John McWhorter lays out his position on the use of the n-word, a position omitted from his recent NYT column

May 5, 2021 • 10:15 am

The other day I had a small beef (a filet mignon?) about this column by John McWhorter in the New York Times (click on screenshot):

In it, McWhorter (who is black) spelled out the n-word in full 34 times while discussing its etymology, history, and his thesis that racial slurs are “the new profanity.” I thought the essay was good, but suffered from McWhorter’s refusal to explicitly say when it was okay, if ever, to write or utter the full n-word. Worse, it was a piece of arrant hypocrisy on the part of the New York Times, whose editor Dean Baquet had said in print that all that matters in the use of the n-word word is not intent but its effect on the listener or reader. And surely some readers must have beeen offended by McWhorter’s use! How did he get away with it. Well, one reason, of course, is that McWhorter is black, but that wouldn’t seem to justify the Times‘s violation of its own rule.

McWhorter apparently felt the need to explain his stand, but did so on his own website (click on screenshot below). To be fair, I suspect the NYT would not have let him give his stand in its article. So he wrote his own piece on his Substack site, It Bears Mentioning. Click on the screenshot below.

The title more or less tells you what he thinks. He begins by recounting several familiar examples of professors fired or removed from their classes for using the n-word. But not even the word itself—just something that sounded like it. Remember this?

. . . . Greg Patton had been dismissed from a class he was teaching at the University of Southern California for mentioning that in Mandarin, the equivalent of the hedging “like” in English is “nèi genèi ge” which translates as “that, that …” but sounds like, well, you know. Not only had Patton given the lecture countless times before with no problems, but – you couldn’t write this better – the class was on communication in global markets!! Yet the usual suspects went about for weeks claiming that Patton had committed a kind of “violence” added to the grinding burden that being black in modern America is.

And McWhorter of course mentions Don McNeil, the NYT science reporter fired for using the n-word merely to find out if it had really been used as a slur by a student. McWhorter of course, couldn’t have mentioned that in his NYT piece: that episode has gone done the Orwellian garbage chute.

McWhorter is concerned, of course, with the absolute refusal to distinguish the word used as a racial slur from when it was used as, say, a book title by Dick Gregory or Randall Kennedy. And like McWhorter, one senses that some of the outrage isn’t genuine:

I call this refusal performative – i.e. a put-on – because I simply cannot believe that so many people do not see the difference between using a word as a weapon and referring to the word in the abstract. I would be disrespecting them to suppose that they don’t get this difference between, say, Fuck! as something yelled and fuck as in a word referring to sexual intercourse. They understand the difference, but see some larger value in pretending that it doesn’t exist.

McWhorter argues against the “slippery slope” argument—that using the n-word will make it commonplace—noting that he knows of no word that was once a “proscribed slur” but then later came back into general usage. Can anybody imagine that heppening with the n-word?

Finally, McWhorter notices that “Negro”, not a term much seen these days, is joining the n-word pantheon, even though it’s still part of an estimable organization: “The United Negro College Fund.” (Note, too, “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”) If “Negro” is proscribed, we’ll have to redact a lot of Martin Luther King’s speeches and writings.


We are getting to a point where a generation of Elect people will be unable to even sit through a classic witfest like the film Blazing Saddles, their religion rendering them unable to process that the use of the N-word by vicious, stupid, silly characters was written as a way of decrying racism rather than fostering it.

Actually, I would not be surprised if we are already at that point, given things one sees and hears these days. True to form, in the fall of 2020 at Bard College, freshmen began a campaign of shaming against a professor who read out not the word nigger but Negro in a discussion of Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The new idea is that even that word is profane, in being an outdated one black people no longer consider appropriate. The pretended inability to distinguish between the abusive and the antique is an indication that 2020 had been a Sunday School in Electism for these kids. They are showing that they have learned their lesson in suspending basic intelligence in favor of virtue signalling, in the face of something that would not matter a whit to most black people themselves.

Is there anyone who hasn’t thought that at least some of the outrage about such stuff is indeed performative (remember the demonized Kimono exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)?

Is there no way to use the n-word without it stirring up a hornet’s nest? Must we completely avoid the fact that racial slurs are, in fact, part of American history, odious though they were? What that leads to is redaction of books like this book by Joseph Conrad, pointed out by a reader:

Now (click for the Amazon link, thought the book, which is real, may be a conservative tweak of liberalism).


