Is the NYT defanging John McWhorter?

October 14, 2021 • 11:00 am

A reader sent me a link to John McWhorter’s latest post at the New York Times, which activated an idea I’ve been mulling over for some time. The email with the link:

I guess we’re only going to get mostly fluff from McWhorter while he’s with the NY Times. I’ll admit that I only skimmed this quickly so if I missed something important, perhaps you’ll tell us in WEIT. 😉

Here’s the piece, and I can’t decide for myself whether John McWhorter is losing his hard edge now that he’s with the NYT. I worried about this when he left Substack, but I didn’t mind his move to the NYT, as who could turn down the opportunity to write twice weekly for them (no doubt for substantial emoluments), not to mention the bigger audience and publicity. No, I was worried that his honest contrarianism on issues of race would turn milder. After all, no white man could get away with what McWhorter has been saying regularly on his Substack column, and I wondered if the Times would even let McWhorter, a black man, be so honest.

I was reassured when he came out with a fantastic column on the crazy rock kerfuffle at the University of Wisconsin, which involved moving a huge boulder out of sight since it had been given the term “n******head rock only once by a local newspaper—in 1925. McWhorter pulled no punches calling out the performative wokeness and faux offense of the University’s student and the cowardice of its administration. Click to read that one:

Never have I seen such a hard-nosed (and truthful) indictment of performative outrage in the NYT, and I cheered.

But since then, we’ve gotten nothing so hard nosed, and I’m wondering if McWhorter has been given the word to go a bit easier (I doubt he’d even accept such criticism) or, more likely, decided to soften his tone for the general public. After all, a column like the one above doesn’t resonate with most NYT readers, editors, or writers.

So I read the column the reader sent me, and while it is somewhat fluffy, I can’t yet decided whether McWhorter, whom I much admire, is getting softer. Click to read:

Half of the column is devoted to discussing phrases that are used for social communication rather than for truth value (“to be honest,” which implies that the speaker sometimes isn’t; and “nice shirt” compliment when you don’t mean it). It’s okay stuff, but I myself have written about “to be honest’ in my “words and phrases I detest” feature, and I’d like to think that McWhorter is less fluffy than I.

The rest of his piece improves as it segues into a notice that tomorrow evening he’s holding a virtual event, “Woke Words”, for NYT subscribers. He follows that with a discussion of which words and phrases are verboten and which (in his view) are okay to keep using. An excerpt:

We’ll talk about this sort of quandary [the “to be honest” usage] in “Woke Words,” my New York Times Q. and A. this Thursday, and the conversation will surely get spicier when we go into more societally loaded questions, including some you’ve submitted in advance: One person reports being told that we are no longer to say “brown bag lunch” because the phrase evokes the crude color scale that some elite (and elitist) African American organizations are said to have used, once upon a time, to determine eligibility for membership, with only people lighter in complexion than a brown bag admitted.

On this one I must admit a certain skepticism (not of intra-Black colorism — that’s quite real) that “brown bag lunch” should be implicated, for the reason of the antiquity. How many people today know what the brown bag test was, and more to the point, need we proscribe words and expressions to symbolically exorcise a practice that no longer exists?

If we do, then by the same logic, we should no longer refer to whipped cream, since enslaved people were whipped, or shucking corn, because the phrase “shucking and jiving” refers to Black people faking glee to placate white people. If those hypotheticals seem to be pushing it, I’m not sure how “brown bag” is different.

More readily understandable is the pox on “retarded”; associations with the word became so noxious (in my youth it was, sadly, regularly used as a slur) that the impulse to replace it with other terms was natural. But the change to terms like “intellectually disabled” exemplifies the euphemism treadmill I referred to in an earlier piece: “Crippled” becomes “handicapped” becomes “differently abled,” and each new term tends to take on the old connotations. At one point, at least some developmentally disabled people were described as having “special needs” but, plus ça change, “special” also gets leveled as a slur in certain malicious contexts.

Then I’ve also seen calls to get rid of expressions in which the word “black” denotes anything sinister: No more “blacklist,” despite that it did not emerge with a meaning related to Black people.

So here he’s combined his academic field of linguistics with his take on race, and worrying about “mission creep” as innocuous phrases undergo “mission creep” into things supposed to cause harm. That’s something we discuss a lot around here, but again, it’s not new with McWhorter.

But the column’s still worth reading. He’s been alternating columns about race with ones about linguistics, and I have to say that I find the former far more thought-provoking. (Many readers, on the other hand, probably come for the linguistics.) After all, right now America is obsessed not with linguistics but with race, and McWhorter’s point of view, similar to that of his Bloggingheads colleague Glenn Loury, is unique among black liberals.

No, I don’t think the man has sold his soul to the NYT, but remember: this is the paper whose editor, after he dumped science writer Don McNeil Jr. for using the n-word in a didactic way (on a NYT tour, not in the paper), claimed that the intent of using such a word didn’t matter; all that mattered was its effect on the listener. Editor Dean Baquet even ditched a column by Bret Stephens pushing back against the “intent doesn’t matter” trope.  And that gives me a suggestion for another column by McWhorter that combines linguistics and wokeness: “Does intent matter?”


