MAXWELL:  The many and varied uses of an ugly word

10/19/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Well, here we go again.

Last time, we, African-Americans, tried to legitimize a bastardized version of standard formal English exotically dubbed “Ebonics.” Now, we want to deconstruct how dictionaries _ the world’s repository of language _ define words.

In this most recent mess, some woman named Delphine Abraham, a computer operator in Ypsilanti, Mich., and another woman named Kathryn Williams, curator of the Museum of African American History in Flint, Mich., have launched a movement to remove the word “nigger” from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It defines “nigger” as “a black person _ usually taken to be offensive.”

Abraham, Williams, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and others are making the uninformed, outrageous claim that the word’s mere existence in Merriam-Webster’s legitimizes it, perhaps even for normal use. “I can’t believe,” Abraham said, “that in 1997, you can look up “nigger’ in the dictionary and it says “a black person.’ ”

Those who want “nigger” stricken from dictionaries are misguided and should mind their day jobs. Indeed, “nigger” is the worst of racial slurs, but it also has a complex history and multitudinous uses. First used disparagingly in the 16th century to denote a black person, African-Americans use it both pejoratively and lovingly among themselves. Virtually all gangsta rap wraps itself around “nigga.”

All that said, I want to use this opportunity to open a linguistic window for the rest of the world, especially the white world, into the rich use of “nigger” in black culture. The various uses of the ugly word reflect, in fact, the ability of black Americans to buffet a hostile environment by creating neologisms, some endearing, from an epithet.

Following is an abridged glossary, culled from Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang and Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner:

+ Nigger breaker: a slave driver; an overseer on a plantation.

+ Niggerdemos: slave variant term for Nicodemus of the Bible.

+ Nigger driver: a white man hired to oversee and drive black prisoners in picking cotton or some other fieldwork; specifically, the overseer at Parchman Penitentiary, which, as late as 1957, was still run like a brutal plantation.

+ Nigger flicker: a long-blade knife or a razor carried in the pocket as a weapon of self-defense or attack.

+ Nigger heaven: the balcony in a theater where black people had to sit if they were to see a film or a performance. The term originated in Harlem.

+ Nigger in charge, or “Head nigger in charge”: used ironically to refer to a black boss.

+ Nigger luck: a term used ironically referring to good luck; putting the best face on a bad, if not tragic, situation.

+ Nigger night: Saturday night.

+ Nigger rich: having a pocket roll of singles covered with a $20; maintaining outward signs of wealth without real money.

+ Nigger rig: any makeshift device or structure of poor quality.

+ Nigger mess: any messy personal or community affair of African-Americans; something that should be resolved in-house, within the black community or black “family.”

+ Niggamation: used in reference to the practice of speedups on automobile and other industrial assembly lines, where the majority are black, in order to increase productivity without having to pay workers overtime wages. This once-widespread practice often led to serious injuries. The workers said that the companies increased productivity by using black labor, not automation _ thus niggamation.

Black Talk offers other interesting contextual uses of the word “nigger” and its variant “nigga.”

+ “Now that Brotha, see, he ain like them ol e-lights, he real, he is shonuff nigga,” meaning that this black man is “culturally black and rooted in blackness and the African-American Experience.”

+ “That party was live; it was wall-to-wall niggas there,” meaning many blacks were at the party.

+ The Source magazine uses these descriptions of NBA superstar Charles Barkley: “Charles calls (black men who) push and fight ’90s niggers. While with the Philadelphia 76ers, Barkley answered the press about a bad shot he had made: “I’m a ’90s nigger. . . . They want their black athletes to be Uncle Toms. I told the white boys you’ve never heard of a ’90s nigger. We do what we want to do.’ ”

If the editors of Merriam-Webster’s and other mainline dictionaries strike the word “nigger,” then African-American publications _ like Juba to Jive and Black Talk _ must drop it, too. No publication, black or white or otherwise, should be permitted to define it.

And while we are at it, why not bowdlerize this slur of slurs from all literature _ novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, even newspaper columns?

The folks at Webster’s, in a statement to the would-be censors, offer an airtight case of logic and sanity:

“We have made it 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 part of our culture; and that, tragically, is not the case.”