John McWhorter, the “n word”, and the odious hypocrisy of the New York Times

May 2, 2021 • 9:15 am

This week’s New York Times has a decent essay (click on screenshot below) by John McWhorter on the history of the “n-word”, which he actually spells out repeatedly—34 times. The reason? He’s discussing three things: the origin of the word, its various morphs and meanings, and how it became a slur at the same time that once-unsayable words like “fuck” have become pretty mainstream.


As McWhorter notes, the use of the n-word as a complete taboo has been in the air for some time, and was still used openly on “The Jeffersons” television show and on McWhorter’s own radio interviews. But when Christopher Darden refused to utter the word during the O. J. Simpson trial (remember that Detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of having used it), the true taboo period began, and of course is with us still. It’s even taboo to use it in a didactic fashion, or reading it as part of literature (see below).

This essay is not one of McWhorter’s best efforts, I thought, but is still well worth reading. I wasn’t as interested in the etymology of the word as how and when it became taboo, and in McWhorter’s main point, which he states succinctly:

 Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.

In other words, the n-word is the new “fuck”.

Another issue with McWhorter’s essay is that he offers no opinion on whether the word can be uttered didactically, as in a reading of Huckleberry Finn or in a classroom discussion. While McWhorter clearly feels it’s warranted in his essay (he spells it on in full over thirty times), this is an essay on etymology and the demonization of a word—not exactly the same thing as teaching a book that uses the word. I would have expected McWorter to give an opinion about using the word in full in other contexts, but he doesn’t.

But perhaps he was prevented from doing so. If you recall from earlier this year, NYT science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr. was forced to resign because he used the word, and in a didactic context, on a trip with students to Peru. McNeil was simply trying to ascertain whether the word was actually used by another student, and was not using it as a racial slur.

It didn’t matter. As editor Dean Baquet emphasized in the NYT’s statement (my italics)

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” 

In other words, as the Daily Beast summarized its summary of the NYT staffers’ objections, which swayed Baquet from merely disciplining McNeil to eventually firing him:

But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant”, the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear what matters is how an act makes the victims feel. . .

That would seem to settle the issue as far as the New York Times is concerned. It is the reaction that is important, not the intent of how the n-word is used.  Ergo the NYT should never, ever allow that word to be printed, for its usage in print will certainly offend some people. (Remember, too, that McNeil used the word verbally, in a question, and did not print it 34 times!).

I guess, though, that the paper has rethought its stance. Apparently intent DOES matter now, at least in the Times‘s explanation of why it decided to publish McWhorter’s piece including multiple instances of the n-word. Click on the screenshot below (the link appears in the header of McWhorter’s piece):

The NYT’s explanation (there’s more in the short piece):

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.”

Tracing the evolving use of this slur and the controversy it engenders — even within The Times — shows us how our society and what it respects have changed.

The first paragraph is bogus; I replaced every use of the full word in McWhorter’s essay with either “the n-word” or “n—-r”, and it did not make the essay any harder to read.

The second two paragraphs totally undercut editor Baquet’s earlier statement that “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” Well, apparently they do, at least in an erudite essay by a black linguist.

Don’t get me wrong: I think McWhorter’s essay was readable and enlightening, and the recent transposition between slurs and profanity is a good point. There was no reason for him to have to use the euphemism “the n-word” instead of spelling it out.  What I object to is the hypocrisy of the NYT in saying that they won’t publish any “racist language regardless of intent”, and then backing off in this essay. As Greg asked me when he sent me these links, “How does Dean Baquet live with himself?”

Update by Greg: Reason’s media critic Jacob Sullum has also noticed the Times’ apparent inconsistency, in a piece entitled “At The New York Times, Intent Does Not Matter When Someone Uses ‘the N-Word,’ Except When It Does”. He noted a number of recent mentions of the word in the Times:

Other recent contexts in which the Times thought printing nigger was acceptable include movie dialogue (March 2021), a Frederick Douglass quotation (February 2021), an essay about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (December 2020), a David Dinkins obituary (November 2020), a review of Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land (November 2020), a news analysis comparing Donald Trump to George Wallace (July 2020), and an essay on police reform (June 2020). Yet the paper’s executive editor, in explaining why McNeil had to go, claimed “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” If there is any sensible or even consistent standard at work here, it is pretty hard to discern.

