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.

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  1. What none of the Democrats nor the lawyer d-word is saying, all PC is case. Words have no effect that is justiciable. This is a fraudulent enterprise to plunder the funds of productive people. People are intimidated by ruinous litigation, just to get to summary judgement. All PC is lawyer rent seeking, and it is working.

    If you do not like PC, deter the federal judge. They are the enemy of our nation. They give no quarter to our lawyer besieged nation. We should return none.

    This article is lying by omission. It is fake lawyer propaganda and masking ideology. The truth is the lawyer is working for our enemies to take down our nation and our American Way of Life.

    1. And, he’s trying to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.

      1. What body fluid are you referring to? What are you talking about? Do you have an excretory problem, a nasal drip? Your problem seem unrelated to the topic of the post.

        1. Gentlemen, please. There is to be no fighting in the war room.

          1. What a load of commie bull!

    2. Are you tucker Carlson?

      1. There was this person on Usenet years ago, I think called Liberator, who posted some weird stuff. Maybe him.

        1. Do you have any point of fact, of logic or of law to make?

    3. These firings have disparate impact on whites. Blacks have not been fired for using the same words loudly and openly. Such statistical differences are evidence of racial discrimination, now. They justify administrative complaints, demands to the Non-Profit Office of the IRS, and federal discrimination suits.

      1. The lawyer enemy has a thought police running a tighter ship than the secret police of Cuba or North Korea.

  2. It is so rare for the NYT to do anything editorially mature that I feel compelled to recognize them for it.

    However, if last year is anything to go by, Dean Baquet will make up for it by forcing an editor or two to resign over that article.

    1. It happens occasionally, then everybody involved has to stand up in dunce hats and do self-criticism in front of the cadres, they they are fired.

      1. I support forcing all race whores to wear duce hats.

    2. It’s not a sign of editorial maturity though. The elephant in the room is that the person allowed to use the word was black and the one that was fired was white. The only context the NYT actually cared about was skin color.

  3. Senator Tim Scott gave a moving heartfelt response to Biden’s State of the Union address. Notably line included saying America wasn’t racist.

    To which Democrats responded with…oh yeah?! Well, you’re an “Uncle Tom” …or haha “Uncle Tim”. You’re an “Oreo”.

    And so Liberal Democrats proved Senator Scott wrong, by calling him all sorts of racist names. Congrads.

    1. Tim Scott said America wasn’t racist — to appease his fellow conservatives — just after describing his experiences with racism. Sen. Scott is mistaken, and a loser.

      1. That is just racist. Whites do not get to define the black man.

      2. “Sen. Scott is mistaken, and a loser.”

        I can imagine the bile that gets stirred up in Kirkland’s gut when a black man dares say something that Arthur disagrees with.

      3. Yeah, I don’t think someone like yourself who is racist to their bones, would get that while some Americans may be racist, they don’t get to define the country.

        1. Those who call others racist are called race whores. Zero tolerance for race whores. They promote the interests of the Chinese Commie Party. All agents of the CCP get cancelled, whether from work, fron church, from ckubs. I support a database of such agents. They would get cancelled from the grocery store csshier. Facial recognituon would get them theown out without their purchase. They are invited to move to Venezuela for their comfort and welfare.

        2. He gets it, but it is convenient for him to ignore it.

          I myself have experienced repeated acts of anti-semitism. Not only the mild, Jews-Are-Cheap type of anti-semitism, but the vicious Heil-Hitler-Into-The-Ovens-With-You type. Does that mean America is an anti-semitic country?

          No, it just means that in this very tolerant country, there are some haters.

          1. It also means there is nuance, complexity and subtext.

            As a forinstance, I’m pretty sure every time my old Dad characterized someone’s behavior as acting “nigger-rich”, it was describing white people. Sure, the origin is insulting, using blacks as the default for “poor people on payday”, but hey! Black people WERE poor people, largely due to discrimination against them. The term wasn’t used as a sociopolitical analysis of race and poverty, but as a description of how *some* poor people handled getting a little money.

