Definition of racial slur draws threat of boycott NAACP, others urge Merriam-Webster to revise dictionary

October 17, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN STAFF

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the word "nigger" as offensive and inflammatory. But the NAACP says that if the publishers do not revise the entry to make even clearer that the word is a slur, the organization will lead a boycott against the country's largest publisher of college dictionaries.

The problem, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other critics say, is the first definition: "nigger 1: a black person -- usu. taken to be offensive."

That definition, according to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, "doesn't say, 'Once used to describe a black person, a slur.' It says, 'A black person.'

"The NAACP finds it objectionable that the Merriam-Webster would use black people as a definition for a racist term," Mfume says.

Even in a time when black comedians and rap singers use the word almost casually on mainstream television and radio, and young men include it in banter among themselves, the word has not lost its inflammatory power.

Merriam-Webster, a publishing company based in Springfield, Mass., says it has received hundreds of messages on the subject -- the largest protest it has ever encountered. "We are currently reviewing our treatment of this word to see if there are better ways to present this information," the company said in a statement.

The company also noted that the definition includes the warn- ing that the word "now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English."

But Mfume says that is not enough. "A person's race ought to be defined by genetics and physiological makeup, not by a slur," he says.

Historically freighted with connotations of racial hatred, the word was at the center of controversy in the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Its use in books that are considered classics has sparked censorship drives. And now its definition has prompted an effort to rewrite a dictionary entry.

The campaign against Merriam-Webster began in the spring with two Michigan women.

Kathryn Williams, curator of the Museum of African American History in Flint, says she opened the dictionary when an 11-year-old touring the museum asked if the word defined him. "I got out the dictionary, and that's what it says: 'a black person.' I said, 'Wow.' "

About a month later, in April, Delphine Abraham of Ypsilanti looked up the word at work for a colleague who was taking a literature course. "The first thing you see shouldn't be 'a black person,' " Abraham says. "I would like it to say: 'a derogatory term used to dehumanize a race or group of people.' "

Both women say the dictionary's emphasis on the word's offensive connotation is not enough.

Abraham started a petition drive, sending 2,000 signatures so far to Merriam-Webster. Williams distributed fliers to radio stations, magazines and groups including the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Williams says she would prefer that the word not appear in the dictionary at all. "I would like all derogatory words removed from the dictionary."

Merriam-Webster's, like other popular dictionaries, includes the definitions of slurs aimed at groups besides African-Americans. All the definitions note the offensive nature of the words.

"My children and grandchildren don't need to know that these words exist," Williams says. Some people, she concedes, "say it's part of our lingo. Well, it is part of our lingo. But somewhere, it has to stop."

But Merriam-Webster says it is the function of dictionaries to reflect contemporary language, and that means including words that are distasteful.

"We have tried to make clear that the use of this word as a racial slur is abhorrent to us, but it is nonetheless part of the language, and as such, it is our duty as dictionary-makers to report on it. To do less would simply mislead people by creating the false impression that racial slurs are no longer a part of our culture; and that, tragically, is not the case."

The debate is complicated by the fact that not all blacks consider the term objectionable in all uses.

Julian Bond, a professor at the University of Virginia and American University, says the term probably could be immediately defined in Merriam-Webster as generally offensive. But, he adds, "It can also be an affectionate term. When I was a boy -- I grew up on an all-male black campus -- it was common to hear students refer to one another, 'That's my nigger.' "

K. Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy at Harvard, says the protest against the definition may be based in older, middle-class blacks' anxiety over such usage.

Young black men use the word "in a jocular fashion," he says. "It means 'my man' or something like that. There are words that are taken to be offensive when used by the majority about members of the minority. But it carries no offense when it's used by the minority itself."

"There is a sort of worry about giving any currency to a use that is disapproved of by older black people," Appiah says.

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