At the end, McWhorter sees the performative outrage as a way for the elect to gain power. Remember, the word “racist” carries an enormous amount of power, even when used against nonracists. There is no response you can make to being called a racist that is acceptable to whom McWhorter calls “the elect.”

McWhorter’s final words ring deeply true to some of us:

Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I’d be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.

But I know I am missing the point. This performative transformation of the N-word into a taboo term affords a kind of power: black Elects get a way of getting back at whites by destroying their careers; white Elects spectating get to show they aren’t racists by cheering on the witch-hunting. To these people all of this feels healthy, active, restoring, noble.

But the problem is that while it may feel that way to them, to the rest of us – among whom are legions of thoroughly reasonable, intelligent, concerned, and sensitive persons of all races  – this new take on the N-word looks paranoid, fake, and mean.

What kind of antiracism is that?

And how have we come to this kind of tribalism and divisiveness?

Once again, “Black” versus “white”

September 13, 2020 • 11:45 am

I doubt that I’ll write much more about this issue, and bring it up here because Greg has turned up some curious journalistic information. This all involves newspapers’ decisions about whether to capitalize “black” and “white” when they refer to races, or rather, to socially constructed entities formerly known as races. I’ve discussed the capitalization issue in two earlier posts, prompted by the AP’s stylebook that newly mandates capitalization for Black but not for white (see here and here for my posts).  The New York Times has adopted this usage, while the Washington Post, in contrast, capitalizes both Black and White. I’d like to see their editors fight it out.

None of the justifications for the contrasting caps decision seem valid. For instance, some say that Black should be capitalized because the group shares a common fate of oppression (though not everywhere), but of course whites share the common trait of being the oppressor. And so it goes. My own take is that the real reason “Black” is capitalized is as a form of linguistic reparations: to give respect to a people who have been poorly treated. In contrast, “whites” get lowercase as a form of punishment, for being the oppressor. This is clear from an article in the New York Times that says this:

For proponents of capitalizing black, there are grammatical reasons — it is a proper noun, referring to a specific group of people with a shared political identity, shaped by colonialism and slavery. But some see it as a moral issue as well.

It confers a sense of power and respect to black people, who have often been relegated to the lowest rungs of society through racist systems, black scholars say.

“Race as a concept is not real in the biological sense, but it’s very real for our own identities,” said Whitney Pirtle, an assistant professor of sociology specializing in critical race theory at the University of California, Merced. “I think that capitalizing B both sort of puts respect to those identities, but also alludes to the humanities.”

Similarly, this recent article in HuffPost (below) which pretends to be evenhanded but comes down on the side of disparate capitalization, says this:

Years before the AP decision, The Diversity Style Guide ― which is produced by San Francisco State University journalism professor Rachele Kanigel in consultation with some 50 journalists and experts ― recommended capitalizing Black.

“It’s true that Black, unlike African American, Asian American and Italian, is not derived from a proper noun,” she told HuffPost. “But it is an identity and to lowercase it robs Black people of a certain dignity.”

. . .“The widespread move by media organizations, universities and other institutions to capitalize Black restores this dignity to Black Americans, who have had so much taken from them for so many generations,” Kanigel said.

Alexandria Neason, a Columbia Journalism Review staff writer, said. . . To capitalize Black, she explained in a blog post, is to acknowledge that slavery “deliberately stripped” people forcibly shipped overseas “of all other ethnic/national ties.”

Click on the screenshot to show HuffPo’s Twister game of capitalization.

In contrast, the argument for lowercase “whites” is largely, according to both the AP Stylebook and the HuffPost article, because if you capitalize the term, you’re validating white supremacy (!):

From HuffPo (which at least lays out arguments for capitalizing “White”):

Capitalizing white certainly doesn’t have widespread support, though, in part because white supremacist sites have also been known to capitalize the “w” in white.

“Capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs,” the AP said of its decision to leave white lowercase.

From the AP stylebook:

We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.

Well, I think that’s ludicrous, but to avoid being accused of being a Proud Boy, while at the same time not treating people differently based on their skin color, I’ll write “black” and “white” for the time being. “Brown” will also be in lowercase, though there are arguments about that, too.

