Free Speech

Prof. Randall Kennedy (Harvard Law) on Accurately Quoting Racial Epithets

"For me, demands for silence, for avoidance, or for bowdlerization will be offered no deference."


Prof. Kennedy sent this letter to his Harvard colleagues and to Stanford law professors in the wake of the controversy about Stanford law professor Michael McConnell's quoting the word in a legal history class; and Prof. Kennedy graciously allowed me to post a copy here (some paragraph breaks added):

Dear Colleague:

I am writing about an issue that has arisen at a number of law schools and is latent in all of them: is it acceptable to enunciate for pedagogical purposes a racial epithet that some find to be deeply upsetting? [1] The epithet is "nigger." Contexts in which its airing has come into question include the following: a teacher enunciates the word in the course of exploring the First Amendment doctrine of "fighting words;" a teacher notes that an official court transcript produced during the era of segregation in the Deep South may well fail to reflect precisely what was said by a witness inasmuch as the transcript says "Negro" while the witness actually said "nigger;" a teacher, seeking to emphasize the depth, centrality, and influence of racism, quotes a Founding Father of the American republic referring to blacks as "niggers" during debate over the ratification of the Constitution.

Some members of our community maintain that, given the term's toxicity, any enunciation of the term "nigger" is wrongful no matter the context or the intention of the speaker. They maintain that giving voice to that epithet is so hurtful to some that no pedagogical aim is worth the pain inflicted.

This controversy seizes my attention because, for pedagogical reasons, when teaching, I sometimes give voice to the term "nigger."  I do not "use" it in the sense in which "use" of the term is rightly condemned. I do not bandy it about gratuitously, much less to taunt, threaten, demean, or insult anyone. But I do quote the term out loud in an effort to drive home to audiences the pervasiveness of anti-black prejudice and, more specifically, the way in which this troublesome word has been an integral part of the soundtrack of American racism.

Given the transmissibility of ideas, mores, and expectations in the legal academic enterprise, practices bearing on the resolution of this controversy at, say, Stanford Law School, will, before long, affect perspectives at other law schools, including my own. So partly for reasons of self-protection I want to express why, in my view, it is wrong to reprimand teachers in the circumstances outlined above.

"Nigger" is a part of the lexicon of American culture about which people, especially lawyers, need to be aware. One could omit airing "nigger." I know several distinguished, effective, thoughtful teachers who, for various reasons, never vocalize the term. One could substitute some euphemism, say, "the N-word." But I find that alternative unsatisfactory. It veils or mutes an ugliness that, for maximum educational impact, ought to be seen or heard directly.

What about the hurt inflicted by vocalizing the term? Feelings of hurt are not unchangeable givens untouched and untouchable by ways in which their expression is received. Such feelings are, at least in part, affected by the responses of observers.

The more that schools validate the idea that this hurt is justified in the circumstances outlined, the more that that feeling will be embraced, and the more that there will be calls to respect that feeling of hurt by avoiding (even perhaps by dint of threatened punishment) what is said to trigger it. I want to push in another direction, advancing the message that, in the circumstances pertinent here—circumstances in which there is no question but that instructors are airing the term for pedagogical purposes—there is no good reason to feel hurt.

Several professors caught up in the controversy I have outlined have stated that, going forward, in light of protest, they will no longer vocalize "nigger." I know some of these professors. I think here especially of Michael McConnell at Stanford Law School and Geoffrey Stone at the University of Chicago Law School. I respect them and the decision they have made.

But I disagree with it. It defers to the notion that that in the circumstances at issue, there is a sufficient basis in the protest to overcome a considered pedagogical judgment that learning would be enhanced by airing the American language's paradigmatic racial slur.

Perhaps there is something to be said as a matter of prudence for adopting this position. I note, though, that it occasionally fails to obtain the settlement that its initiators undoubtedly sought to obtain as the gesture is scorned. Instead of being seen as a sign of good will, the gesture has been seized upon as a confession of error and deployed as an additional basis for attacking reputations unjustifiably.

