such offensive words and rarely use them unless I'm writing and trying to make a specific point. Most times such words do not come off well, including many of their associated words as words largely depend on context, etymology, and historical usage.

Yesterday RNC chair candidate, Chip Saltsman, who sent out the parody "Barack the Magic Negro" as a Christmas gift, defended his decision on MSNBC. But I still wondered about Saltsman's use of the word negro. Negro and nigger are both etymologically rooted in the country of Niger in Africa by colonists. Americans by and large didn't buy Saltsman's explanation of the gift.

Saltsman's defense of his right to use satire on MSNBC appeared sort of like Rush Limbaugh's comedic, often perceived as racist, political satire where just about anything goes. But Rush isn't running for a public office and context and good judgement are still important. By the way, Republican leaders are pleading with Rush to put a sock in it.

Oxford's definition:

Nigger (‘nIg∂(r)), Also niggar. [Alteration of NEGER. Cf. Also NIGER and NIGRE.]

1. a. A Negro. (Colloq. And usu. contemptuous.) Except in Black English vernacular, where it remains common, now virtually restricted to contexts of deliberate and contemptuous ethnic abuse. b. Loosely or incorrectly applied to members of other dark-skinned races. c. to work like a nigger, to work exceptionally hard. orig. U.S.

Recently, I used the word nigger in a discussion on tompeters.com and it brought on a discussion its use. (I never use the euphemism "n-word," although I understand and can appreciate why others do.) why others do and can even appreciate it.) I realize its import and believe that there is no sanitizing words that have created such deep historical wounds.

Not being a fan of the word, I do not like to hear it in lyrics sung repeatedly over a "wicked" beat or spoken readily by young African Americans as a term of endearment. There is nothing endearing about the term. But when I hear the word or see it written I tend to judge how it is used and respond accordingly.

On a walk recently I came across four young men with book bags near the high school having a good time. (I typically stop and talk with young people just about stuff in general; most times I have never seen them before.) One of the young men wore a jacket that read "State Property." It was a bit disturbing, so I asked him about it.

The conversation went like this:

"Hey. How was school today?"
"OK." (They never seem to say more than that initially.)
"That's a nice jacket.
"Thanks."
"But what does it mean?"
"What...State Property?"
"Yes."
"It's a record label. Oh...you thought...."
"Yes, I thought you were wearing a jacket that praised prison-life."
"No ma'am. I'm going to college."
"Oh, that's great! And you?"
"Me too."
"Me too."
"Me too."
"Great! You can do anything. Have a good day."
"OK. You too. Thank you."
"No, thank you. You have made my day."
"Really?"
"Yes, really."
"That's dope."

I left. I didn't even ask him about the meaning of "dope." I assumed it meant cool. But it did leave a lingering thought about word usage for young people. As I continued my walk I could not help but to wonder about the record label. Why choose such a name that obviously has such a negative connotation?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Black America and the N-word:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dP2U0jmZjec

judith ellis said...

Anonymous - Thank you. Good ad. It is nothing new that the oppressed often take over the language of the oppressor. The same is true for the actions of the oppressed over time. We see this internationally quite frequently. But I guess the question is whether there is really transformative power to truly elevate such a word or any people. I sincerely doubt this. Thanks again.

CJ said...

Judith, maybe I am mistaken, but I thought the N word was pronounced dead in Detroit, and we had a funeral burying the term.

You are right. My wife would agree with you. That is one term you don't even use in endearment. You don't even use it as an epithet against your son when he makes you angry, as my dad would sometimes do against me. It's just plain wrong.

And I hate it when radio stations give so much airplay to songs containing the "N" word and the "B" word. Artists such as T.I, Flo Rida and others, indeed, are a far cry from the artists who made, "Caribbean Queen," "I Just Called To Say I Love You," "Careless Whispers," and "We Are The World" famous. I miss those days when music had a message.

Hip hop is painful to my old ears, and I believe, is harmful to our entire generation of kids. I think it's the fact that these artists are enjoying the amount of airplay saying these words every breath sends a message to our young people that it is okay to call someone an "N" or a "B" just for the fun of it.

Do they not know the history behind such words?

Brosreview said...

Over the recent years, many such offensive words have apparently turned into being cool. It's gone to such an extent that if you do not use it, communities do not accept you.

You must have also come across the word "dog" a lot. I recall being slapped by me dad when I used the word. And, I did that by mistake. He explained that it was a demeaning word.

But, nowadays I see many people using it. "Dog" apparently substitutes man or friend. And a few use "blood" claiming that it signifies the respective race. What ever happened to calling by the first name?

It is amusing to see people who feel the N-word offensive using it more often than anyone else, don't you think?

And, since they address their fellow-rapper with the N-word, people outside the region absorb that as a general term such as "mate".

All in the name of being cool.

Good post!!!

judith ellis said...

CJ - Thank you for your words. I understand them. I must also say that I am for freedom of expression. I do not look at the Hip Hop generation so despairingly, even though I wish that the language was not so brutal.

I agree that such lyrics do not have a positive affect on this generation; its use often dishonor self and others. Society as a whole has a certain responsibility to all young people too. Are we doing our part?

judith ellis said...

Brosreview - It's interesting that your brought up the word dog. Just today I heard criticism about the movie "Slumdog Millionaire." It has just been released in India and there were protest regarding the use of dog in the movie title.

I must admit that I absolutely loved the movie and did not look at the title in such a negative context until I heard the protests today. The movie itself negates the very title. The hero of the movie was brilliant, principled and sensitive, while the others were not.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment - much appreciated.

Meena said...

What bothers be is not just racial epithets but sexual ones as well. Like how it is common to refer to ones "hos" and phrases like "hos over bros" or even "where my b*thces at?" - all of these types of commonplace phrases that crass or crude concepts and make them acceptable bother me. Though it seems all fun and games, the unknown affect on the psyche, no one knows.

judith ellis said...

Meena - You bring up a very good point about how women are depicted. We should always look to represent our highest selves, not our lowest. It is not by accident that this generation is called the lost generation, though I am a firm believer that there are a great many young people who do a lot of good and will become great future leaders. Names are important as well as how we think of ourselves; this is a well-documented fact.