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You Can’t Say That! Is It Time to Write the Epitaph for Epithets?

March 6, 2014
by Glen Martin
Abstract image of something invading a human head Image source: Illustration by Melinda Beck

Pity the poor bigot. The racist, the homophobe, the sexist—nowadays, they launch their contumelies at their own peril. It’s not that we’ve all learned to link hands and sing “Kumbaya” in high, clear tenors, of course. Bile remains a most abundant humor, as demonstrated by any website that allows anonymous comments.

But here in the second decade of the 21st century, most people respond negatively to derogatory comments based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation. It’s simply not done—unless, of course, you are the duck-hunting patriarch of a highly rated reality television show on A&E, or a syndicated radio host. For us regular folk, bigotry restricts opportunities. At certain times and in certain places, it can get you chucked into the slammer. Or worse, humiliated online. It’s like having a big “L” branded on your forehead. For Loser.

And yet, the slur remains with us, making it a valuable cultural tool, one that can be used to gauge both a society and its constituent members. Indeed, it provides more information on the employer of the slur than the target—on the slurer than the sluree, as it were.

Consider what is now the most radioactive of slurs: N––––r. It is considered so vile, so freighted with associations of past evils and extant sociopathy, that it is virtually unspeakable, and as this copy attests, unprintable. (There is one exception to this rule: African Americans may employ it with impunity. In such usages, it can be a sign of solidarity or affection.) Still, n––––r generally has always been outré—though not for current reasons.

“It was in common usage in the 19th century, but it was considered vulgar, especially among middle- and upper-class people,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor with UC Berkeley’s School of Information whose pithy insights on language are regularly featured on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air. “Around the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Edwin Stanton said that Douglas could never be elected president because he used the word. It was considered a marker of low social status.”

But while disparaging remarks linked to personal characteristics probably have been around since our hominid antecedents first grappled with language, they were designated slurs only recently. Nunberg notes the word was mostly used to describe an attack on one’s reputation—as in, a slur on honor or character—until the mid-20th century.

“It first showed up in its current usage in the African-American press in the 1940s,” Nunberg said. “Before that, though, there was no word specifically used to indicate the derogation of an individual on the basis of race or ethnicity. By the early 1960s, however, slur was widely used for that purpose, including in the mainstream press—it was cited, for example, in Life magazine.”

Since then, racial slurs have evolved—or rather, expanded. Any reference to race that does not fall within a narrow set of “acceptable” descriptors may now qualify as a slur. Indeed, said Nunberg, some terms that were previously considered progressive or enlightened are now viewed as slurs—Negro being a foremost example.

Further, some seeming slurs are now used in a reclaimed fashion by their intended targets as a marker of unity or pride.

Abstract image of something invading a human head

Most recently, thug has undergone a double evolution. Originally describing Hindu assassins and bandits who plied their trade from the 12th century to the 1830s, thug was widely used to describe any low-level violent criminal through much of the 20th century. Over the past two decades, it has been adopted as an admiring term to identify anyone deeply devoted to the ethos of gangsta rap and gang life. And at the same time, it was picked up by conservative whites as a pejorative descriptor.

“Hip-hop culture has used thug in something like the way they’ve used gangsta,” emailed Nunberg. “[It has also] become popular lately on the Right. There were lots of charges of ‘union thug’ during the [state Senate recall elections] brouhaha in Wisconsin in 2011…. Still, for a lot of whites, the word is clearly coded for race. It was all over the place in the ‘knockout game’ story, and in connection with any black-on-white violence.”

“‘Redneck’ [had been] largely employed as a term for poor, rural white people from flyover country, particularly the Deep South,” Nunberg says. “It was a synonym for ‘white trash,’ and wholly derogatory. But now its most common usage is by right-wingers either as a badge, or as an accusation—‘This is what the liberals think of us.’”

In fact, Nunberg continued in an email, “redneck” is employed about 20 times more often in the premier conservative political journal, National Review, than in liberal organs such as The Nation and The American Prospect. “In ordinary conversation, liberals use ‘redneck,’ but I suspect not as often as working-class southerners who are reclaiming the word,” Nunberg wrote.

Moreover, regionalism has always played a role in defining American slurs—and more in the past than the present, he continued.