44 thoughts on “John McWhorter, the “n word”, and the odious hypocrisy of the New York Times

  1. McWhorter is always interesting. I agree that it’s a shame he didn’t cover the issue of didactic use of the word in the classroom, although I suppose his quotation from the written version of Gone With the Wind tacitly suggests his answer would be in the affirmative, at least in some contexts.

    I don’t recall Alf Garnett, the British character that Archie Bunker was based on, using “nigger” in the TV shows Till Death do us Part etc., although I can clearly remember him saying the broadly equivalent “coon”.

    1. I just looked up the etymology of “coon” and it is arguably a more offensive term than “nigger”. According to Wikipedia (I know…!),

      Possibly from Portuguese barracão or Spanish barracón, a large building constructed to hold merchandise, where slaves were kept for sale, anglicised to barracoon (1837). Popularized by the song “Zip Coon”, played at Minstrel shows in the 1830s.

  2. “What I object to is the hypocrisy of the NYT in saying that they won’t publish any “racist language regardless of intent”, and then backing off in this essay.”

    The hypocrisy of the Woke is not a bug, it’s a feature. The way a cultist honours a taboo word is very very different than when somebody who has not been blessed uses it. Then it is heresy.

    1. Exactly. What are the chances the Times would have run the story if the writer were white?

  3. I’d earlier read that NYT “explanation” with an inner roll of my eyes. I couldn’t help seeing the condescension: after great deliberation, they had judged that maybe perhaps they could print the full word risking the reader fainting, and maybe, just maybe, they could trust the reader to understand the context like a calm, rational adult without freaking out. Well, thank you for protecting me for so long and for your new vote of confidence, NYT!

    But some of my reaction comes from my own feeling that “words are our slaves, not our masters” and that society’s choosing to have loaded a word with so much explosive power isn’t to anyone’s benefit, ultimately.

  4. Absolute intolerance for the use of certain words is such a religious way of thinking. I’m both amused and disappointed when my church operating family members are shocked when I include profanity in my speech. They ask, why use such language? The question’s corollary is more telling: Why shouldn’t I use it?

    Religious prohibition against word usage comes from a failure to understand the secular validity of various Biblical passages that claim, “[it’s] not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” The secular meaning of these platitudes would simply refer to the intent behind ones words, whereas the religious meaning fails to distinguish between the intent and the words themselves, context notwithstanding. I suggest the latter is derived from the fear of invoking supernatural negative consequences.

    The latter is part of the misguided notion that words possess supernatural power, with spoken words being a step up from mere magical thinking in which a person believes their thoughts alone are capable of causing (supernatural) actions at a distance. This is considered a mental disorder in non-religious circumstances. But it’s the norm within some religions where it’s taught as a method of thought that supports the established doctrines.

    In the secular realm, we ought to see that words are simply a means by which ideas are conveyed. Expressed ideas that unjustifiably denigrate individuals or classes is a concerning moral issue because they cause psychological pain and suffering, and can even lead to physical harm. It’s not the form of the word that inflicts this harm, it’s the speaker’s intent, even if carelessly expressed, that, within its larger context, is the problem. Religion doesn’t help us figure that out.

    1. ” . . . my church operating family members are shocked when I include profanity in my speech. They ask, why use such language? The question’s corollary is more telling: Why shouldn’t I use it?”

      Do you use profanity around children? Are you offended if a secularist declines to use profanity around you?