In my case, when this issue arises, as I suspect that it will, my position will be that conscientiously vocalizing "nigger" or any other epithet for legitimate pedagogical purposes ought not give rise to any belief or insinuation that I am displaying racism or racial insensitivity. For me, demands for silence, for avoidance, or for bowdlerization will be offered no deference.

My remarks are not the result of a transient, ethereal concern. They stem from a deep well of experience, study, and practice. I am a sixty-five year old African-American man born in South Carolina. My parents of blessed memory were refugees from Jim Crow oppression. They were branded as "niggers." And I have been called "nigger" too.

Should my race make a difference here, cloaking me with more leeway than my white colleagues? To take that position would be a profound violation of sound scholarly procedure. I abjure such a "privilege."

I am well aware that racism suffuses American life, sometimes in forms that are frighteningly lethal.  I believe that racism is a huge, destructive, looming force that we must resist.  Vigilance is essential. But so, too, is a capacity and willingness to draw crucial distinctions. There is a world of difference that separates the racist use of "nigger" from the vocalizing of "nigger" for pedagogical reasons aimed at enabling students to attain essential knowledge.


Randall Kennedy

Harvard Law School

Cambridge, MA 02138

[1]  See, e.g., Nick Anderson, A Stanford law professor read a quote with the N-Word to his class, stirring outrage at the school, June 3, 2020, Washington Post; Erin Woo, Law professor criticized after reading racial slur in class, Stanford daily, May 30, 2020; Debra Cassens Weiss, Stanford law prof who used quote with racial slur in class says he won't do it again, June 2, 2020, ABA Journal; Joe Patrice, Stanford Joins List of Law Schools with White Professors Using the N-Word in Class, June 1, 2020, Above The Law; Tom Bartlett, A Professor Has long Used a Racial Slur in Class to teach Free-Speech Law. No More, He says, March 7, 2019, The Chronicle of Higher Education; Eugene Volokh, Wake Forest Dean Apologizes for Constitutional Law Professor's Quoting the Word "Nigger" from a Leading Supreme Court Case,, March 31, 2020; Professor at Wake Forest University Apologizes for Reading the N-word in Class, April 7, 2020, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education; Eugene Volokh, UCLA Law Dean Apologizes for My Having Accurately Quoted the Word "Nigger" in Discussing a Case. I, however do not apologize, April 14, 2020,

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: June 11, 1993

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  1. “I am writing about an issue that has arisen at a number of law schools and is latent in all of them: is it acceptable to enunciate for pedagogical purposes a racial epithet that some find to be deeply upsetting? [1] The epithet is ‘nigger.'”

    HA! End of discussion I guess.

    BTW, snowflakes (all kinds), are weak people.

    Especially university students – FFS you’re there to learn.

    1. “…..there to learn” — what a quaint notion!

    2. Biggest threat to Black America are White Leftists.

      1. Biggest threat to standard English is the half-educated, bigoted, superstitious clinger.

        1. Yes, you are the biggest threat to standard English. Nice to see you admit it.

  2. With the sentiments he expresses, he will soon discover that he ain’t black.

    1. Which is extra ironic, since I regularly hear that word, in public [on the train], spoken without either insult given or taken.

      By young black men, to each-other, casually and without even really noticing it.

      It seems plain that the word does not magically cause offense or pain simply because someone said it, thus.

      (That it can when used as a slur is undeniable and relevant! But that it is also obviously-not-fighting-words when a young black man says it to another young black man causally is also relevant, in that it establishes that the pain is not inherent to the syllables, but to the context of the utterance.)

      So a black professor saying it is not inherently a matter of pain and offense, either.

      Pain at being reminded that the United States was once virulently and horribly bigoted?

      Maybe – but pretending it wasn’t seems like a far worse sin than making a student uncomfortable until they get over that.

  3. A correct and welcome view IMO (as was EV’s), from which I expect many to draw erroneous conclusions and unwelcome license.

  4. There is only perceived toxicity depending on the color of the person using the word. White to Black = Toxtic. Black to Black = Just another everyday expression.