19 thoughts on “Is the NYT defanging John McWhorter?

  1. It could be that McWhorter doesn’t want to be just a ‘race guy’ in his writings, as PCC(E) notes, he is a linguist, after all.

  2. I had a long talk with a cultural anthropologist friend on this column yesterday. We both agreed that language constantly evolves and norms and mores change over time. This is not unusual or problematic. It just is. I can think of dozens of terms and idioms that were commonplace years ago and are now cringe worthy or worse. Certainly I don’t care for much of the current demands on language, but that does not matter. The language has and will continue to change in ways that are difficult (at best) to predict. Examples where such changes do cause harm are hard to find.

  3. McWhorter has used his podcast conversations with Loury to vent his race issue frustrations and his own podcast (Slate’s Lexicon Valley, since moved to a new site, Booksmart studios) to discuss linguistics (and his love of music and cartoons as segues). It seems to me that his NYT column is where he feels comfortable sharing these two major passions. Only if one of unfamiliar with his linguistic podcasts would one think he has sold out, especially since the majority of his efforts are in the linguistic arena, be it podcasts or books. The race stuff, it appears to me anyway, is a frustrating distraction for him; something he is compelled to speak out on but wished he didn’t have to.

    1. I very much agree with C’s comment. There are many like me who have long admired and enjoyed both sides of McWhorter – linguistics via the Lexicon Valley podcast and also somewhat more organized lectures under the auspices of “The Learning Company / The Great Courses” (currently rebranding as “Wondrium”). As C. notes, the podcast has moved to another platform, and I get the impression McWhorter feels more relaxed about sharing some of his political and racial issues thinking there now (when brought in from a linguistic point) than he did when it was on Slate.

      In the other direction, when his ostensibly more political outlets start to take up linguistics, I can see how it might disappoint some people who have mostly been attracted to him for that side, or who have just not previously experienced or enjoyed his popular linguistic output. But it would be a mistake to think of that as selling out, or weakening a social/political stand. Please try to enjoy watching him mix it all up, in both spheres!

  4. “…right now America is obsessed not with linguistics but with race…”. I have to take issue with that. The
    essence of wokeliness seems to be an obsession with words that borders on mania. Some of the words have to do with race, as in the episodes of the Wisconsin rock and the firing of Don McNeil. But
    some have to do with gender. Some reflect a mysterious compulsion to insert the letter “x” into or at the end of words that already exist. John McWhorter’s take on these manias is shrewd and interesting . I particularly liked his discussion of the “euphemism treadmill” in regard to disabilities, another area in which there is more obsession with language than with actual, substantive helpfulness. Incidentally, I think the word-obsession of the wokies—noticeable particularly among administrators—reveals exactly that wokeliness originated in the groves of academe. Perhaps the way to deal with it is by establishing
    academic departments, or a subdivision in Psychology departments, for research in Woke Studies.

    1. Yup. It’s like they believe words are magic. As if using a word that once was used to encode or promote racism somehow still casts an evil spell. Like Harry Potter characters saying “he-who-must-not-be-named”.

  5. I’ve never paid much attention to linguistics, despite being occasionally fascinated by the etymology of some words. But I find McWhorter’s writing on the subject to be engaging, and the more he writes on it the more I realize how interesting the subject is, and how much there is to be mined from it. I suspect he could keep plenty busy for a long time talking about nothing but linguistics.

    1. I first heard of him via my father, who was taking his Great Course course. I watched the episode on language isolates, and found it very engaging.

  6. I’ve been following the career of this cat McWhorter since 2000 when he wrote Losing the Race, and I’d be shocked to see him cave on any issue he holds dear to heart. I also appreciate that he splits his NYT columns between being a “race man” and his field of academic specialization.

  7. I would be ok with the fluffy linguistic pieces if they were interspersed with the harder stuff. Like our host, I fear that the NYT has told him “Ok, no more of that!” after the U of W “rock” piece. That said, I like the linguistics stuff. It’s just that the harder stuff is so much more important. We need McWhorter’s voice on the race issue. Time will tell.

  8. I notice in the third paragraph the phrase “refers to Black people faking glee to placate white people.”, Just wondering if the capitalization of the adjective “black” and the lower case “white” is McWhorter’s or the editor’s?

    1. He has given an interesting account of deciding to follow those forms. As you might expect, he was open about second thoughts and nuances, but made it clear it was his reasoned decision.

  9. When I was eight, I lost all the hearing in my left ear and about 50% in my right, from exposure to streptomycin (ironically, for ear infections).. I’m deaf (even, as my wife lovingly tells me, a deaf git). I don’t care to be hearing impaired; I’m deaf. I get the feeling this excessive delicacy about terminology comes from fully able virtue-signallers rather than from those afflicted.

  10. The protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s latest novel (“Antkind”) uses ‘thon’ as a gender-neuter pronoun and calls himself ‘B.’ so as not to ‘impose his masculinity’. It’s laugh out loud stuff until you read the papers…

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