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Free Speech

The N.Y. Times on Mentioning Epithets


The Times published an article by the always interesting linguist and commentator John McWhorter, called "How the N-Word Became Unsayable." (McWhorter doesn't take the view that the word ought not be quoted or otherwise mentioned, see this article of his; he is just remarking that many condemn its being mentioned.) Quite rightly, in my view, McWhorter doesn't expurgate the word, indeed mentioning it 34 times, and the Times doesn't make him expurgate it.

The Times actually published an explanation of the matter:

Today, Times Opinion published a guest essay by the Black linguist John McWhorter, which is an adaptation drawn from his new book, "Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter." His article both uses and refers to several obscenities — most notably a slur against Black people, the use and history of which is the topic of the essay. Instead of using a phrase like "the N-word" or "a slur against Black people" in this article, we print the word itself. It's an unusual decision 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 slur not only mirrors "a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups" but also demonstrates a cultural shift in the concerns of the words our culture considers truly profane: from the sexual and scatological referents of the classic four-letter words to the sociological referents of slurs. While the taboo against using most four-letter words has gradually faded, the taboo against slurs has intensified.

We wanted to present our readers with this argument in the clearest and most respectful way.

Generally speaking, at The Times, we don't use asterisks or dashes to obscure obscenities. But even if we were willing to break with this practice, McWhorter's piece is about the word itself — its etymology, sound and spelling. Using asterisks or dashes to veil the word would render this discussion incomprehensible, as would using a phrase like "the N-word." Employing that phrase as a stand-in would also make the essay hard to follow, since part of the article concerns the distinction between the use of "the N-word" and the slur itself. So we came to the conclusion that printing the word was the right solution.

McWhorter's argument has implications that go well beyond linguistic curiosity. As he writes, "What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places—if not consistently —on respect for subgroups of people."

No mention of the Donald McNeil ouster; but at least I'm glad the Times isn't sticking with a foolish consistency on that. Indeed, as Jacob Sullum writes here at Reason, the Times has generally followed the McWhorter rather than McNeil approach in other recent articles where it's topical. For Prof. Randall Kennedy's and my view on the similar propriety of mentioning epithets in classroom discussions, for instance when quoting judicial opinions or other court documents or other historical documents, see this article.

By the way, note that the word "cunt," also mentioned—again, in my view, quite properly—in McWhorter's essay is a much rarer visitor to the New York Times' pages, indeed perhaps appearing in print at the Times for the first time. A Nexis search reveals only one other such reference, in a novel excerpt published in February of this year; and that seemed like a web-only supplement to a book review that didn't quote the word. The judicial system, though, has had no such qualms, as we note on p. 13, apparently taking the view that facts should be reported as they are. For a recent illustration of this, see the seven mentions of the word in this opinion from a month ago, from an appellate court in Utah (not known as a hotbed of vulgarity); those whose reaction is to assume that the usage is a sign of patriarchal insensitivity might want to note that the three judges on the panel were all women, though of course the word is routinely quoted by judges of both sexes.