The words that dare not be uttered.
The morning Washington Post hit the front walk, I walked out in my robe to pick it up. First thing on Monday, Nov. 10, 2014, emblazoned across the paper’s face above the fold, was the largest illustration (not a photograph) that I’d ever seen on the front of a newspaper. At first I couldn’t make it out because it looked like someone had spread a stain of ashes across the page. I then realized the title of the story was “The N-Word.”
There was an accompanying web site and a series of videos of conversations about this one word: its appropriate use, mis-use, and non-use.
I make my living using oral and written language. I’ve also studied semiotics—the way we use symbols in communication. This includes language, music, graphics, even the cropping of a photograph or a painting delineating what is shown from what is hidden, or the drape or shadow to cover what is private. A closed door in a horror movie is a known symbol of something that should not be opened, but always is opened to a cascade of ever more dreadful consequences.
To me it makes no sense, but female nudity stays in a different category than male nudity pretty much everywhere but the bedroom and the gym.
The city of Paris was riven this summer with a conversation about an art installation that the artist said was a Christmas tree (wink-wink), but actually looked like a sex toy. Vandals destroyed the art work, if that is what it was, within a week. It was not replaced with a copy. On one level, what is the difference between a public sculpture of a clothespin and an massive depiction of an object of physical gratification?
The story about the king with no clothes exemplifies the interrelationship among things, communication, and social mores. We learn this lesson from childhood as the story is read to us, and we carry it through life.
From a purely semiotic perspective, the “N-word” (the actual two syllable word starting with an n and ending in an r) is not really different than saying “N-word”: the exact same reality is being referenced.
I also know, it is not. Words have different histories and contexts, and we’ve deemed one pretty much okay for everyone, and the other even forbidden—except when it is not. All of us have been stopped at an intersection where the car beside you is playing a rap song that used the full racial epithet so that you heard it over and over. Perhaps you are the person reading this who is the one whose car has all of its windows open, waiting for the light to turn green, and you are the one listening to those lyrics. I have no problem with one’s music choices, and many won’t like my choice of music either. I use this example as but an illustration of my larger point.
As a minister, my language is proscribed in ways I think are unfair.
I can’t use the N-word, the C-word (part of women’s anatomy), the D-word and C-word (part of men’s anatomy), the F-word (sexual intercourse or a gay man), or the other D-word (a lesbian woman). I used the F-word(intercourse) in anger several months ago, livid at someone standing in my office who’d broken an inviolate rule of mine having to do with pastoral confidentiality. I’m still paying the price. I was the only one who took seriously the issue of confidentiality; everyone else was damning about the use, by the pastor, of that one word.
When I was growing up below the Mason-Dixon line, I not only heard the N-word, I heard the terms Negro, darkie, colored, Nigra—and those were the words that were employed to describe only African-Americans. There were other words to describe the Polish, Irish (my own tribe), gay and lesbian persons (again, my own tribe), Italians, Germans, and Jewish persons, among others. “Poor white trash” was both a description and a judgment, and was a term used openly.
I also grew up around farms, where earthy, simple words were used to describe earthy, simple things. Although I have heard others say all manner of things in front of my mother, I talked to her as one might talk to a nun, even though she too was raised beneath the Mason-Dixon line and grew up on a farm. I talked to her in a way that both she and I could respect. I am sure that her farmer brothers did little to censor their language.
And now, this past week, here on my kitchen table, and on the web site of one of the most respected newspapers in the nation, was a public examination of a word that doesn’t pass my lips. I was taught that “nice” boys only used “nice” language, even though my every day illustrated for me that the language of boys and men, girls and women typically bypassed the boundaries of nice.
I know lots of fancy words that can be used instead of common, often very short words, what we call four-letter words, although they are sometimes an alphabet letter or two shorter or longer. Even when I use a pithy, direct, short word in a setting in which there will be no judgment made of me, using the word always seems to grate on me, causing me discomfiture. But then, it seems silly for me to say urinate when the word pee is not only easier to say, and a word I hear from my TV set even when children are watching.
The Washington Post can examine the N-word on its front page. For me, who knows a lot about language and who can read social cues with some precision, it makes me wince. Words should be just words (sticks and stones … but words will never harm me), but they never are. Just as newspapers refuse to print a lot of graphic war photographs, I wonder if certain words, and their euphemisms, should also stay taboo, if only to teach us that there are lines that must not be crossed.
Euphemisms comprising a capital letter (for the word not said), followed by a hyphen, and then followed by the word word really aren’t ultimately helpful. I think I’d rather hear the full-throttled word rather than something that seems a little too cute. I do believe that what is required is that we speak to each other with kindness and civility.Photo: Lake Crimson/Flickr