  5. Long ago—I think in the 1970s—our non-commercial, Pacifica-like FM station in Seattle got into big trouble with the FCC because the word “fuck” had been broadcast into the aether several times in one program (a memoir, as I recall, by a local Unitarian minister). Our trouble reached the stage of a regular FCC license trial procedure. But nowadays, Hollywood cannot make a movie without having at least ten loud “fucks” in the script—while I believe the word is still on the Index Prohibitorum for radio. So much for the consistency with which society guards popular culture from bad language. Dean Baquet at the NYT represents the same intellectual level—as do, in their way, the wokies generally.

  6. I was grateful to Dr. McWhorter for making it clear that 4-letter words have been displaced by racial and sexual slurs as impermissible.

    Freud and others have written extensively, I believe, on the fact that all societies must have taboos.

    1. A few years ago, I read a fascinating book on taboo language. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the title or author. According to the author, all societies have words that may not be said in polite company, except, for some reason, Japanese. Can any Japanese readers confirm or refute this?

      Language taboos tend to fall into four categories: sex, scatology, religion and slurs. My father once told me that when he was a kid in the 1920s, there was no taboo against slurs; if you called a member of a minority group an insulting term he might get mad, but no one else would care. There were terms for every ethnic group, and adults used them, not in anger, but in a matter-of-fact way: “A family of Krauts moved in down the street.” My father’s family had a black cat. Guess what they named it. Yep. According to my father, no adult ever told them this was wrong. Candy stores sold chocolate “Nigger Babies.” They were still around when I was a kid, but they were now called “Chocolate Babies.” (FWIW, this was in Connecticut, not the deep South.)

      On the other hand, using one of the other three categories of bad words [sex/scatology/religion] would get you knocked across the room by your parents.

      There was a poll a few years ago asking people to name the most “offensive” word in the English language. The winner, by a large margin, was “nigger.” I think second place went to “cunt.”

      1. You may be interested in McWhorter’s new book, “Nine Nasty Words; English in the Gutter, Then, Now, and Forever” being released this Tuesday. I am certainly eager to read it.

        I remember hearing tons of “dumb Polack” jokes being told when I was a kid. Being innocently unaware, I had no idea the word meant Polish. I’d never met anyone who was Polish. I don’t think anyone tells those anymore. They were reworked as dumb blonde jokes, but one doesn’t hear those much anymore either, at least not the people I am around these days.

        As for the current most offensive word, I can’t help but cringe when I hear someone utter the word “trump, be it the Orange menace’s name, meaning “to win”, or in reference to cards, or even as a term meaning “fart”, although that last one suits his personality. It turns my stomach in any context.

      2. ‘The winner, by a large margin, was “nigger.” I think second place went to “cunt.”’

        I have a gay acquaintance who has a quasi-hysterical conniption whenever he hears the above second place word. He absolutely can’t stand to hear it. I first heard him thusly react when I uttered the limerick, “There once was a queen of Bulgaria . . . .” I’ve never asked him why.

        1. All of these words have multiple meanings, depending on context. They can be extremely flexible in the parts of speech they can represent, too: for example, “Fuck off, you fucking fuck!” is rude and unimaginative, but grammatically acceptable (in demotic usage, at least).

      3. I’ve always hated the c-word. It has a nasty connotation and despite being a “woody” word ( as opposed to a “tinny” word) has an ugly sound. I’ve also never quite understood why straight guys would use that word along with the p-word as an insult
        I’ve never given a shit about ‘fuck” but I really hate the m-fucker word which I dont even want to write out. They use it all the time in movies as if its somehow cute and dont seem to give a thought about what it actually means.
        My hatred of this word probably goes back to when I was about 14 and sitting on a subway train with my mother. There were 2 guys in front of us having a very very loud conversation where motherf—er was pretty much the only adverb or adjective they used.

      4. And it’s not even the word, it’s the very concept. A whole chain of pancake houses in Califormina went out of business because it was apparently verbotten to refer to “Sambo” from the children’s story, “Little Black Sambo” even though “black” was supposed to be the preferred racial designator AND in the story Little Black Sambo was Indiian, not African.

  7. It’s even taboo to use it in a didactic fashion, or reading it as part of literature …

    To my mind, the nadir (or at least most risible example) of this phenomenon occurred about a dozen years ago when Joseph Conrad’s novella was republished under the title The N-Word of Narcissus.