So that’s settled, but of course readers can use whatever forms they want. The addition to the debate this week comes from Greg Mayer, who noticed what I see as unconscionable editing of other people’s words to conform to your own ideology. This is being done by the New York Times. I’ll quote an email from Greg:

 I’ve noticed that the Times silently emends quotations from others’ printed texts to follow their house style of “Black”. I noticed this when reading a piece about Michael Cohen’s book in the Times, and they quoted Cohen as writing:
“Tell me one country run by a Black person that isn’t a shithole,” Mr. Cohen quotes Mr. Trump as saying.
The Guardian, in its review, quotes the same line:
“Tell me one country run by a black person that isn’t a shithole. They are all complete fucking toilets,” Cohen writes, attributing the comments to Trump following the former president’s election in 2008 – mirroring earlier reports he referred to African and Caribbean nations by the same insult.
The Guardian‘s house style, like the Times, is to capitalize “Black” but they, at least in this instance, don’t emend someone else’s usage.
Here’s further confirmation that the Times routinely alters the typography of quoted material to fit house style:
Times article with “Black” in quoted material:
Original sources, quoted in above, using “black”
This is interesting, and seems to me distinctly un-journalistic. I was told, when I learned to write term papers, that when you quote you must quote exactly.  You don’t change other people’s words.  If you do, like inserting explanatory material, you must be obvious about it and use brackets. I think someone should point out to the New York Times that they’re subtly altering quotes to conform to their style, which of course conforms to their ideology. However good the ideology, though, changing things without mentioning it is a journalist no-no.

More Egnorance about Darwin and language in the Washington Post

September 18, 2016 • 9:30 am

Well, given the number of comments on my review in the Washington Post of Tom Wolfe’s abysmal new book on Darwin, Chomsky, and the evolutionary basis of language (Wolfe says there is no such basis), I shouldn’t have been surprised that there would be pushback from readers. But what I didn’t expect was that one of the two letters published would be from a creationist. Yes, like a dog returning to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11), intelligent-design creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, whose obsession with me is regularly on parade at the Discovery Institute website Evolution News and Views, couldn’t resist commenting.

Egnor had no beef with my “defense”—such as it was—of Chomsky, but he sure didn’t like my defense of Darwin. The curious thing is that, contrary to Egnor’s claim, I didn’t defend Darwin’s own views on language, which were rudimentary and fanciful, but rather the proposition that there is some genetic basis for the human use of language. I also called out Wolfe for his ignorant claim that there is no evidence for evolution, and that it neither explains any biological puzzles nor makes any predictions.

Egnor, of course, ignores my own comments in favor of casting doubt on the whole evolutionary enterprise on the basis of speculations that Darwin made about language. (By the way, Dr. Egnor, Darwin was right about evolution, natural selection, and common ancestry of all organisms.) Egnor apparently believes that language is a gift of the Unspecified Designer. And, as you might expect, he doesn’t identify himself as an intelligent-design creationist, which of course would cast doubt on his competence. Here’s his letter:

Jerry A. Coyne’s review of Tom Wolfe’s book “The Kingdom of Speech” [“Tom Wolfe should stop posing as an evolutionary biologist,” Outlook, Sept. 4] was a mixed bag. Coyne was right to defend Noam Chomsky from Wolfe’s attacks. Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar and recursion are supported by massive evidence and landmarks in modern linguistics and neuroscience. Chomsky has earned the respect of the scientific community. [JAC: This isn’t true—there is huge controversy about Chomsky’s theories, which I noted in my review.]

Coyne, however, was wrong to defend Charles Darwin from Wolfe’s scathing critique. As Wolfe pointed out, Darwinian stories about the origin of human language are pitifully inadequate. Human language bears no relation to the crude signals and gestures of animals. Nothing in the animal realm is a precursor to universal grammar or to the semantic subtlety of recursion — the layered meaning packed into clauses-within-clauses used routinely by all human beings.

Human language is sui generis. It is a window into the human soul, and it lacks any credible Darwinian roots. Wolfe is to be commended for bringing this fascinating discussion into the public forum.

Michael Egnor, Stony Brook, N.Y.

Go back to my original review and look again at my defense of Darwin.


But this second letter, from the director of an institute in Massachusetts that specializes in treating autistic children, is in some ways more disturbing, because you expect someone who treats autism to be a bit more rational:

Tom Wolfe is to be applauded for his new book, The Kingdom of Speech,” in which he posits that speech, contrary to Noam Chomsky’s position, did not arise from evolution but rather is a direct human creation. For those teaching children with autism, this truth is evident every day.

A primary diagnosis of autism is lack of speech and social interaction. For this large population, language is neither inherited nor instinctually structured, as Chomsky believes. The key to establishing language for those with autism is teaching functional communication, including alternative methods: sign language, pictures, touch-to-speak technology and mobile apps.