  5. I agree with Professor Randall Kennedy.

    And the difference between this and the UCLA accounting professor could not be more clear.

    Here, the N-word is used for pedagogical purposes. To remind people of our history and to perhaps make them uncomfortable about some of that history. This is justified, since part of the reason to study history (including the history of law) is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

    In contrast, with the UCLA accounting professor, the problem with the email wasn’t the content, but the rudeness. If a student makes an administrative request, you can certainly decline that request and explain your reasons for denying it. While also being cordial and polite in doing so.

    With respect to the N-word being spoken in class, that is not directed at any particular individual (although the impact of the word might be different for different individuals, something that a person who chooses to use the word for pedagogical purposes should think about), but is directed at communicating particular ideas. Using the N-word is not a complete substitute, precisely because it softens the more unpleasant reality. In the same way, a professor teaching about war would be justified in showing graphic footage of real war wounds and real deaths and real funerals. The underlying reality hits students harder and conveys to them the seriousness of the decision to go to war and the magnitude of a decision to go to war. That is surely relevant to them when they make decisions as citizens. The bottom-line is this. There is no alternative means of communicating some historical truths but showing students a darker reality that some might prefer to avoid. It could be the some students are not in a psychological condition to handle this. Think of a student who has actually been to war and has PTSD. The benefits of showing that student graphic war images might be really outweighed by the costs. Similarly, if a student was sensitive to the N-word such that the costs of it being said would exceed the benefits, that student ought to have some sort of opt-out to avoid hearing it.

    The idea that everything that a professor does is covered by academic freedom does not follow. We would now allow a professor to express themselves by changing a students grade from an A to a D just because the professor did not like the student, even though the student earned all of the points required to receive an A. Even though, it is quite true that changing a grade from an A to a D is one manner of expressing strong disapproval and may even be a unique means of expressing it.

    Likewise when it comes to performing administrative tasks, which include requests for accommodation. If a disabled student asked for an accommodation, a professor would be wrong to go on a rant about how awful the Americans with Disability Act was and how inconvenient the request was and how dare the student even ask, even if, after evaluating the request, the professor decided to accommodate.

    Certainly, a professor is in their rights to oppose the Americans with Disability Act and also within their academic freedom to express that. But it would neither be the time nor the place to express this opposition when writing an email after being called upon to administer a request for accommodation by a particular disabled student.

    Any other philosophy would lead to chaos. DMV clerks, just as much as law professor, have First Amendment rights. But, we quite rightly expect them to act with professionalism, courtesy, and respect when dealing with the public. That the person performing the administrative act is a professor rather than a clerk is utterly irrelevant. What is relevant is not their job title, but that what they are being asked to perform is an administrative act. Performing such acts with respect and politeness is a matter of customer service and is an essential part of the job.

    If a professor makes it unpleasant for students to request accommodations, then students will be afraid to request them. This will impair the functioning of the institution. Just as a regular practice of DMV employees abusing members of the general public would cause people to comply with the law requiring them to renew their driver’s license or registration.

    If anything, rudeness in performing an administrative act by a professor is worse than one done by a DMV clerk. Whereas a DMV clerk usually only has the power to inconvenience someone, students (rightly or wrongly) worry that professors who dislike them will grade them differently. And it is very easy for rudeness to be mistake for dislike, even if that is not the cause of it.

    1. Professors DO make it difficult, as do the Disability Disservice Offices. It’s why I tell students not to request accommodations.

      1. Obvious BS.

        You tell your deaf students not to ask for a sign language interpreter? You tell your blind students not to bring their guide dogs to class, nor to request reserving a seat in the front row? You tell your other student not to request moving one of the seats to the side in your small seminar, to accommodate her wheelchair?

        You are so obviously lying . . . Jesus Christ, if you want your Russian bot/troll act to work, save your powder for when people might actually believe your lies. This attempt was just embarrassing.

        1. This attempt was just embarrassing.

          Not half as much as the “Russian bot” crutch.

