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Today, Times Opinion published a guest essay by the Black linguist John McWhorter, which is an adaptation drawn from his new book, “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter.” His article both uses and refers to several obscenities — most notably a slur against Black people, the use and history of which is the topic of the essay. Instead of using a phrase like “the N-word” or “a slur against Black people” in this article, we print the word itself. It’s an unusual decision for The Times — and we want to share the reasoning behind it with you.
McWhorter traces the history of this particular word from its inception to its current place in our culture. He argues that the evolution of the use of this slur not only mirrors “a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups” but also demonstrates a cultural shift in the concerns of the words our culture considers truly profane: from the sexual and scatological referents of the classic four-letter words to the sociological referents of slurs. While the taboo against using most four-letter words has gradually faded, the taboo against slurs has intensified.
We wanted to present our readers with this argument in the clearest and most respectful way.
Generally speaking, at The Times, we don’t use asterisks or dashes to obscure obscenities. But even if we were willing to break with this practice, 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.
Ezekiel Kweku is the Opinion politics editor. He joined the Times in 2020 from New York magazine.