The Grammarphobia Blog

When nice wasn’t nice

Q: As a black person, I’m aware that the word “nigger” has been a source of much controversy in our community. Oprah disdains the usage and Jay-Z embraces it as a term of endearment. Are there other words used to disparage a group of people and later embraced by the same group? I’d appreciate any additional insight that you may have on the topic.

A: Yes, there are other cases in which a word that’s been used to put certain people down is embraced by them – or at least some of them – and turned into a positive term.

This is only one instance of a more general phenomenon that linguists call semantic bleaching, where a word or phrase is weakened by common use and turned into something else.

To use a familiar (and less sensitive) example, the term “goodbye” began as a contraction of “God be with you.” Over the centuries, its original sense was weakened by general usage and underwent a shift: it lost its religious meaning.

Another familiar word, “nice,” is ultimately from the Latin nescius (“ignorant”), and until the 13th century it meant foolish or stupid. Over the centuries its meaning changed: from coy and shy to dainty and fastidious and finally to the much weakened positive adjective we have today.

Something similar may occur with racially and sexually taboo words, as my husband and I wrote in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

“Nigger” (or “nigga”) has been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African-Americans, while “bitch” and “cunt” have been reclaimed by some feminists as terms of empowerment.

These attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are also examples of semantic bleaching.

Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York, has written an interesting paper on the subject that was published in the book African-American English (1998).

In the paper, Professor Spears relates an anecdote in which a black male gangsta rap artist shares a limousine with a female African-American economist. During the trip to attend a program together, the rap star refers to his companion as a “bitch economist,” a term that she doesn’t find empowering.

“The rapper was positively impressed and had no intention of insulting the economist,” Dr. Spears writes. “He was not aware of her rules of speech use and evaluation. She was not aware of his and rebuked him with uncommon severity all the way to their destination.”

That’s one problem with attempts to reclaim taboo words. Not all members of the group may agree that a word has been reclaimed.

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