            As someone who’s worked among (mostly white) bums, criminals, drunks and druggies, I never even thought it was especially racial, just an astute observation of how some po’ folks behaved.

            Certainly that usage, while not complimentary, falls far short of ‘race hatred”. But of course, that’s the whole point of the current project: To inflate ever-more-miniscule “harms” to the same level as actual racial hatred, and to do so in a manner that seems calculated to increase such negative feelings, or create them if they don’t exist. This has some rewards for some people, but is, overall, a very bad idea.

            1. Look, it’s understandable that you want to defend your father, but… you’re not helping. Using an epithet in an explicitly racist way, as he was in your story, is not what we’re discussing. I’m not saying he was a terrible person (assuming this happened a long time ago); he might have done it unthinkingly. But expressing race-based contempt is not “minuscule,” even if perhaps not as bad as race-based hatred.

  4. Its literally like being afraid of saying the name of a deity or demon. How much more daily proof do we need that wokism is a religious cult?

    1. The wrong people are afraid. Time to reverse that.

      1. I filed multiple complaints of emotional child abuse of white children against the black, woke School Superintendent for his diversity program. Now, he is retiring. I sued a lawyer. For years, other lawyers said, I can’t believe you sued a lawyer. I sued a state, and lost. Yet, it immediately stopped its offensive practice, and has not resumed it, 10 years later. To deter. Current conservative litigation foundations are weak, and not loyal to our country enough.

    2. How much more daily proof do we need that wokism is a religious cult?

      See the serial excerpts of John McWhorter’s new book. He calls them The Elect.

      1. Been reading them. Well worth the subscription. Him and Matt Taibbi, so far. Highly recommended.

  5. “…Today, Times Opinion published a guest essay by the Black linguist John McWhorter, which is …”

    I get why the Times felt the need to explain that the person writing the potentially-hurtful words was, himself, black. I find the decision to spell this out for us gentle readers (a) 100% understandable, and (2) lamentable.

    1. But then why was it necessary to go into all the convoluted logic? Isn’t it the case the the N-word when spoken by a Black causes no harm?

  6. It’s an ugly word and when a bigot uses it, the word should be used in the report. I recently read “Travels With Charlie” by Steinbeck, which recounts a driving trip across the US he (and his dog Charlie) made in 1960. Toward the end of the trip he travels through the American South during the early days of the Civil Rights Revolution. He reports conversations with White opponents of Black rights who use the word repeatedly. He writes the word that they used. The impact is powerful (and it would have been powerful even in 1960 when the word was more common).

    The word is also used frequently in 19th Century American literature (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn come to mind). There, the lesson is different: The casual acceptance of Black social inferiority even by relatively good-hearted people. We shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t easy for our ancestors to bequeath to us our exquisite respect for those who are different from us.

    1. The word is also used frequently in 19th Century American literature (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn come to mind). There, the lesson is different: The casual acceptance of Black social inferiority even by relatively good-hearted people. We shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t easy for our ancestors to bequeath to us our exquisite respect for those who are different from us.

      Thank God the past had men like Mark Twain, because if we were be required to depend on the “enlightenment” of men like Eric VonSalzen, we’d be screwed.

  7. McWhorter is black. That’s why the NYT let him write it 34 times in print after they fired a white reporter for saying it. Free speech, conditional on race.

  8. Madness.

    McWhorter briefly glides over the more important issue, as to whether it’s ok for black people to use the word (deliberately misspelled) among themselves. The truth is, when white people use it, it should be, at most, considered bad manners. It’s not a reason to ruin someone for life, even if he’s 13 years old when he does it.

    1. Capt,
      I think you meant to write, “…*especially* if he’s 13 years old when he does it.”

      “Even…” does not make sense, in the context of your overall point.

    2. I was 12 when the original Civil Rights unrest was going down, and we were living in Alabama. I heard the locals’ version of what it meant, and asked my Dad (a native of Mississippi, outside Tupelo. WAY outside Tupelo, in the woods towards Dorsey) about it.