          1. Seriously? Do you really think “Doctor” Ed is a real person? I think Russian ‘bot is a more likely explanation. I mean, can you think of a real doctor (medical, Ph.D, other) who would give advice, “Hey, open yourself to a crippling lawsuit (and be an asshole to boot) by discouraging totally reasonable and legit requests by disabled students.”???? Really? You think such a moronic suggestion came from a real poster, who is giving real good-faith advice?

            Why do I mention Ed’s obvious fake nature so often? Because he posts here a ton, in different threads, and many people read very few threads…it’s good to know that a particular poster is fake and full of shit, so those “sometimes” readers know not to bother engaging in good-faith debates…there are plenty of uber-conservative posters here at the VC who make sometimes-interesting and sometimes-challenging arguments, and I’m just helping to separate the wheat from the chaff.

            You’re welcome. 😉

            1. I’m asking this sincerely because I actually haven’t noticed: does Dr. Ed not respond directly to any comments?

              Do you ACTUALLY think he’s a bot? Or are you just saying that his comments can come off as very bot-like?

            2. Seriously? Do you really think “Doctor” Ed is a real person? I think Russian ‘bot is a more likely explanation.

              Then you’re even dumber than I thought.

              I mean, can you think of a real doctor (medical, Ph.D, other) who would give advice…

              So you think an elaborate artificial intelligence – created and employed by a foreign government – that is capable of directly responding to others in a context-aware and meaningful manner is a more likely than…say…someone just falsely assuming the title “Dr.”?

    2. “If a professor makes it unpleasant for students to request accommodations, then students will be afraid to request them.”

      On the other hand professors ought not to be obligated to honor every request for an accommodation regardless of circumstances.

      1. Matthew:

        No one said anything about fulfilling every request. The law does not require that.

        All that is being spoken of is treating students who do make requests (whether those requests are ultimately fulfilled or not) with politeness and respect.

        1. If you allow universities to fire academics just on the basis of insufficient politeness and respect, you would expect that to be used disproportionately against academics with undesirable viewpoints. In the 50s, it would have been communists. Today, people who disagree politically with 18 year olds. Tomorrow, who knows. Academic freedom needs a lot of room to breath.

          1. Well, maybe the solution is to take administrative tasks out of the hands of professors then. Then they lose the ability to decide whether to accommodate students or not.

            I agree that there is a potential problem of this rationale being used selectively and if that happened it would violate the First Amendment. That is also a potential problem in other situations though. (But maybe not as likely, since the political views of people in other professions are less likely to be developed or known.)

            At the same time, if we leave the job in their hands, when professors are performing administrative tasks, they have to do the job with professionalism just like anyone else would be expected to. A professor is not within his or her rights to cause students to not request accommodations they are entitled to because they are afraid of how they will be treated.

            The real solution is to have the professor apologize to the student and learn from the mistake and move on. Just like you would do with the DMV clerk in case of an isolated incident of disrespect towards a member of the public.

            1. “Well, maybe the solution…”

              is searching desperately for a problem. You’ve already conceded that the students are not entitled to the accommodation. So the only thing left is whether they’re entitled to not be treated politely and respectfully. And the answer is: No. But even if they were, there is already an adequate remedy. Students can tell other students about how poorly they were treated, and then other students can decide not to take classes taught by impolite or disrespectful professors. Although the students’ performance art may be of some marginal benefit to them socially, the added cost of an administrator (and appeals process) to decide the dispensation will, in aggregate, cost students money. All to save them from an entirely avoidable problem; don’t take classes from professors who disagree with you politically, or who you think are rude or impolite.

              “…they have to do the job with professionalism just like anyone else would be expected to.”

              For better or worse it’s not true that people who teach are treated the same as everybody else. Academic freedom imposes more protections for academics than are afforded to mechanics, lawyers, etc. It’s because of the nature of their output. They teach ideas to people, and the only way there can be a robust market for ideas is if people feel free to express themselves, even in ways that you might (after the fact) find “unprofessional”, especially when just by coincidence you disagree with the unprofessional professor’s political priors.

              “A professor is not within his or her rights to cause students to not request accommodations they are entitled to because they are afraid of how they will be treated.”