  8. The word is not “Unsayable”, it is used constantly by a large percentage of Americans. Plenty of people don’t seem to mind being called the word, either.
    The race of the speaker seems to matter tremendously. That seems sort of absurd to me.
    So two strangers greet you and call you by calling you the disputed word. From one of the speakers, it is just a greeting, and not noteworthy in any way. From the other speaker, it is an unforgivable sin, for which a violent response may even be appropriate.
    To me, either you are offended by being called by a name, or you are not.
    Even worse, musicians often put the word into popular music. Some kids may sing the song, others must never do so, even when attending a concert where the artist performs it.

    So we can find ourselves in a situation where we might not know the race of the speaker, or of the kid singing along, and we have to sort all that out before knowing whether to be enraged at them. And this only includes those circumstances where the word is being used with no malice at all.

    I suspect, just like the cultural appropriation thing, that the prohibition primarily exists in order to give some folks the opportunity to scold others, and demand acts of submission.

    1. To me, either you are offended by being called by a name, or you are not.

      But what I observe is to the contrary. Assuming that people are honest, I think it is the reality that the race of the speaker (among many other things) matters. I don’t think I can decide what should or should not offend other people because it is a matter of context and emotion. But I can, of course, say what I want to say regardless of the offence that it might cause. That is what is important. That is why I think it is bad to shut people down just because what they say is regarded as offensive by some. Let them say what they want to say and let the people who are offended be offended.

      If someone says they are offended by something, I don’t usually argue that they should not be. It seems too subjective. I could, of course, offer context and information which may change the way they see things.

      1. I don’t think we can assume honesty, in an era where people so easily claim to feel unsafe in the presence of anything they might disagree with.
        I was taught to always be polite to everyone, but even that does not keep you out of trouble these days. Victimhood seems to be a prized commodity for some reason, which sort of upsets the normal equilibrium of civility.
        We sort of need to have some framework that we can work within, some set rules of speech and behavior that, when adhered to, would keep one safe from causing offense. This used to be the case, and I still have my Mother’s copy of Emily Post that guided her.

        1. I don’t think we can assume honesty, in an era where people so easily claim to feel unsafe in the presence of anything they might disagree with.

          Of course, I do agree we cannot assume honesty in general. The question is are some people (I am not talking about one or two) being honest when they say they are offended. If so, that some people are genuinely offended is a reality that I have to deal with. I don’t mind facing that. Someone else’s emotional response is not something for which I can set out criteria.

          With regard to the people who pretend that they are offended, of course I agree that they have bad motives. Maybe they get paid lots of money to write about racist and offensive language 🙂

          We sort of need to have some framework that we can work within, some set rules of speech and behavior that, when adhered to, would keep one safe from causing offense.

          It would be good to have. But the thing is, we don’t. Your example, while completely alien to me, is probably innocuous, but how not to offend people is exactly what some people are trying impose on others.

          1. I seem to recall (I am not sure about this) that some people write to tell Jerry Coyne that he should not have an issue with some words and phrases that he hates. But it is a fact that he hates them. That does not mean the rest of the world should stop using them, but he hates what he hates 🙂

            1. Dr. Coyne is a reasonable person. He lists, on his own website, words and phrases he detests. He does not engage in a campaign to have other people’s sites taken down should the use those words. He almost certainly does not confront strangers he witnesses using those words. This is practicing tolerance.
              Others, less tolerant, are engaging in efforts to ban all that which they disapprove.

      2. “To me, you are either offended by being called a name, or you are not.”

        When you are a member of a group, you can say things non-members can’t. I’m part Irish, so I’ll use this example: I know Irish-Americans who toss around the word “mick” and love to tell jokes about how stupid the Irish [supposedly] are. They would be offended if an Englishman joked about how stupid the Irish are. Isaac Asimov wrote that there is nothing Jews find funnier than Jewish jokes told by a Jew, and nothing they find less funny than Jewish jokes told by a gentile. (Imagine if a gentile had written “The Producers.”) There was an episode of “Seinfeld” devoted to this premise: a man converts to Judaism and immediately starts telling jokes based on Jewish stereotypes. Jerry wonders if he converted just so he could tell the jokes.