“In the 19th century, there seems to have been a disparaging nickname for the inhabitants of every state,” Nunberg writes. “Texans were called Beetheads, Alabamans were Lizards, Nebraskans were Bug-Eaters, South Carolinians were Weasels, and Pennsylvanians were Leatherheads…. Folks from Missouri used to be known by the endearing name of Pukes.  Originally, these names may have been applied by the inhabitants of neighboring states, but most of them were adopted by natives in a spirit of rough frontier humor: ‘You bet I’m a Bug-Eater, son, and proud of it.’”

Slur usage doesn’t always connote poor breeding or a lack of sensitivity. When employed deliberatively by—for a lack of a better description—people who should know better, slurs can emphasize a highly charged emotional state, injured feelings or an outraged sense of justice.

“It can be a way of saying, ‘I’m aware of the vulgarity of this word, and by using it I’m telling you I’m so angry my emotion is overcoming my sense of propriety,’” said Nunberg. “I’m saying, ‘You’re not worthy of my respect.’”

Is there any group that can still be slurred with im­pun­ity? Pos­sibly….But Geof­frey Nun­berg says us­ing any slur can be tan­tamount to so­cial sui­cide.

Still, the power and toxicity of slurs make their usage dangerous—and virtually everybody knows it. Even when people utter slurs, they tend to do it at a remove, opting for third-party rather than second-party usage. To confront a person directly with a slur is too provocative, too fraught with potential consequences.

“You’re far more apt to tell your friend that your boss is an asshole than say it to your boss,” Nunberg observes.

With everything from skin color to physical handicaps off-limits, is there any group that can still be slurred with impunity? Possibly. Some sociologists opine it remains permissible to lampoon overweight people.

This may seem odd, in that we are a nation deeply invested in living off the fat of the land. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35.9 percent of Adult Americans over the age of 20 were obese in 2010, and 33.3 percent were overweight. We have met the enemy—or at least, the butt of our jokes—and he is us.

But some academics caution that fat prejudice may not be about fat at all—at times, it’s simply the same old biases in masquerade.

“Fatness is often used as a proxy,” observes Lynne Gerber, a post-doctoral research fellow at Berkeley’s Religion, Politics and Globalization Program and the author of 2011’s Seeing the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America, from University of Chicago Press.

“It’s now highly impolitic to say, ‘I don’t like gays’ or ‘I don’t like African Americans,’” continues Gerber. “But fat prejudice can function as symbolic racism. It presents a convenient intersection where one thing is said but another is meant. A person may be saying, ‘You’re fat,’ but what they mean is ‘You’re a fat person of a race or sexual orientation I don’t like.’”

Additionally, says Gerber, using fatness as a foil allows the racist or homophobe to cast his or her biases as issues of moral character.

“Unlike race and gender, obesity is widely perceived as a matter of volition,” Gerber says. “So to be fat can be seen as consonant with being morally bankrupt.” Thus, says Gerber, unacceptable biases can be justified when presented sub rosa as fat phobia.

But Nunberg isn’t convinced. He acknowledges there is predictable backlash against the censorship of slurs, with claims that heightened sensitivity to them is merely political correctness run amok. And sometimes people use slurs simply to challenge or test the anti-slur paradigm. Still, he emphasizes, using a slur—any slur, including those pegged to obesity—can be tantamount to social suicide.

Further, targets of such derogation can turn the tables on their attackers, provided they substitute humor and self-confidence for angst. Case in point: the kerfuffle over actress Gabourey Sidibe’s weight during the Golden Globe awards. Twitter lit up with snide comments about Sidibe when she stepped out on the red carpet. In due course, she responded with a tweet of her own: “To people making mean comments about my GG pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on my way to my dream job last night.”

But we’re all human, and hence flawed. What of those occasions when you are irate enough to employ a slur? Is there any you can use that doesn’t peg you as a degenerate or reprobate, that doesn’t jeopardize your career or social status?

“I kind of favor calling someone ‘Sparky,’” Nunberg says. “I think it’s fairly safe, and it diminishes a person by turning him into a bright-eyed child.”

Glen Martin is a frequent contributor to both California and California Online.

From the Spring 2014 Branding issue of California.

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