Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Etymology of the N-word, and Implications Thereof

Brief Etymology of the N-Word et al
Wikipedia reports that the N-word is rooted in the Latin word for "black" ("nigrum"), and was originally used by Europeans as a descriptor for darker-skinned, presumed-inferior peoples (not necessarily African). In the context of American slavery, the word became more precise, though not universally so (e.g. Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus was named for its sympathetic West- Indian protagonist). During the early twentieth century, the N-word became uncouth and was replaced by "colored" and "negro" to refer to (real, identified, or perceived) slaves and descendants of slaves, as in e.g. the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Negro National (baseball) League. In the sixties this changed to "black," and then "African-American" in the nineties.

(Your essayer feels that he ought to disclose that he is, in the contemporary American vernacular, "white" or "Caucasian" or in any event of Western and Central European descent, with all the tunnel-visioned privilege that implies.)

Denotation and Connotation
One notable thing about the etymological history above is that the original N-word and the more-recently-appropriate "black" both seem to denote or point to the same thing: darkness. As much as their connotations differ, the two words agree in this literal sense. It seems, then, that the N-word originated without the many pejorative connotations it now carries; these grew on it from how it was used in a racist society. It's true that "darkness" has a long history of evil-associations which predates the slave-trade, but the sharp, seductive "darkness" of Satan or Dracula or Voldemort is different from the lazy, incompetent "darkness" of a Sambo doll or Uncle Tom's Cabin. These latter connotations were not an implicit part of the word itself. So unlike the way that two-ness and circularity are built into the word "bicycle," the pejorative connotations which now append N-word are not built into the text of the word itself.

Rather, those connotations presumably come from the many who've used and interpreted of the N-word. This is similar to how the concept of "grace by faith alone" or "limbo" or "Jesus-is-a-handsome-white-dude-with-hippie-hair" is nowhere in the text of the Synoptic Gospels but comes from its interpreters, or how the "right to privacy" appears nowhere in the Constitution yet has been widely interpreted by SCOTUSes to be an implied part of it. So it appears that that current currency of the N-word is not a consequence of the word itself, but instead of the way it's been used in recent centuries.

One supposes that if "black" had ascended to popular usage in the eighteen century (Thomas Jefferson uses it in his Notes on the State of Virginia), it would probably now be vulgar and hateful in pretty much the same way that the N-word is. It seems that these connotations spring not from the seed of the word itself, but from the soil in which it grows.

None of this is to say that defining a group of people by their "darkness" doesn't carry implicit value judgments, because it does: for instance, it implies a norm of "lightness" against which this "darkness" can be meaningfully contrasted. In language, we tend to append adjectives to deviations and not to the norm: we generally speak of a "leaky boat" or a "disabled person," but instead of "floaty boat" or "abled person" we just say "boat" and "person." Thus, a term which refers to "dark" people carries not only a physical description, but also a value judgment, because it contrasts this "darkness" against the (white, European) norm.

This is similar to how "queer" is only meaningful by its contrast against "normal" sexuality, or how contemporary Americans primarily use "immigrants" to refer to first- or second generation immigrants and "natives" to refer to descendants of pre-1492 indigenous North Americans but don't really have a term for descendants of Europeans who settled or migrated between 1492 and the early twentieth century. ("White" is too broad, since it also denotes non-American whites.)

This one of the ways in which language displays power: by framing what is normal and what is weird. The powerful are "normal" and thus obvious, while the oppressed are "different" and thus counter-intuitive. For a stark example, read the introduction to this 1904 editorial--which connects the N-word to Southern lynching and argues for "colored" or "Negro" as the civil, Northern alternatives--and you'll notice how the ostensibly anti-racist author contrasts "northern people" against "Negroes."

I'm not saying that this tendency of language to equate powerful with obvious is a bad thing; maybe it is, but even so, it's implausible that we can re-wire ourselves to stop doing it. Nor am I advocating value-free language: the N-word's connotations are not bad because they purport values per se, but because those values purported are in conflict with other values such as human dignity. My purpose here is to point out how a particular language strategy works.

Whence these connotations?
As reported in the first paragraph, the history of the US has seen a series of words, beginning with the N-word and most recently including "African American." Each of these words denoted more or less the same group of people: victims of African-to-American slavery, or descendants thereof, or peers thereof thereof. And each of these words became more derogatory over time, e.g. the transformation of "Negro" from civil to epithetic.

I suggest that the cause for these transformations is not the words themselves; instead, it is the concept to which they refer. What it means for Americans to be white or black, or Caucasian or African-American, is conceptually founded in the history of American slavery and segregation (and, more broadly, European/American conquest). By any measure this history is racism par excellence. So it seems plausible that the reason terms like the N-word or "Negro" or "black" keep accumulating vitriolic connotations is not that we keep picking unfortunate terms, but that the basic concept to which these terms refer is itself racist and oppressive and shitty. If this is the case, then replacing "Negro" with "black" or "black" with "African American" isn't so much progress toward equality/liberation/dignity, as it's a sort of linguistic shell-game, in which the same old meaning keeps getting new signifiers: a cosmetic fix for substantial racism.