        It’s like making fun of a member of your family. YOU can do that, but you’d resent someone else doing it.

    2. I suspect, just like the cultural appropriation thing, that the prohibition primarily exists in order to give some folks the opportunity to scold others, and demand acts of submission.

      I think it’s a bit more historically and culturally complicated than that, Max, as McWhorter explains in his NYT piece linked to above, and as Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy delved into his his volume on the topic (q.v.).

      1. Of course it is historically and culturally complicated. But I am also seeing folks really enjoying themselves when going after other people for these perceived transgressions. I say “perceived” because we are not addressing the sorts of cases where people use the terms as a deliberate pejorative. We are mostly talking about discussions of history or racism, and whether those discussions can be carried out by certain classes of people.

        This last week, we had a family discussion which was sort of topical here. It was not about forbidden words, but it was about perceptions of racism. We were primarily talking about the situation in Texas. About half the family lives there, some very close to the border. They are a fairly conservative lot, which brings the assumption these days of racism. When I brought that up, I was met with incredulity, especially from those members of the family of Hispanic heritage who speak Spanish at home. Similarly, I routinely annoy my kids by asking their friends about any overt racism they have encountered. Not just at our Colorado place, but in Texas and North Carolina. Although we might be politically eccentric, these are areas perceived to be full of angry racists. I don’t think people would moderate their speech in my presence, but I wanted to consider the possibility. What I learned was that essentially none of the kids ever hear any White people addressing others as the “N-word”, or even using the term in private to refer to someone. Not at school, not in their homes, or anywhere else. None of them were comfortable even speaking the word in private, a trait I share.
        It seems like the hysteria over the use of these words are inverse to the levels of actual racism practiced. Nobody wants to use them to insult anyone. They want to perform forensics on racism’s cold, shriveled corpse. I think doing so is necessary.

        I will try to read the Kennedy book.

  9. I took a film history course in 1999 where the professor showed us clips from King Vidor’s “Hallelujah,” the first all-African American film made for a general audience by a major Hollywood studio. We immediately perceived what a remarkable achievement it was. Afterward the professor read us an excerpt from a review by the respected British critic James Agate: “Personally, I don’t care if it took Mr. Vidor ten years to train these niggers; all I know is that ten minutes is all I can stand of nigger ecstasy.”

    That brought home the prevailing level of racism and contempt far more than if our professor had used the “n-word.” The quote was like a slap to the face, one that wakes you up to reality. Today that professor would likely be fired for such an act, which in reality was a greater act of anti-racism than the pearl-clutching of those who would make the word taboo in any context.

  10. “….. rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.”

    I suspect he’s referring to the person who was punished for using the word “niggardly” which means stingy – of course. I had always assumed that the n-word was based on spanish or latin and that niggardly had an entirely different derivation and wikipedia confirmed that.
    So it seems that some places wont tolerate racist language regardless of intent and other places wont tolerate racist language even if it isnt racist language.

    1. Indeed, which is why a bunch of schools in Oregon named after the Lynch family – whose philanthropy enabled them to be established in the first place – have now been renamed. What a disgraceful insult to the generous benefactors!

  11. It concerns context and speaker, maybe. For eg I use the c-word quite a bit, in various contexts, mostly not derogatory and mostly not even about females.

    And I GET AWAY WITH IT because I have an accent and (cosmopolitan) people realize that where I’m from (a Southern land in the Sth Pacific) it really doesn’t have the electricity it does in the US. To me this is hilarious. Some of my best friends are c…..

  12. Are we still being surprised that a commercial media company will do whatever it decides is in the interests of profit even if some of those things are contradictory. We have to stop expecting better of these billionaire-owned, millionaire-run money making operations.

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