How the n-word be­came the new f-word

Lan­guage taboos used to be about sex, writes Ran­dall Eg­gert. Now we shun race and gen­der slurs.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - reg­gert@lin­guis­ Ran­dall Eg­gert is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Utah and the au­thor of “This Book is Taboo: An In­tro­duc­tion to Lin­guis­tics through Swear­ing.”

This past week, Pres­i­dent Obama sat down with co­me­dian Marc Maron for an hour-long in­ter­view on fa­ther­hood, his legacy, bas­ket­ball, health care and how be­ing pres­i­dent is like be­ing a co­me­dian. Yet the head­lines that fol­lowed fo­cused on one line of their dis­cus­sion in the 47th minute, when Obama told Maron that race re­la­tions are “not just a mat­ter of it not be­ing po­lite to say ‘nig­ger’ in public.”

“Obama uses N-word,” CNN blared in a typ­i­cal alert. (Strictly speak­ing, Obama men­tioned the word. He didn’t use it.) When a word is highly taboo, so­ci­ety de­mands that we avoid ut­ter­ing it, even when we need to dis­cuss it. And be­cause Obama spoke the word on a pod­cast called “WTF With Marc Maron,” the dou­ble dose of vul­gar­ity sent some into a panic. “I think many peo­ple are won­der­ing if it’s only there that he would say it,” said “Fox & Friends” host Elisabeth Has­sel­beck, “and not, per­haps, in a State of the Union or more public ad­dress.”

Has­sel­beck’s con­cern, while hy­per­bolic, isn’t an un­usual re­ac­tion to the per­ceived pro­lif­er­a­tion of ob­scen­i­ties. It’s easy to think our cul­ture is coars­en­ing. On so­cial media and in online com­ment sec­tions, vul­gar in­ter­jec­tions seem to be used as ca­su­ally as verbs. Head­lines claim that chil­dren are swear­ing more to­day than ever be­fore, and we’re fas­ci­nated by videos of foul-mouthed kids on YouTube, where a search for “child swear­ing” re­turns nearly 50,000 re­sults. Even the New York Times lib­er­al­ized its stan­dards in 2013 to al­low for more uses of ob­scene and of­fen­sive terms in its pages.

In re­sponse, many of us have been wring­ing our hands. When the Toronto Star con­sid­ered elim­i­nat­ing the dashes from taboo words in print, read­ers called on the news­pa­per to hold the line against the “daily as­sault” on proper speech. “While they

un­der­stand pro­fan­ity is in­creas­ingly part of com­mon par­lance,” public editor Kathy English wrote, “they still don’t want to see it spelled out in the pages of the Toronto Star.” (At The Washington Post, it is still un­usual to print most of the del­i­cate words in this story.)

But this con­ster­na­tion over mores is mis­guided. Yes, the four-let­ter words we once con­sid­ered the worst of the worst have be­come more ac­cept­able. But as we’ve re­laxed our most pu­ri­tan­i­cal at­ti­tudes to­ward sex and faith— and the taboo terms that stem from them — other pro­hib­ited words have risen to re­place them. Racial and sex­ual slurs such as “fag­got,” once com­mon, are now more for­bid­den than ever. The pres­i­dent’s ut­ter­ance notwith­stand­ing, the n-word re­mains highly of­fen­sive, even an in­cite­ment to vi­o­lence, in set­tings where we can drop an f-bomb in­dis­crim­i­nately. We haven’t nor­mal­ized swear­ing; we’ve just changed our val­ues.

I’ve seen this dy­namic in my class­room. In my lin­guis­tics-of-swear­ing course nine years ago, as we dis­cussed thresh­olds (the self-im­posed lim­its on which taboo words we’ll use and which we won’t), I ar­gued that, if we scratch deep enough, al­most ev­ery­one has words they won’t use. A stu­dent in the back row raised his hand from deep within a slouch. “I’ll say any­thing to any­body. There aren’t any words I won’t use.” He shrugged. “That’s just the kind of guy I am.” I was about to move to the next raised hand when he con­tin­ued: “Ex­cept racist words. I don’t say things like that. And I don’t use ‘fag­got’ be­cause my best friend from high school is gay.” The stu­dent in the next seat turned to him with a smirk. “Sounds like there’s lots of words you won’t use.”

It’s true that we use some salty words much more lib­er­ally than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions did — in some cases, more fre­quently than just a decade ago. “F---” and “s---,” for in­stance, are hav­ing a hey­day in en­ter­tain­ment media and our ev­ery­day lan­guage. As with mu­sic, each gen­er­a­tion’s lan­guage seeks to shock and chal­lenge its par­ents’ stan­dards of ci­vil­ity.