      He explained the raw deal they got: Requiring some degree of literacy to vote sounds reasonable…unless you refuse to educate some of the people. Poverty might be your own fault…unless people refused to hire you, or if occupational licensing was rigged to keep you poor. AND it was just plain wrong, in God’s eyes, to treat another human as less than yourself (until they forced that judgement on you).

      Turns out I was just a generation removed from the Depression-Era when my Grandpa worked with black people as a tenant farmer, and later worked FOR them building carts (for which he caught some shit, as he did from the Mission Baptists for playing music for dances)

      I was a bright kid, just learning what shitheads and miscreants adults actually were, so I got it. Looking back, I have always been impressed with what an empathetic, logical and moral explanation it was. And all through it, he described them using “the N-word”. To him it was just a noun, a descriptor. (he seemed to think “darkies” was more insulting. Dunno if that was local, or just idiosyncratic) Of course, the black people he dealt with in his professional life were military, and mostly good folks. Looking back, I realize we had more social relationships with them than was considered seemly by the *real* Southerners we lived amongst. F ’em.

      So much for the “power of the word”. The more shit changes, the more it turns out to have been arbitrary in the first place.

      1. Wonderful story.

        One of the Democrats favorite talking points against abolition was the idea that former slaves would not be able to “handle freedom,” and then spent the next 150+ years trying to make it so.

        1. Patronizing as hell.

          1. As soon as you renounce racism …. let me know.

  9. So glad we can write cunt and nigger.

    Now about that G*d thing….

    There’s a radio station here in Northern Virginia and they won’t even play the full lyrics to Life in the Fast Lane (Eagles).

    Blowin’ and burnin’ blinded by thirst
    They didn’t see the stop sign took a turn for the worst
    She said listen baby you can hear them engines ring

    We’ve been up and down this highway haven’t seen a ***damn thing
    He said call the doctor think I’m gonna crash
    But the doctor say he’s comin’ you gotta pay him cash

    1. There’s “a” radio station here in NoVa? Not that I’ve listened much to the radio in the last decade or so, but which one are you talking about? Do they bleep that bit of the song, or do they just not play the song at all?

      1. 100.3 They bleep the god part of goddamn.


        1. 100.3 They bleep the god part of goddamn.


          Yeah, it is…but hardly comparable. How many people’s careers/lives have they ruined by bleeping a word out of a song?

          1. It’s not the bleeping you need to worry about; it’s the failing to bleep that gets people fired.

  10. They fire aomeone for saying it, loudly proclaim it can’t be said under any circumstances, then turn around and say it themselves?

    Did someone say “pretext”?

    1. I suspect that what you wrote was false. I suspect that, in fact, they did NOT loudly pronounce that it’s can’t be said under any circumstance. I feel confident that, for example, they–in the written documentation they created as the basis for initiating any such firing–were perfectly fine using the actual terms when quoting what you or I [for example] said that was getting us fired.

      1. What they said was, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

  11. And also in the NYT:

    Another example of the frailty of the “use/mention” distinction, esp. in law schools.

    1. Yeah. Human Rights Watch fired their General Counsel for saying “nigger” while teaching as an adjunct at Columbia. She was recounting an anecdote where a SPLC lawyer was deposing a Klansman.

      1. Inquiring minds want to know: Which person used the slur, the Klansman or the SPLC lawyer?

      2. Waitwaitwait…so, they fired the guy for recounting a story about an SPLC lawyer using the word repeatedly? (not so much, I suspect, to “put him at ease” as to assault the jury’s ears with the forbidden word, creating discomfort and associating it with the defendant)

        This story could have had a happier ending if all the lawyers for HRW and the SPLC were immediately smitten by God, leaving the management of both griftastic organizations temporarily weaponless. *sigh*

  12. The only reason they allowed it is that the writer is black. If a prestigious non-black linguist wrote the essay they would declare it racist and try to get them fired and ostracized.

    This just show’s that we are getting to a time where race is the only thing that matters and most of the Civil Rights movement is being thrown in the trash, willingly and with glee as they see the opportunity to oppress and dominate others themselves.

