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Today, Times Opinion published a guest essay by black linguist John McWhorter, which is an adaptation of his new book, “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter.” His article uses and references several obscenities, including an insult against blacks, the use and history of which is the subject of the essay. Instead of using a phrase like “the N word” or “an insult against blacks” in this article, we print the word itself. It’s an unusual move for The Times – and we want to share the reasoning behind it with you.
McWhorter traces the history of this particular word from its inception to its current place in our culture. He argues that the evolution of the use of this insult reflects not only “a progressive ban on overt racism and insulting groups”, but also demonstrates a cultural shift in the concerns of words that our culture regards as truly profane: sexual and scatological referents from classic four-letter words to sociological referents of insults. As the taboo against using most four-letter words has gradually faded, the taboo against insults has intensified.
We wanted to present this argument to our readers in the clearest and most respectful manner.
Generally speaking, at The Times, we do not use asterisks or dashes to obscure obscenities. But even if we were prepared to break away from this practice, McWhorter’s article is about the word itself – its etymology, sound, and spelling. The use of asterisks or dashes to veil the word would make this discussion incomprehensible, as would the use of an expression such as “the N word”. Using this phrase as a substitute would also make the essay difficult to follow, as part of the article concerns the distinction between the use of the “N word” and the insult itself. So we came to the conclusion that printing the word was the right solution.
McWhorter’s argument has implications that go far beyond linguistic curiosity. As he writes, “What a society considers secular reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: the taboo that emerges on insults reveals the value our culture places – if not systematically – on respect for subgroups. people. “
Tracing the evolutionary use of this insult and the controversy it engenders – even within The Times – shows us how our society and what it respects have changed.
Ezekiel Kweku is the editor of opinion politics. He joined The Times in 2020 from New York magazine.