Date: Mon, 27 Oct 1997 22:46:18 -0600
From: Chris Corcoran cmcorcor[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU
Subject: Emerge Article
While I think that the organizations representing the political move to
strike the word or change the definition don't have things quite right, I
also think that regarding this as misguided PCness is also missing a point
that shouldn't be ignored.
An adult speaker of English who is the curator of the Museum of African
American History felt confident that she could tell a young visitor what
At least for the curator's part, it doesn't seem that she thinks that
dictionaries dictate usage but rather that she assumed her usage would be
recorded in the dictionary. Of course, it happens all the time that I look
up words in the dictionary and the definition doesn't seem to match my
usage and this occurs for a whole variety of reasons, but in this case I
can understand why she felt that this particular entry ought to record the
definition that she knows is current in her community.
It doesn't seem to me that the actual question is one of whether the
dictionary records usage. The question is really one of evidence of usage.
In Frederick Mish's response (see below), he says "If you have actual
evidence of this, especially in print, we would be very glad to have you
pass it along. Please remember that a dictionary cannot assign meanings to
words; it can only record the meanings that people actually use."
It seems to me that the message is that a lot of people agree that nigger
is defined the way Kathryn Williams has defined it, so I think M-W needs to
articulate why this is not adequate evidence. After all it is evidence of
usage even if it is not the usual sort of evidence that dictionary makers
Univ of Chicago
Kapu Sehns Noh Kapu Wohd
"Hear the meaning, not the words"
What follows is what I have seen regarding the Emerge article.
*Taken from Emerge Magazine September 1997*
"Anyone can be a nigger, A
nigger is any ignorant person,"
Kathryn Williams, curator
at the Museum of African
American History in Flint, Mich,
So, when a young boy asked recently,
"Am I a nigger because I'm Black ?
she said, "No child, go look up the
word in the dictionary."
When the boy returned, he read
with disappointment, "1: a black person
2: ...member of any dark-skinned race."
Williams was appalled. She hopes to
gather enough support from NAACP
chapters and Black media to demand
a revision. She asks that letters
be sent to the:
Language Research Service
Springfield, MA 01102 or
call (413) 734-3134
The following is a letter that one reader sent to the Editor in Chief
with regards to the definition in Emerge magazine followed by his
I am writing in regards to the September 1997 article in "Emerge
Magazine" entitled, Definition Petition. It concerns the definition of
the word nigger in the 1996 version of the Merriam-Webster's
Collegiate Dictionary. It seems that the secondary definition now
includes a reference to "dark-skinned" people, and the third to a
socially disadvantage class of persons. I feel this
to be inappropriate and strongly suggest that you consider the
implications of propagating racial slander. I whole heartedly
support Ms. Kathryn William's position, and respectful request
a revision. Thank you kindly for your attention to this letter.
Subject: THIS IS THEIR RESPONSE
Your comments concerning the entry for "nigger" in our Collegiate
Dictionary would normally be answered by our editor in chief,
Frederick C. Mish. Unfortunately Mr. Mish is currently at home
recuperating from a recent accident and does not have access to his
e-mail. He has, however, prepared a response to the many questions and
comments we've been receiving on this subject since the dictionary
entry was mentioned in "Emerge," and I'm happy to send
along a copy of that response.
We hope you will forgive us for making this response less individual
and more formulaic than our usual correspondence. The volume of mail
generated by the brief piece in "Emerge" has forced us to take a
The first point we want to make is that the entry for "nigger" in
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, contains a
very important part, a usage paragraph, that the magazine did not
usage "Nigger" in senses 1 and 2 can be found in the works of such
writers of the past as Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens,
but it now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial
slur in English. Its use by and among Blacks is not always intended
or taken as offensive, but, except in sense 3, it is otherwise a word
expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.
We believe that this constitutes a strong, clear statement about the
actual status of this word in usage today.
Please bear in mind as you consider these definitions of "nigger"
that we are defining the meanings of a word, not describing groups of
people. The difference is of crucial importance. We are not saying
that if one is a member of a dark-skinned race one should consider
oneself a nigger. Such an attitude is totally abhorrent to us! We
are saying that some people (sick or misguided people, in all
likelihood) currently use the word "nigger" and others (like Joseph
Conrad, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, mentioned in the usage
paragraph above, whose writings reflect many of the attitudes of
their time) have used it in the past and when the word is used by
such people it generally refers to either a black person or a member
of some other dark-skinned people.
We have often been told by correspondents that at some time "nigger"
meant an ignorant or shiftless person of any race. We have no
evidence in our files of citations (a citation being simply an
example of an English word in context) that "nigger" is used with
such a meaning. If you have actual evidence of this, especially in
print, we would be very glad to have you pass it along. Please
remember that a dictionary cannot assign meanings to words; it can
only record the meanings that people actually use.
We do not believe that we would be doing anything positive about
racism by removing the entries for "nigger" and other offensive words
from the dictionary. We cannot make offensive words pass out of
existence by leaving them out of the dictionary; we can merely damage
the integrity of the dictionary. People do not learn these words from
the dictionary, nor do they refrain from using the words until they
have checked a dictionary to see whether the words are entered. The
dictionary really has little to do with the use of these words except
to record it and to tell the truth about its offensiveness.
I think too that I should point out that all reputable college-level
desk dictionaries published in this country now have entries for some
offensive words. Including such entries is not an aberration on our
part but is typical of mainstream lexicography in our time.
I hope I have persuaded you that we are behaving responsibly as
dictionary makers in our handling of words like "nigger," and I thank
you for giving me the opportunity to explain.
Frederick C. Mish
Vice President and Editor in Chief