              That’s neither here nor there. The request was not one the students were entitled to. (Otherwise it would be a demand, not a request.) You agree. (“No one said anything about fulfilling every request.”)

              On a related note, I think rude, impolite professors provide an accidental service to students. In the post-college world, graduates can expect to encounter rude, impolite people who have some degree of authority or power over them. These students will one day have to learn how to deal with dickheads the hard way–without the benefit of an appeals process, the support of a diversity officer, etc.–and this is as good an opportunity to learn that lesson as any. Some of these accounting students may even one day have to deal with and address dickhead, rude, impolite clients. A system that habituates students into believing that dickheads can be solved with performance art, does the students no favors.

              1. Ugh, whether they’re entitled to be treated politely.

              2. They ARE entitled to make the REQUEST for the accommodation.

                If people are abused when they make requests that are denied, they will become afraid to make requests generally, including those that should be accepted.

                As far as your point of student reviews of professor behavior, not good enough:

                Hypothetical: I could say that DMV employees in Town X are rude and impatient, so go to Town Y. That isn’t good enough. DMV employees in Town X can be required to treat the general public with respect.

                As to the argument that professors are different, the answer is, no they are not. Academic freedom applies to scholarship and teaching. It has no applicability when it comes to purely administrative tasks. Academic freedom is not, for example, a license for a professor to lower a students grade in order to “express” themselves. Academic freedom does not apply when a disabled student requests an accommodation. These are administrative tasks and have nothing to do with the professor’s teaching or scholarship.

                As far as dealing with jerks with authority, the lesson that should be learned is not to tolerate that behavior. If you tolerate bullying from a boss in the workplace, you will experience unnecessary stress and studies have shown that this sort of stress be detrimental to your health.

                Just curious. If you had kids, would you abuse them? You know, to prepare them to tolerate their future where they are abused by supervisors?

                That is kind of a demented point of view, to be honest.

                1. I don’t agree on “abuses”.

                  Already told you why professors aren’t, can’t be, like DMV workers.

                  What you call “purely administrative tasks” I call teaching. The professor has to decide how to evaluate absence, exceptions, etc. since those relate to their work product.

                  Disabled students don’t request dispensation; they demand it. A professor with no authority to reject their request is no risk.

                  I have a kid. If your view of “abuse” is “send a rude email”, I haven’t yet but she’s 3. So no email. But I have absolutely told her things she didn’t want to hear, in a tone she disapproves of. Do you have kids?

                  1. Professors are human. DMV workers are human. When humans perform administrative tasks, we can require that they treat their customers with courtesy and respect. If they don’t, they are rightly subject to discipline.

                    There is a time and a place for a professor’s controversial political rant, and it isn’t when submitting a grade or fielding a request for an accommodation.

                    Handling an administrative request is not teaching.

                    As far as kids go, I will teach my kids to think for themselves and politely but firmly stand up for themselves.

                    1. We have a disagreement about what is an “administrative task” versus a non-administrative task. Or at the very least I’m denying the distinction matters in this context. I’m not going to follow you down the rabbit hole of allowing the state to decide that all the communists are impolite, and kicking them out of universities on that basis.

  6. ” I sometimes give voice to the term “nigger.” I do not “use” it in the sense in which “use” of the term is rightly condemned. I do not bandy it about gratuitously, much less to taunt, threaten, demean, or insult anyone. But I do quote the term out loud in an effort to drive home to audiences the pervasiveness of anti-black prejudice and, more specifically, the way in which this troublesome word has been an integral part of the soundtrack of American racism. ”

    Yeah, that’s exactly the way it has been ‘given voice’ at the Volokh Conspiracy, too.

    Carry on, clingers. Amuse yourselves as you like . . . until replacement.

    1. Your tolerant hatred of Jewish and Black professors is noted.

      1. Hatred of black professors?

        1. Rev,
          He is, I think, referring to Prof. Kennedy, quoted in the article. Black, but advocating for his own right to use ‘nigger’ when necessary (in his opinion), to make a pedagogical point that would not be possible (again, in his opinion) by watering-down the actual word.

