Date: Mon, 27 Oct 1997 22:46:18 -0600 From: Chris Corcoran 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. Chris ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Christine Corcoran Linguistics 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 response. 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. 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. 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 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++