This functional approach is grounded in the science of applied-behavior analysis, proving Chomsky’s structural theory false. For the Chomsky school, nature is weighted over nurture. In our experience, nurture is the path by which those with no speech skills can achieve meaningful communication.

If language were an innate characteristic rather than something that could be acquired, there would be no option for a child who can’t speak. As those who teach children with autism know, this is clearly not the case. Teaching language, regardless of form, is a powerful tool to allow individuals diagnosed with autism to lead richer lives.

Vincent Strully Jr.,
Southborough, Mass.

The writer is founder and chief executive of the New England Center for Children.

Here Mr. Strully argues that because you can help autistic children learn to communicate through sign language and other non-speech-related techniques, language cannot have a genetic basis. This fallacy, that cultural intervention can’t change a trait if it has a genetic/evolutionary basis, is as old as modern biology.

Autism causes problems with communication and social interaction, and, as Strully notes, there are environmental interventions that can promote communication. Further, although we don’t understand the precise neural or physiological basis of autism, the condition is not only biologically based, probably representing some neural malfunction, but also has some genetic basis (it’s passed on) as well as some environmental influences, and this complex nexus of genes and environment, as well as difficulties with diagnosis, results in a highly variable condition—the “autism spectrum”.

Deafness, too, which also impedes communication, often has a genetic basis, but deaf people can use (and even invent) sign language without even being taught. But the existence of that language has no bearing on the biological basis of deafness.  Maybe Mr. Strully finds that easier to grasp.

But as biologists (and rational folks) have long realized, the fact that a biological “malfunction” (like diabetes) can be cured or ameliorated does not mean that the “normal” condition (language, in the case of autism) is not based on genes and evolution. Strully’s argument—that autistic children learning to communicate shows that language has no basis in “nature” (genetics/evolution)—is equivalent to saying this: the fact that we can correct defective vision with eyeglasses is evidence that the eye did not evolve. Or, as Strully might say:

A primary diagnosis of myopia is an inability to focus the eye properly. For this large population, the eye itself is not inherited. . . In our experience, nurture (wearing glasses) is the path by which those with poor vision can achieve better sight.

Frankly, I’m appalled that Strully fell victim to a fallacy like this.

Egnor (l.) and Strully

Their names should be legion

April 5, 2016 • 11:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Following up on Matthew’s linguistic investigation of larval amphibians, I’d like to address another amphibian linguistic conundrum: the English words for adult members of the order Anura. Just as we have two standard words for a larval anuran in English, we have two standard words for the adults: frog and toad. But this linguistic duality comes nowhere near encompassing the biodiversity of anurans. There are, by many estimates, over 40 families of anurans. I myself consider this taxonomy a bit oversplit, but even a conservative taxonomy would have more than two dozen families. There are thus many more sorts of anurans than there are English words to name them. Why is this so?

The answer, I believe, is simple. In Great Britain, where the language developed, there are four native species: two frogs (Rana temporaria and Rana lessonae), and two toads (Bufo bufo and Bufo calamita). So in England, there are indeed only two sorts of anurans. Here’s one of the frogs, the common frog (North American readers will note the resemblance to our wood frog, Rana sylvatica, which also has a tympanic dark spot and dorsolateral folds):

The Common Frog (Rana temporaria), near Bad Kohlgrub, Bavaria. Photo by Richard Bartz (Wikimedia).
The Common Frog (Rana temporaria), near Bad Kohlgrub, Bavaria. Photo by Richard Bartz (Wikimedia).

And here’s one of the toads, the common toad (the green flecks are duckweed or some other plant):

Common Toad (Bufo bufo), Broomscroft, Kent. Photo by Peter K. Moore.
Common Toad (Bufo bufo), Broomscroft, Kent. Photo by Peter K. Moore.

We can distinguish frogs from toads, because frogs are more aquatic, with long hind limbs for jumping, webbed toes (easily seen above), and moist, smoother skin. Toads are more terrestrial, squat with short legs for hopping, and have dry, warty skin. And this distinction works for the anurans of Britain– the frogs are members of the family of “true frogs”– Ranidae, while the toads are members of the family of “true toads”– Bufonidae.

As the English encountered more kinds of anurans around the world, each new anuran was shoe-horned into being either a frog or a toad. Thus the long limbed, arboreal, jumping anurans of the family Hylidae (which English nobility would have encountered in their Continental estates) were called, aptly enough, tree frogs. And in the North American colonies, the squat, warty burrowing members of the family Pelobatidae were called spadefoot toads. But with dozens of families of anurans, and a great diversity of ecological habits and body forms, the distinction breaks down, and our English common names wind up forcing an exuberant diversity into just two names.

