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What's in a Slur?
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American Speech 78.1 (2003) 52-74

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What's in a Slur?

Anita Henderson
University of Pennsylvania


THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN social attitudes and lexicography is filled with individual controversies. Debates of varying passions involve prescriptive viewpoints on the "correct" usage of words like unique, geographic lexical variation as in soda versus pop, issues of political correctness, and the labeling and censorship of obscenities. Lexical choice is a matter of concern for all who claim to be linguistic consumers. In other words, everybody fights over language at some level. This is particularly true for words which are involved in ongoing cultural and social developments as in references to those in "protected classes." 1 For example, under what circumstances is bitch offensive or vulgar? Certainly a statement like getting fired is a bitch may not be construed as vulgar in the same sense that he fired that bitch might be. It is the unenviable job of lexicographers in the United States to record the nuances of meaning and social usages in dictionaries used by a diverse population which communicates in a world of perpetual social change.

To examine a narrow point within this general question, I studied the area of ethnic epithets. Attention to ethnic slurs often focuses on single words. For example, a recent foray into this area is Nigger by Randall Kennedy (2002), a law professor who documents what he calls in his subtitle The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Extending beyond that individual controversy, this paper examines the work of dictionaries in the selection of entries, definitions, and usage notes with regard to ethnic slurs used for both black and white Americans. The slurs in this study exclude terms for minority groups other than African Americans as well as some ethnically distinct groups who are considered white (e.g., mick and polack for people who are Irish and Polish, respectively).

Several areas about the explanations for ethnic slurs are explored here. Are there differences in definitions of ethnic slurs across dictionaries? Are there qualitative differences in the definitions between ethnic slurs which reference blacks and those that reference whites? Given that major dictionaries of English are compiled by predominantly standard speakers who are white, to what extent are other viewpoints reflected? How has social change for African Americans—especially that which occurred in the post-Civil Rights era—been incorporated into dictionaries through changes in entries, definitions, and usage notes? [End Page 52]

Dictionaries And Slurs

One of the goals of dictionaries is to reflect current usage, and dictionaries are important references on which the American speech community relies for information about language. Five dictionaries were consulted for their treatment of the ethnic slurs in this study: Merriam-Webster's on-line Collegiate Dictionary (MWOCD 2001); Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (W3 1961); the third and fourth editions of The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD3 1993; AHD4 2000); and the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OEDO 2002). As a way of counterposing usages in the African American community, articles from black newspapers across the country are quoted. These articles are available through the Ethnic NewsWatch, a searchable database of articles from more than 200 ethnic and minority periodicals. Other articles from major newspapers are used to demonstrate usage of words as well.

The social significance of dictionary definitions of ethnic slurs was demonstrated in a recent debate. In 1997, the NAACP, an old and influential civil rights organization which focuses on educational, social, economic, and political issues of concern to African Americans, helped organize a protest against Merriam-Webster Inc., which publishes reference books such as dictionaries and thesauri. In a commentary entitled "Defining Dictionaries Down," published in the Wall Street Journal, 29 June 1998, Richard Dooling reported that NAACP members and others petitioned Merriam-Webster to remove nigger from the dictionary because it was defined as a synonym for a black person—albeit it was noted as an offensive term. The dictionaries were not censored, but a task force was formed by Merriam-Webster to review entries that were labeled as offensive. Clearly, the removal of the word...