Sunday, August 05, 2001

Slurs often adopted by those they insult

        The n-word isn't the only slur that's taken on new meaning by a group it's meant to hurt.

        Gays and lesbians have adopted words such as “queer” and “dyke,” using them as affectionate terms even though they originally were meant to degrade.

        Racial slurs such as “spic,” “dago” and “mick” still are considered offensive by many people of Hispanic, Italian and Irish descent. But the words also are acceptable slang to many within those ethnic groups.

        Use of derogatory words by the defamed group is not unusual, some linguists say. Dr. Philip Herbst, author of The Color of Words, says some disenfranchised people believe that taking ownership of offensive words saps them of their power.

        In his book, Dr. Herbst says the n-word can sometimes be used within the black community to indicate solidarity or affection. However, he adds that African-Americans' attempts to demystify the word have not worked very well over the years.

        The n-word, he says, “maintains its really disparaging, degrading connotations. You can never totally divorce it from its racist history in America.”

        Even when slurs take on new meanings, they still retain power to do harm, linguists say. They add that it may be futile to believe that the essential meaning of these derogatory terms will ever change.

        Joseph Foster, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Cincinnati, says slurs such as “chink,” “wetback,” “redneck” and “kike” may never disappear from our vocabularies, either.

        “At least not until there are no groups that pick on other groups,” he says.

        Garlinda Burton, author of Never Say Nigger Again: An Anti-Racism Guide for White Liberals, says no other racial slur is as derogatory as the n-word is to African-Americans.

        “I think it can be put in the historical context like the swastika,” says Ms. Burton of Nashville, Tenn. “I don't think we should ever let this word lose its sting.”

— Kevin Aldridge

The evolving N-word

- Slurs often adopted by those they insult
Home fix-up help little known
Church opens new school to focus on boys
Families with children at Over-the-Rhine fest
Gun-toting cab driver fighting law
Riot casualties
Vandals damage windows on dozens of cars
PULFER: Charmin exhibit
Heart device advised to clubs
Heart problems worry schools
Hidden heart ills killed teen-agers
Tristate A.M. Report
Accusations not first to target priest
City seeks to rebuild
Eat, drink and be mellow; all's cool at Blues Festival
Sycamore implements lightning predictor
8 vying for Lebanon Council
'Cookies' a sweet deal for mentally ill
Developers remove trees from wetlands
Specialty care just what patients need
State suggests that Parma close 8 school buildings
1 dead, 1 missing in eastern Ky. floods
I love ... look-alikes?
Leisurely stroll spans the ages
New event joins old
Ockerman considers curriculum
Search for Major's body moves to dam