Date: Mon, 27 Oct 1997 22:46:18 -0600


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

Nigger meant.

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

deal with.



Christine Corcoran


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,

always explained.

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

Merriam-Webster Inc.

Box 281

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


Dear Sir:

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.


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.

Stephen Perrault

Senior Editor

Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

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

general approach.

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

show you:

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.

Sincerely yours,

Frederick C. Mish

Vice President and Editor in Chief