I submit that this is an example of Politically Correct English (PCE) at work. PCE is not identical to thoughtful, courteous language: as Diarmaid MacCullogh writes,

"I have tried to avoid names which are offensive to those to whom they have been applied...Some may sneer at this as 'political correctness.' When I was young, my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people's opinions and I am saddened that these undramatic virtues have now been relabelled in an unfriendly spirit."

As MacCullogh laments, being polite is not (or should not be) the same thing as being 'politically correct.' What's distinguishing and disturbing about PCE is its essential dishonesty: while purporting to remedy oppression, it in fact uses euphemism to avoid frank discussion thereof. In order to explain this phenomenon, I surrender the floor to DFW's enormously thoughtful enormous thoughts:

"I refer here to Politically Correct English (PCE), under whose conventions failing students become "high-potential" students and poor people "economically disadvantaged" and people in wheelchairs "differently abled" and a sentence like "White English and Black English are different and you better learn White English if you don't want to flunk" is not blunt but "insensitive." Although it's common to make jokes about PCE (referring to ugly people as "aesthetically challenged" and so on), be advised that Politically Correct English's various pre- and proscriptions are taken very seriously indeed by colleges and corporations and government agencies, whose own institutional dialects now evolve under the beady scrutiny of a whole new kind of Language Police.

"From one perspective, the history of PCE evinces a kind of Lenin-to-Stalinesque irony. That is, the same ideological principles that informed the original Descriptivist revolution — namely, the sixties-era rejections of traditional authority and traditional inequality — have now actually produced a far more inflexible Prescriptivism, one unencumbered by tradition or complexity and backed by the threat of real-world sanctions (termination, litigation) for those who fail to conform. This is sort of funny in a dark way, maybe, and most criticism of PCE seems to consist in making fun of its trendiness or vapidity. This reviewer's own opinion is that prescriptive PCE is not just silly but confused and dangerous.

"Usage is always political, of course, but it's complexly political. With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: On the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. These two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them — in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language's political symbolism ... — enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE's central fallacy — that a society's mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes — and of course it's nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT'S delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.

"Forget Stalinization or Logic 101-level equivocations, though. There's a grosser irony about Politically Correct English. This is that PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is in fact — in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself — of vastly more help to conservatives and the U.S. status quo than traditional SNOOT prescriptions ever were. Were I, for instance, a political conservative who opposed taxation as a means of redistributing national wealth, I would be delighted to watch PCE progressives spend their time and energy arguing over whether a poor person should be described as "low-income" or "economically disadvantaged" or "pre-prosperous" rather than constructing effective public arguments for redistributive legislation or higher marginal tax rates on corporations. (Not to mention that strict codes of egalitarian euphemism serve to burke the sorts of painful, unpretty, and sometimes offensive discourse that in a pluralistic democracy leads to actual political change rather than symbolic political change. In other words, PCE functions as a form of censorship, and censorship always serves the
status quo.)

"As a practical matter, I strongly doubt whether a guy who has four small kids and makes $12,000 a year feels more empowered or less ill-used by a society that carefully refers to him as "economically disadvantaged" rather than "poor." Were I he, in fact, I'd probably find the PCE term insulting — not just because it's patronizing but because it's hypocritical and self-serving. Like many forms of Vogue Usage, PCE functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker — scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language — and so serves the selfish interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups renamed."

So per DFW's analysis, the replacement of old, racist terms with new, apparently non-racist terms is just an elaborate ruse which confuses dignity-in-language with dignity-in-fact. Add to this the fact that these terms keep becoming racist--that the basic concept to which they all refer ultimately taints them, through public use, with the very racist connotation which they were supposed to get rid of--and it becomes clear that one of the big functions of language vis-a-vis race in America is to sneakily replicate racism.

I have no useful suggestions for what to do about this, but it seems like a big, real problem.

Second, Confused Disclaimer
I should here own up to the fact that what I've written here falls into the very powerful=obvious trap I outlined above: without meaning to, I've written to a neutral (which translates to "white") audience about the concept of black people. I've tried to remain above the fray of racial-partisanship, and talk about what's really going on in language, power, and race...which, as we've seen, is nothing other than the rhetorical strategy of framing, which tends to serve the powerful be equating them with natural and normal and obvious. The fact that I didn't do this on purpose but in spite of myself only goes to underline the pernicious vitality of racist ideology.

I don't really know how to get around this problem: I'm trying to address Americans in general, but I'm doing it as a white American, and that means that what I mean by "America" and "Americans" is importantly different from what it means for people who are on the oppressed-side of this dynamic. I have absolutely no idea what to do about this, other than to quote Ralph Ellison:

Attempt to Append Own Comments to the Thought of a Prestigious Black Author
"I was already having enough difficulty trying to avoid writing what might turn out to be nothing more than another novel of racial protest instead of the dramatic study in comparative humanity which I felt any worthwhile novel should be..."

Like Ellison, it seems to me to be difficult to find a way to talk about race in America in a meaningful and constructive way, because it's so partisan. That is to say, figuring out how to talk about race and power etc. without falling into self-righteous, self-serving protest (where I'd lampoon someone else for screwing up without offering any attempt of my own). And how to talk about race and power etc. without performing "comparative humanity" (as a sanctimonious rhetorical stance) rather than doing "comparative humanity."

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