The Word Nerds: A Weekly Podcast About Words, Language, and Why We Say the Things We Do

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copyright © 2005, 2006 by Dave Shepherd, Howard Shepherd, and Howard Chang

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Hearing Howard Chang talk about “homophone creep? (a term that I like very much) made me think of the problem that I encounter every year when reading Hamlet. At one point in the play, either Rosencranz or Guildenstern uses the expression “niggard of question…? Invariably, the student who is reading that part pronounces the word as “ni-GARD,? because s/he is unwilling to say “NIG-gerd.?

We do tend to be very sensitive to “the N-word.? Sometimes I think that it is the only taboo word left in the English language. Yet the modern history of terminologies for people of African ancestry is confusing. Martin Luther King, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, used to refer to the struggles of “the Negro.? (Malcolm X referred to “the so-called Negro.?) When I was in high school in the early 1970’s, the term “black? (which is the most commonly accepted neutral term nowadays) was actually the beginning of a phrase which was much more hurtful than “------;? namely, “black son of a bitch.? Only recently has “black? begun to reclaim its place from “African-American? as the most common accepted term for a person of African heritage.

It’s difficult even to write about this topic, because it’s difficult to talk about race in America. We are all self-conscious about it—and that results in some occasionally tortuous attempts at political correctness. I remember once hearing someone (I think it was a liberal politician, but I’m not sure), while trying to distinguish a black African from a white African, refer to the person in question as an “African-American African.?

In a recent podcast about puns, I told a joke that may have been perceived by some as mildly racist. The term “squaw? has been misunderstood by some to be etymologically related to a prostitute, or a woman’s genitals (the etymology is actually neutral, from a Narraganset word meaning simply “woman?). I knew that, but I told the joke because it contained three different puns in the punchline—a pun on the word “square,? one on the word “sides,? and one on the word “hypotenuse.? I realized right after telling it that some listeners might be uncomfortable with the term “squaw,? even though it is not originally an epithet. If I had it to do again, I probably would have chosen a less politically charged joke.

—Howard Shepherd

Category:blog -- posted at: 3:52 PM