I wonder to what extent the biodiversity of a language’s native land influences the language’s naming diversity. In the only other language I (sort of) speak, Spanish, I know three words– rana (for frogs), sapo (for toads), and maco. The latter is a word I learned in the Dominican Republic, and it has a very different meaning in standard Castilian, as given by the Real Academia Española: it means ‘knave’ or ‘rogue’ if converted to a noun (in Castilian it is an adjective). It’s possible that the Dominican word is of Taino or West African origin, rather than Spanish.

So, I’d like to ask our non-Anglophone readers, how many words for kinds of adult anurans are there in your language? And how does this compare to the biological diversity?

[The title of the post refers of course to a story about demons in the Gospels. A Roman legion had 6,000 men (and there are about 6000 species of anurans). If each family of anurans should have a common name, there names would not be quite legion, but there would be a lot more than two!]

Krak-oo, hok-oo and boom

December 23, 2014 • 3:21 pm

by Grania

I’m a science groupie, so I can’t even pretend to write about science subjects, but I can recommend some articles I read this week.

The first is in Scientific American, Monkey See, Monkey Speak which is I think really exciting, a breakthrough in understanding actual vocabulary of Campbell’s monkeys. They aren’t going to be typing out Shakespeare any time soon, but it is quite amazing that there are actual words that are not human in origin.

Krak is leopard, Hok is eagle and boom means quite the opposite of what it means in Humanspeak: all clear.

(that’s going to cause some confusion when the Planet of the Apes revolution begins).

Second up is one tweeted by Ed Yong, a fascinating piece by Lizzie Wade on the problems of breeding in captivity to preserve a threatened species: in this case condors hand-reared by puppets turned into rebels without a cause once released into the world:

Around the same time, condors released near the Grand Canyon posed for photographs and swooped past hotel balconies to wild applause from the guests. They lurked along the edges of trails and lunged at passing hikers, ripping off their shoelaces. A field crew in Arizona told The New York Times in 2003 that they’d seen four condors experimenting with what appeared to be group sex. The scientists tasked with keeping the young birds in line (and away from people) compared the job to running a rowdy middle school.

As amusing as that is, the ramifications are not: the breeding program has had to have a serious re-think about their methods as well as whether they are having a positive effect at all.

Lastly, in contrast to the States-side problems, Europe has had a resounding success in reintroducing carnivores back into the wild in the form of wolverines, lynxes and brown bears.

A new study finds that Europe’s other large carnivores are experiencing a resurgence in their numbers, too — and mostly in nonprotected areas where the animals coexist alongside humans. The success is owed to cross-border cooperation, strong regulations and a public attitude that brings wildlife into the fold with human society, rather than banishing it to the wilderness, according to study leader Guillaume Chapron, a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ Grimsö Wildlife Research Station.

See more wonderful pictures here.

As always, please share your links if you’ve seen a good article to read.

The history of the English language, in one chart and a ten-minute video

October 3, 2014 • 12:27 pm

Matthew Cobb called my attention to this short article from io9 (he’s too lazy to post it himself), showing the history of the English language in graphic form.

Triangulations blogger Sabio Lantz recently put together this rather clever diagram showing how the English language has evolved over the past 3,000 years.

And yes, though it first emerged as a West Germanic language spoken in early medieval England, its roots go as far back as the Celts. It was carried by Germanic settlers to various parts of the Netherlands, northwest Germany, and Denmark. One of these Germanic tribes, the Angles, eventually made its way to what is now Britain. At the time, the native population in Roman Britain spoke Common Brittonic, a Celtic language, that had certain Latin features.

Lantz’s diagram is also fascinating in that it beautifully illustrates how cultural injections influence the evolution of language. For English, this ranged from the Viking and Norman invasions through to the Renaissance mixing and empiric imports, such as Hindi and Arabic.

Old English, which I took in college so I could read Beowulf in the original, begins around 500 CE (or AD). The poem itself was problem written several hundred years after that, and the manuscript, in the British Library, dates from the 11th century. (I was so excited to see it and make out some of the words!) Some of the poem, but not all, is intelligible to a modern English speaker.


To complement this, there’s a nice 11.33-minute video, produce by the Open University, giving more information on the history of English