Date: Thu, 30 Oct 1997 13:02:38 -0500

From: "Dennis R. Preston" preston[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]PILOT.MSU.EDU

Subject: Re: What does the "n" word mean? (was PC dictionaries)


Thanks. I thought that's what you meant.

I disagree, by the way. I think many ethnic slurs have steadily been

gaining 'dirty word' status and constitute a new, fourth category of such

words in English - joining excreta, sex, and religion. The fact that there

are inoffensive ingroup uses does not make them a bit different from, for

example, the fact that an old high school buddy might greet me with

'Dennis, you ol' mother-fucker' (and he'd better damn well 'd'-delete in

'old' too). Far short of offensive, such use shows extreme solidarity,

just as ethnic slurs do in ingroup situations.


(Of course, maybe I just think all my ol' high school buddies are buddies


On Thu, 30 Oct 1997, Dennis R. Preston wrote:

Ethnic slurs are not like most other expletives, which sound nasty only

because they sound nasty; ethnic slurs also have specific targets.

Would you expand on the meaning of 'sound nasty'?

It's, ah, technical jargon. That's the ticket!

Seriously, the "F" word is offensive in almost any context. The word

itself has connotations that are not necessarily deragatory towards

specific individuals, but remain nontheless offensive.

Ethnic slurs, on the other hand, gain their offensiveness because they

have a target. To describe a similar phenomenon, look at Meredith

Brooks's song "Bitch". The chorus begins "I'm a bitch, I'm a lover...".

If a male vocalist recorded a song called "Bitch" beginning "She's a

bitch, she's a lover...", it would be insulting. Why? Because the male

vocalist falls outside of the group the slur insults, and the female

vocalist does not. In my opinion, the same principle applies to ethnic


Tom Head


"The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.

What the second duty is, no one has yet discovered."

-- Oscar Wilde

Dennis R. Preston

Department of Linguistics and Languages

Michigan State University

East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA


Office: (517)353-0740

Fax: (517)432-2736