  13. Wait, the explanation claims that they don’t censor it, but they expressly call it “racial slur” instead of using it. Huh?

  14. Seems to me that over-educated white progs are the ones who get to decide what is and isn’t racist because they know what’s best for everyone. But don’t ever think of calling them racist, they still own the plantation.

  15. Now if you want to get technical about who the true enslavers/racists are, you can exclude:
    Irish Americans
    Italian Americans
    Greek Americans
    Polish Americans
    Middle Eastern Americans (technically white)
    German Americans, who faced discrimination following WWI and II, and were mostly not even here before 1865.

    This leaves Anglo descendants, who used to brag about having Mayflower ancestry. Where are these people now? That’s right, they are presidents of elite universities and CEOs of major corporations.

    1. My German ancestor arrived in 1830 something and was in Ohio in the 1840 census, along with thousands of other Germans in Pennsylvania and Ohio. There were so many Germans speakers in Ohio that some Ohio regiments in the Civil war did their drills in German and English and there was some concern that in battle the Germans might become too excited and forget their English. There were about 200,000 German-Americans serving in the Union Army.

    2. Southern Irish owned slaves.
      Same is true of Jews (though the extent to which they were dominant in the slave trade is contested) , Germans, Italians and Arabs. I don’t think that any ethnic group was holier than the rest.

    3. According to the federal census of 1830, free blacks owned more than 10,000 slaves in Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia.

  16. Clarification: “Race whore” is not an epithet. It is a term of art. It refers to someone who makes money from discrimination claims, including the defense bar. Disclosure: I have used the race card when it helped a claim. In a zoning dispute, I accused the Zoning Board of anti-black racism. After they granted a waiver, I withdrew the federal complaint. I formally accused a school superintendent of black supremacist views. He retired. I withdrew the complaint. “Race whore” is a technical term. Prof. Volokh, calm down.

    1. I have to say, I had a little legal training. I became a total whore as a result. You could say, for a $1000 could you argue that the American lawyer profession is the best in the world, and made our nation great. I could, just as extensively as I argue that it sucks. Not only did legal training make me a whore, it made me a cheap whore.

      1. And, Prof. Volokh, do not write me about the word, whore. Embrace your inner whore, since you are the biggest pimp in the country, turning hundreds of intelligent, ethical kids into lawyers.

  17. This whole topic gets far more play than it deserves. There are times you can’t say “n****r,” like when you’re calling somebody one or adopting “n****r” in your own voice as a descriptor. There are times when you pretty much have to use it, for example, to establish whether someone else said “n****r” or, rather, a euphemism, or when you’re writing a piece of fiction and a character is just the sort of person who would say “n****r” in the circumstances of the story. Then there are times when it’s a matter of judgment. Usually these involve discussing materials where someone else uses “n****r,” like a discussion of Huckleberry Finn or a discrimination case, often in a classroom setting. There are reasonable arguments either way, but there is no reason an institution can’t have a general policy on the subject, if it decides to, and insist that its employees follow it. Or an institution could decide not to have a policy, and just react ad hoc to particular cases when people object.
    This isn’t as hard as people are making it out to be.

    1. “This isn’t as hard as people are making it out to be.”

      It’s pretty easy. Are you being a dick to black people or not?

    2. I’m not sure an institution or organization is well-served by having any policy that states “Action A is allowed, unless and until someone chooses to make a big deal of it, at which point we (this organization) will panic, over-react and bow down to whichever side is most hysterical.”

      1. It’s certainly better to have a policy in place, in advance. Even if it encourages people to flout the policy on some supposed principle (other than “you’re not the boss of me” when one, in fact, is) who would not otherwise have said anything stupid.

  18. Next up: An airing of Blazing Saddles in which Slim Pickens’ use of the word is censored by Cleavon Little’s isn’t.

    1. “but” not “by”.

      1. I saws Blazing Saddles on TV recently. All the “n*****s” were in place.

        1. I once saw a TV version where the fart sounds were bleeped out, but the “nigger’s” were not … George Carlin was a prophet, but not twisted enough for this world.

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