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
       



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