Debate · English · Politics

Let’s Talk Offensiveness in the Dictionary

Where does vulgarity become inappropriate for the public eye? Is the standard different if it’s been an element ingrained into our history for centuries?

Scene: this afternoon. My English class, specifically, “Women and the Civil War.” Tropical classroom, sans air conditioning. Students arranged in a makeshift circle. Everyone pretending it’s their Uncle Tom’s Cabin copy that they’ve been looking down at for eight minutes straight, not their phone.

It is then when our professor, who I love and admire deeply, halts her lecture. She’s pulling up a website on the projector. Is that?…yup. NPR. Sigh. Shit’s about to get real.

The professor announces that we’re going to listen to a podcast from Fresh Air, a segment of the National Public Radio. I correct my slouch a little, at least so it’s noticeable, and decide that I’ll tune in. What I don’t know at that moment is how this podcast is about to ignite a half hour long discussion about the suitability of the n-word in Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

I know. Heavy stuff. Although this is a particularly interesting topic of discussion, it’s not an unusual one in this class. Being based around novels from women writers during the Civil War period, we touch on everything from white supremacy to reconstruction to the mulatto identity. I find this class riveting, and today was no exception.

The podcast we listen to is an interview of an NPR reporter and a lexicographer (yeah, also, that’s a word? I love it). A lexicographer is someone who compiles dictionaries, and this woman complies none other than our beloved Merriam-Webster. The reporter asked the lexicographer questions about the recent addition of the n-word to the dictionary. First, she read the complete definition. It is as follows:

  1. offensive; see usage paragraph below —used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a black person

  2. offensive; see usage paragraph below —used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a member of any dark-skinned race

  3. now often offensive; see usage paragraph below:  a member of a class or group of people who are systematically subjected to discrimination and unfair treatment

    it’s time for somebody to lead all of America’s niggers … all the people who feel left out of the political process — Ron Dellums

The lexicographer proceeded to explain several emails in response to the addition of this word. Most, but not all, were angry in tone. One woman wrote something along the lines of, “I am disappointed that you included this word. How dare you think it is okay? Now my kids will find and use this word.” Another email read, “I never wanted my daughter to learn this word. So, thanks, because she will now.” I quickly developed some nagging thoughts about these responses. As did my classmates. Lucky for me, if there’s one thing all of us in that room have in common, it’s the fact that we will analyze the shit out of anything. This means that the classroom became a petri dish for passionate discussion. That’s right: none of us looked at our phones, like, once.

Like I said, I quickly realized where I stood on this topic. There’s no denying the obscenity of the n-word. It was solely created to dehumanize and remains in that position to this day. Yeah, yeah, I know rappers throw it around and you may even, too. But, it’s “casual,” right? You don’t “mean it”?

Notice how I have refrained from saying the actual, full word even in a post that is dedicated to it. It is so offensive that a lot of us will refuse to do so. Does that mean we should deny it’s existence, though? Hardly. I mean, it’s offensive for a reason, right? We need to acknowledge that offensiveness. That is the only way the tremendously heinous period in history where it was birthed never happens again. As we’ve all heard, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Also, these responses the lexicographer received? Okay, I applaud those who reached out and voiced their opinions. That’s hard to do. They’re brave, but dang, I can not agree with them.

Both of the responses included the speaker’s children – it’s their children who would be in harm from the word’s inclusion. Children are often used as a safety blanket in an argument. “Come on, don’t do that! My children will see! My children will be hurt!” “If you’re gay, don’t get married, because your children will become gay!” While yes, the first ten years of a child’s life are paramount to their developmental process, some people exploit their innocence. Offend an adult? Go for it. Harm a child? You’re an asshole.

In this circumstance specifically, two people were concerned about their children uncovering the n-word in the dictionary. This reminded me of, quite frankly, porn. No parent holds a computer monitor up to their child and says, “here, look at this! It’s called porn!”, but, here we are as a society of millions of avid porn-viewers. These viewers had to find porn somehow. What?! You mean, kids can find things even if their parents didn’t show them those things? Crazy, right?

This parallels the example of someone’s child discovering the n-word. The parents who emailed our lexicographer were upset about her decision to add the word into the dictionary because they were worried about their children now finding this word in the dictionary. Parents: I hate to break it to you, but your child is going to find the n-word, dictionary or not. Even if they don’t pick up a dictionary or Google “define n-word,” we live in a world that eats sleeps breathes media. This word is thrown around in songs and movie scripts so frequently, and even if you shelter your child from the screen and earphones, they’re going to hear it from their peers. I appreciate a parent wanting their child to never feel degraded or attacked by such a crude word. That quality right there is shit you read about in good parenting articles. However, want to continue that good parenting quality you have going on?

Show your child this word. Show ’em. Don’t forget the definition, too. The first word used in the Marriam-Webster dictionary definition is, in fact, “offensive.” Teach your child that this word exists, it is offensive, here are its origins, here is when you may use it: never. But, ask if you have any questions.

No, I’m not a parent, but I’m an education student. I’m learning about enriching kids. It’s not like I just think of this stuff off the top of my head. (That’s reserved for random cold calling questions in class when I’m, yeah, looking at my phone.)

Wow, this has gotten long. Bottom line? The n-word belongs in the dictionary. It grew from a dark, despicable time in our history. We can’t just ignore that. Ignoring is how that dark thunder cloud returns. Now that we’ve stepped into the light, we must do what we can: learn from our mistakes. Not act like they never happened.

Phew! Thanks for sticking me with this. I realize this is a spirited topic, so naturally, I had to weigh in. Also, I changed my blog name, so that’s fun. I was feeling the rhyme scheme.

Stay enriched,



2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Offensiveness in the Dictionary

  1. So many books challenged and banned. Classics for Racism: Huckleberry Finn (Twain),Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (Brown) Gone with the Wind (Mitchell), Native Son (Wright), To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee), Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe), The Invisible Man (Ellison), Little Black Sambo (Bannerman) Classics for Sexuality: Farenheit 451 (Bradbury), The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne), Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck. Ad infinitum. All of these books, incidentally, can be read on the internet. What’s with that? Challenged and banned are just that, but apparently only within a cover. Ignorant and shameful.

    Liked by 1 person

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