The N-Word: Where's A Linguistic Death Panel When We Need It?

I don’t want to talk about the n-word any more. It’s the ugliest word in the English language and I just want it gone.

Find an active volcano and drop it down the crater. Blow it up like Bruce the Shark in Jaws. I don’t care.

Let’s vaporize it and move on.

Bill Maher.
Bill Maher.

Sadly, that won’t happen, and not just because HBO’s Bill Maher is the latest person to put it back in the headlines by using it in a jarring way in a public situation.

At this point, it’s just too much a part of our history. Getting rid of the n-word It would be like trying to write out the Civil War, which oh yeah by the way was fought for reasons that were deeply intertwined with the real meaning of the n-word.

In fact, as folk expressions go, the n-word is remarkably uncomplicated. However it was created, it quickly came to denigrate people with dark skin, to make it clear they were lesser human beings deserving none of the rights afforded to Americans with white skin.

Perhaps because that understanding of the word is nearly universal today, it has survived in our culture and our vocabulary. From Mark Twain to Bob Dylan to scriptwriters for historical dramas, there have been spots where, given America’s history, it would have been hard not to use the word.

I suppose it’s good news, all things being relative, that over the last hundred years we have come to understand its malignance.

A hundred years ago, it was in such common use that it was often considered simply descriptive, like calling somebody a farmer.

I have 78 rpm records from the 1920s with the n-word in the title, old country folk tunes laced with caricatures of black folks doing things like stealing chickens.

Most of these songs were recorded by white artists. Some were not. Luke Jordan, a wonderful black blues and folk guitarist from Virginia, recorded the n-word in “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” as casually as white singer Riley Puckett sang it in other songs.

The n-word thrived in public dialogue into the 1960s, when it receded into the private conversations where, today, it is doubtless more alive than we’d like to think.

What has moved into public n-word conversation since the ‘60s is whether it’s appropriate for black folks to use it.

Is it appropriate for two black friends to address each other with the word, the way two Italian men might call each other an ethnic name?

Is it appropriate for rappers to use the word like a machine gun in their lyrics, or their group name?

Don’t know. Not my call.

All I can say is that the word stops me, and not in a good way, every time I hear it.

Bill Adler, a hip-hop journalist and promoter, once told me about a conversation with Harry Allen, a long-time associate of the superb rap group Public Enemy.

Adler had related an anecdote that including quoting a rapper using the n-word.

The minute he reached that point, he said, Allen got angry. I don’t care who said it or why, Allen told him. I just plain don’t like the word any time, any place, anywhere.



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