          I think that Mulched is saying that, if you are critical of professors who make this teaching decision, you presumably do not discriminate and are equally critical of all who use the term…white, black, Jewish, etc.. (I think his point was tongue-in-cheek, and not particularly well-founded; but I’m pretty sure that was the general point he was making.)

    2. Didn’t ALK just use “nigger” in order to make a point?

      1. You are correct. I get the distinct idea that he didn’t actually read. Certainly not to the point where Dr Kennedy identified his race.

      2. I think you have intentionally hit the nail right on the head here. While the reverend did it unintentionally.

        If we started stoning blasphemers around here, the reverend would also have had to eat rocks for his literal quote.

        I’d reference the Life of Brian scene but I don’t want to say the J word.

  7. By publishing this letter and writing out the toxic “N” word in full several times, you have invited intolerant people to condemn you and this blog. I think there is a 10% chance that this blog could get be essentially banned or dropped. Indeed, the entire Reason website could be forced from view. Good luck.

      1. I’ve already read posts at progressive sites condemning this blog and the site in general. They could demand that the company providing web access withdraw it. Considering the cowardly nature of larger businesses today, they could succeed.

  8. In yesterday’s bloggingheads, Glenn Loury tells a story about law professor Geoffrey Stone using the n-word. Prof. Volokh will enjoy it. It starts at 45:20 or so:

    I continue to believe that Prof. Volokh is making a legitimate pedagogical choice by saying it, though I personally would do everything I could not to. I just hate that word.

  9. By the way, this, by Prof. Kennedy, is surely correct about all campus speech battles:

    “The more that schools validate the idea that this hurt is justified in the circumstances outlined, the more that that feeling will be embraced, and the more that there will be calls to respect that feeling of hurt by avoiding (even perhaps by dint of threatened punishment) what is said to trigger it. “

    1. Prof. Volokh has also written in the past of “censorship envy.” That is, when one group successfully gets things it dislikes banned, other groups say, “Hey, what about us? If they get to censor, we should too.” So if the n-word¹ gets banned based on the hurt feelings of some listeners, then every other group is going to announce that its most disfavored epithet should be treated the same.

      ¹I think there are times when it could be or even should be used, but it’s an ugly word and I don’t like doing it gratuitously.

      1. How do you footnote your comments? Are you a wizard?

        1. I in fact am a wizard.

  10. Open wider, Professor Kennedy. Your betters have more progress to shove down your throat before they replace you.

  11. I see Kennedy made sure to wrap that word in quotation marks, or academic condoms, everytime he uses it. At least he’s practicing safe edginess

    1. That’s actually important. There are ways to tell students you are quoting, not insulting.

      1. Who exactly is being quoted in the letter though? I see quotation marks around one word, but there is no reference to an individual who is being quoted. If no one is actually being quoted, then why is that the one word wrapped in quotation marks every time it’s used, while no other word is?

        What is the reasoning for wrapping the word in quotes everytime it’s used, while not wrapping any other word in quotes?

        1. I stand corrected. Privilege and use are written in quotes as well. Now I’m more interested in Kennedy’s understanding of quotation marks, as opposed to anything else in his letter.

          1. QuantumBoxCat: I think his usage is pretty normal (see, e.g., this guide). Quotation marks are generally used (1) to indicate that you’re directly quoting someone, (2) to indicate that you’re referring to a word rather than using it (“to open the gate, say the word ‘friend'” or “the word ‘dysphemism’ is roughly the reverse of ‘euphemism'”), (3) to mean that you’re referring to a technical term that might mean something other what it normally means (“his statement isn’t libelous because he didn’t speak with ‘actual malice'”), or (4) to mean, more or less, “so-called,” in a way that casts doubt on the soundless or legitimacy of the usage (“there are lots of ‘experts’ out there”).