But as the old lim­its are pushed, new ones are set. For in­stance, the 17th-cen­tury po­etry of John Wil­mot, Earl of Rochester shames mod­ern slam po­ets in its sex­ual ter­mi­nol­ogy: He rhap­sodizes about “the sa­vory scent of salt-swoln c--t” in “A Ram­ble in St. James’s Park.” It’s cer­tainly an ob­scene, even of­fen­sive, way to re­fer to fe­male an amity to­day. But in Rochester’s time, ob­scen­ity (sex-re­lated taboo words) was less for­bid­den than pro­fan­ity (re­li­gion-re­lated taboo words). The of­fen­sive words of the era — damn, God’s wounds and dev­il­ish — seem mun­dane now be­cause re­li­gion isn’t as sacro­sanct as it once was. Not un­til the Vic­to­rian era did ob­scen­ity be­come more taboo than pro­fan­ity. Sud­denly, Amer­i­cans avoided say­ing “leg,” and the Bri­tish re­ferred to breasts as “the up­per stom­ach.” Their prud­ish­ness led the youth in the 20th cen­tury to swear of­ten, mak­ing words like “suck,” “tits” and the f-bomb the height of of­fense.

To­day, our lin­guis­tic sen­si­tiv­i­ties have tran­si­tioned from ob­scen­ity to slurs — words deemed racist, sex­ist or ho­mo­pho­bic. That change be­gan with the so­cial move­ments of the 1960s, when fight­ing prej­u­dice against racial and sex­ual mi­nori­ties be­came a defin­ing is­sue of our time. As tol­er­ance for such big­otry has evap­o­rated, so has tol­er­ance for the big­ots’ lan­guage.

The new rules were set and en­forced through var­i­ous of­fi­cial and unof­fi­cial chan­nels. The sec­ond edi­tion of Web­ster’s New World Col­lege Dic­tionary, pub­lished in 1970, omit­ted cer­tain racial and eth­nic slurs be­cause, ac­cord­ing to its editor in chief, David Gu­ral­nik, they were the “true ob­scen­i­ties.” Lead­ers of the Black Power move­ment called “Ne­gro” a term of white op­pres­sion, a con­ven­tion that grad­u­ally spread into the main­stream. Public sham­ing of politi­cians, ath­letes and other high-pro­file fig­ures who use or men­tion ep­i­thets plays an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role in driv­ing so­cial con­ven­tions. Sen. Harry Reid faced calls for his res­ig­na­tion in 2010 when a book re­vealed that, dur­ing the 2008 pres­i­den­tial race, he said that Barack Obama had “no Ne­gro di­alect.”

The rapid de­cline in so­ci­ety’s tol­er­ance for slurs is ev­i­dent in a 1977 sur­vey by re­searcher Ti­mothy Jay. That year, sub­jects called “f---” far more taboo than “n-----” or “c--t.” To­day, the or­der is clearly re­versed. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the preva­lence of a word over time by how fre­quently it ap­pears in printed texts, dis­plays a surge in the four-let­ter words since 1960, sur­pass­ing the racial ep­i­thet in the 1970s.

For the past sev­eral semesters, I have asked my stu­dents to rank a se­ries of words by how taboo so­ci­ety per­ceives them to be. Of the 12 terms that have ap­peared on ev­ery sur­vey, the n-word and the c-word have con­sis­tently ranked most taboo, fol­lowed by other sex­ual ob­scen­i­ties. These re­sults are roughly in line with those of other re­cent stud­ies, in­clud­ing a 2007 study of Amer­i­can stu­dents that also in­cluded “chink” among the great­est out­rages. In a large-scale 2000 study in Bri­tain, the n-word showed the great­est in­crease in sever­ity among all taboo words listed, mov­ing from the 11th po­si­tion in 1998 to fifth in 2000.

While so­cial val­ues have driven the evo­lu­tion of swear­ing, the In­ter­net cer­tainly has had an ef­fect on how quickly the change oc­curs. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing with per­ceived anonymity, we feel li­cense to use lan­guage online be­fore we’d feel com­fort­able us­ing it face to face. To demon­strate this ef­fect, a col­league, Nate Vooge, re­cently timed how long he needed to pause be­fore play­ing a card in an online hearts game to elicit a slur. In less than five sec­onds, one of his op­po­nents called him a “f---tard.”

For now, in­tol­er­ance — or at least ap­pear­ing in­tol­er­ant — re­mains the high­est thresh­old for swear­ing. But as rou­tinely hap­pens, younger gen­er­a­tions will ex­ploit these lan­guage taboos to of­fend their el­ders. We see this al­ready with “n-----”, in the way young African Amer­i­cans, and now even some young white Amer­i­cans, have claimed it to mean “buddy” or a gen­eral ref­er­ence to another per­son. A word that has caused peo­ple to lose their jobs (it all but ended the ca­reer of “Se­in­feld” star Michael Richards less than a decade ago) is now ubiq­ui­tous on Vine and other havens for the un­der-25 set.

I hate that as much as any adult. But, as Obama sug­gested in his “WTF” in­ter­view, avoid­ing the word doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally make our so­ci­ety more tol­er­ant. Con­versely, us­ing the n-word doesn’t mean the younger gen­er­a­tion is more crude. History tells us that their fu­ture chil­dren will find ways to use lan­guage to of­fend them as well. And they, too, will in­sist that we are see­ing the de­cline of so­ci­ety.


Pres­i­dent Obama dis­cussed a range of sub­jects in a pod­cast in­ter­view with co­me­di­anMarc Maron, but news cov­er­age last week fo­cused on his men­tion of the n-word. Though racial ep­i­thets are to­day con­sid­ered the most for­bid­den words, lan­guage taboos have changed over time.

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