Maybe 'N-word' is just a state of mind

October 19, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Before readers start hurling slings and arrows at me for using certain words in this column, just remember: I didn't bring this subject up.

This subject started in Michigan -- far from my stomping grounds -- when two women took a look at Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary's definition of a certain word. Heretofore I've referred to it as the "N-word," but since no one else is being bashful about this subject, there's no reason I should be.

The word is nigger. Folks at Merriam-Webster defined the word as "a black person -- usually taken to be offensive." Thus began a movement among black folks to have Merriam-Webster change the definition.

Why Merriam-Webster is being singled out is not clear. I didn't have a copy of Merriam-Webster handy. I had to settle for the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's New World Dictionary. Oxford defined the word as "a Negro. (Colloquial and usually contemptuous.) Except in Black English vernacular, where it remains common, now virtually restricted to contexts of deliberate and contemptuous ethnic abuse."

Webster's New World says "Negro USAGE -- originally simply a dialectal variant of Negro, the term nigger is today acceptable only in black English; in all other contexts it is now generally regarded as virtually taboo because of the legacy of racial hatred that underlies the history of its use among whites, and its continuing use among a minority as a viciously hostile epithet."

I have my own definition of course. The Kane dictionary says: "nigger -- a derogatory term for blacks uttered by nonblacks who have total disregard for their lives and limbs. Blacks themselves use the term in a number of contexts."

The NAACP has taken the lead in getting Merriam-Webster to change its definition of nigger. Just to be sure black folks weren't being overly sensitive, I looked up some other racial and ethnic epithets. These are from Oxford:

kike -- a vulgarly offensive name for a Jew.

wop -- an Italian or other southern European, especially as an immigrant or foreign visitor Now considered offensive.

Here's Webster's New World on the same words:

kike -- a Jew: a vulgar term of hostility and contempt.

wop -- an Italian or person of Italian descent: an offensive term of hostility and contempt.

The protesters of Merriam-Webster's definition of nigger may be on to something here. And it seems Merriam-Webster is not the only guilty party. A nigger is not a black or a Negro. A kike is not a Jew. A wop is not an Italian. It doesn't matter that the definitions have a disclaimer that the terms are considered vulgar and offensive. A better definition of all those words would be "a vulgar and offensive ethnic (or racial) slur used against (put in name of ethnic or racial group)."

But maybe it's best to leave definitions to our artists and satirists, not those who write our dictionaries. Writer Henry Dumas has written that "the greatest role created by Western man has been the role of the nigger. The greatest actor to play the role has been the Negro." Dumas, as he does in most of his writing, went way over my head with this one.

Talk show host Dick Cavett once wanted a feminist singer to appear on his show to do a song called "Woman is the Nigger of the World." In that context, nigger didn't refer to race, but to a condition of perpetual oppression. Honchos at ABC, which produced Cavett's show, protested, claiming they had found 10 black people who objected to the song's title.

"If I find 10 black people who don't object, do they cancel out your 10 black people?" Cavett asked.

The best definition I have heard of nigger hasn't come from Merriam-Webster or Webster's New World or from Oxford. It's come from that noted wit and sage Chris Rock. The black comedian -- who has his own weekly show on Home Box Office -- gave his definition in a routine that is as edifying as it is brilliant.

"There's a war going on between black people and niggers," Rock says in the routine, to the cheers of a predominantly black audience who know exactly what he's talking about. Rock then gives some of the essential differences between black people and niggers.

"Niggers react to books the way vampires react to sunlight."

"Niggers always want credit for something they should be doing. 'I take care of my kids.' You're supposed to take care of your kids!

"Black people don't give a damn about welfare reform. Niggers are shaking in their boots."

One thing is clear from Rock's definition: All the niggers in America aren't black.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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