            Meanings 1 and 2 are closely related, because when you’re referring to a word you’re often quoting people who use the word (“the word ‘dysphemism’ is roughly the reverse of ‘euphemism'” means roughly the same as “when people say ‘dysphemism’ they roughly mean the reverse of what people mean when they say ‘euphemism'”). Meanings 2 and 3 are also closely related, and you can see how meaning 3 can shade into meaning 4. Meanings 1 and 2 are also pretty clearly roughly part of the “mention” side of the “use-mention” dichotomy; meanings 3 and 4 might be, too.

            I think Prof. Kennedy’s use of quotes around “nigger” was a mixture of meanings 1 and 2 (the incidents he was talking about all involved the word, so he was quoting them, but he was also talking about a certain use of the word more generally). I think his use of quotes around “use” was meaning 3. And I think his use of quotes around “privilege” was meaning 4, though it might have been 3.

            I doubt, of course, that he consciously thought about this when composing his letter, just as we don’t consciously think about all the different uses of capitalization or commas or “to” when we write something. (Part of the mark of being a fluent user of a language is precisely that one doesn’t consciously think about the meanings of such basic elements, much like I don’t consciously think of which finger I’m using for hitting a particular key while typing.)

            1. And yet you still put the word in quotes, even when you’re trying to talk about the word itself being used in quotes. It’s like you can’t write the word without putting quotation marks around it.

              It’s as if you and Kennedy are hedging your use of the word by wrapping it up in those word condoms. You get to appear like your edgy and going against the grain, while still distancing yourself from actually using the word. “I’m not saying the word itself, I’m just referring to the word as a word, which of course requires saying it, but I’m not saying it, so don’t get mad at me.”

              What form of protection do you use when actually speak the word? Do you use air quotes in class?

              I just think it’s cute.

              1. QuantumBoxCat: I’m pretty certain I don’t think of things this way when writing, and I doubt Prof. Kennedy does, either.

                Consider a completely noncontroversial — again, from my example, “dysphemism.” I wouldn’t normally write,

                Dysphemism is roughly the reverse of euphemism.

                Instead, I’d normally write either,

                “Dysphemism” is roughly the reverse of “euphemism”


                Dysphemism is roughly the reverse of euphemism.
                (Italics is also a conventional alternative to quotation marks in this context.) That’s just how I was taught to refer to words in writing.

                In speech, there aren’t quotation marks, and one generally doesn’t use air quotes except sometimes for meaning 4 (and maybe for meaning 3); that something is mention rather than use is made clear by context, or on rare occasions, by the words “quote” and “unquote” (in my experience, generally for meaning 1).

              2. “It’s as if you and Kennedy are hedging your use of the word by wrapping it up in those word condoms.”

                They aren’t word condoms, they’re quotation marks used to signal to the reader that the author is referring to the word itself. The quotation marks adds context and can help avoid absurdity. Here’s a stolen example:

                The word processor came into use around 1910.
                The word “processor” came into use around 1910.

          2. Now I’m more interested in Kennedy’s understanding of quotation marks

            As already made abundantly clear, your interest would be better directed at your own obvious ignorance regarding standard use of the punctuation in question.

            1. He made a fool of himself but at least he did get to call quotation marks “word condoms” so it was probably worth it to him.

        2. That’s because he’s using the word to mean the word, not the thing the word represents.

          For example, if I say, “Whenever I spell ‘bananas,’ I hear Gwen Stefani in my head,” the quotes are appropriate. When I say, “Whenever I eat bananas, I hear Gwen Stefani in my head,” they are not.

          The only thing telling about your comment is that Dr. Kennedy has a better grasp on proper usage and punctuation than you do.

    2. It’s hilarious he needed to write this whole letter as a heads up he was gonna keep on using the word. Just say it. Or don’t say it. But this explanation is pandering to them more than just not saying the word would be.

      1. Leaf’s Chauffeur: He was trying to make a broader point to his colleagues more generally, and indirectly to the public more generally. And that makes sense, I think: If you think something that’s right is being wrongly attacked, it’s good to publicly explain your reasons.

  12. By the way, I sense that some people are unaware, but Prof. Kennedy literally wrote the book on the use of the word.

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