Language Matters: Can White People Say The “N” Word?

It’s a question that has been asked many times before:  Can white people ever say “n*gga”?

One writer (who is Black, for the record) says yes — but only in rap lyrics.  (, 19 Sept 2011)

Sometimes, language is all about context, and the same words uttered by one person in one situation may have a completely different meaning when spoken by someone else.  This is especially true when it comes to derogatory or taboo words about race.

The “N” word has a long and sordid history in the United States, and for it to leave the lips of a white person is to trigger the collective memory of slavery and generations of institutionalized racism in this country that still hasn’t fully faded from our society.

The “N” word has been reclaimed by the community that it originally insulted, but in the altered form of “n*gga.”  However, it is only socially acceptable for the group doing the reclaiming to use the reclaimed word.  Someone outside that group using the word constitutes a significant breach of etiquette.

If you listen to hip hop or rap at all, you know that the word has been enthusiastically and widely used in rap lyrics.  If you’re a white person, and you’re singing along, what do you do when the word comes up?

Don't worry, your dog won't tell anyone.

For example, rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West wrote a hit song called “N*ggas in Paris,” which rap fans of all races love, but the title can be problematic for white people.

As Brittany Lewis says in the article cited above, “When someone asks a white person what their favorite song is on Watch The Throne, what are they supposed to say?  Is their response supposed to be ‘Bleep In Paris,’ ‘Brothas In Paris,’ or ‘*Pause* In Paris?’”

SO while the word is ordinarily full of racist and insulting overtones, there are specific instances when it is okay to use — like when quoting the words to a song.

That doesn’t mean this translates to everyday life, however.

“But in the same breath, I will say to white people and people of other races to not address me as ‘Your n*gga’ or greet me ‘What up my n*gga?’ That is a no go,” says Lewis.

"What did you just call me?" "Oh, uh... I didn't, I mean... yeah, sorry."

The question remains: can white people use the “N” word?

Again, it’s all about context.  Most of the time, I think the answer still stands at a solid “no,” but if you’re rapping along with your favorite song and it’s obvious you’re not trying to insult anyone, well, maybe you can get away with that.

What are some other words that are only acceptable in certain situations or contexts, or when said by specific people?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Study all the hidden words in this post in VocabNetwork’s N Word: blog LM studylist!

Language Matters: “Name and Claim” Your Spot in the Christian Elite

Are you “born again”?  Have you been “saved” or know someone who is eagerly awaiting “The Rapture”?  These phrases, and others that have begun to appear in our language as Christian political-speak, may not mean what you think they mean.

Do you speak Christian? (, July 31, 2011)

There is a particular vocabulary to Christianity, key phrases to clue in those in the know that you’re one of them.  When someone mentions “second blessings” or praying to “name and claim” something, they are speaking a kind of jargon that not only includes them in a specific religious group, but also excludes those who don’t understand their special meaning.

The problem, according to some theologians, is that many of these Christian-speakers have it all wrong.

For example, many Christians use the word “salvation” to mean being released from sin or going to heaven.  But salvation in the Bible actually refers to turning from injustice to justice, as when the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt.

What about the “Rapture”?  Many think that the Rapture is an event predicted in the Bible in which those who are righteous will bodily ascend to heaven just before the end of the world.  However, there are no mentions of an event like this in the Bible, and the phrase itself did not appear until the 19th century.

These phrases have even slipped into the world of politics, providing a powerful means for politicians to show their inclusion in clannish Christian groups and ingratiate themselves into those powerful voting blocs.

When George W. Bush mentioned the “wonder-working power” of the American people, he was deliberately using a phrase that is especially meaningful to evangelical Christians.  Adopting the language of an insular religious group is an effective way of reaching out to that group and implying that you understand them.

While some phrases can be lost from lack of use, they can also fall into meaninglessness through overuse.  Some evangelicals are even rejecting the term “Christian,” claiming that it is overly broad and connected to politics, preferring the term “Christ follower,” instead.

Shared language, including unique terminology and phrasing, is one of the most powerful cohesive factors in social groups.  When this shared vocabulary doesn’t mean what speakers think it does, or when the meanings change over time, the social groups and what they believe also change.

Changing the language of Christianity is changing Christianity itself.

What do you think?  Have these religious words lost their meanings because of their constant use (or misuse) in political circles?  Or are they more powerful than ever?  Let us know in the comments!

Language Matters: Anti-Life or Pro-Choice?

In the United States, we live in an increasingly divisive political climate, and whichever side we are on, we use language to steer others to our side.  Creationism vs intelligent design.  Marriage equality vs family values.  Pro-life vs pro-choice.

Abortion Language: Politically Correct or Politically Bomb-Throwing? (NPR, 19 Sept 2011)

The topic of abortion is a delicate one at best and an explosive one at worst.

For some, it is a deeply personal choice that the government has no right to prohibit For others, it is literally a matter of life and death, and laws against it are as necessary as laws prohibiting murder.

The preferred terminology of the opposing groups on this issue is far from subtle in its attempt to sway the undecided.  Pro-choice sounds like a good thing to be — I like having choices, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be anti-choice.  But pro-life also has a definitively positive ring to it — I like life, in general, so the idea of labeling myself “anti-life” isn’t appealing either.

These choices are deliberate, chosen carefully to make one group the obviously “right” one while removing all nuance and complexity from the issue.  These terms attempt to make simple a debate which is anything but.

But what about “abortion doctor” or “abortion clinic”?

At first glance, the phrases seem apt, pithy, describing what they mean without mincing words or making attempts at euphemism.  Simple and effective.

Looking again, however, it’s easy to see how reducing a doctor or a clinic to the one morally problematic act they perform could demonize those doctors and clinics, making them easier to criticize and condemn.

So-called “abortion clinics” usually also provide OB-GYN services, birth control, STD testing, safer sex supplies, and other services.  So-called “abortion doctors” generally perform a wide range of women’s health services, not just abortions.  Referring to them based on only one of the many beneficial services they provide not only makes them into easier targets for those who oppose abortion, it also ignores the importance of their place in society.

So what’s the answer?  Should we continue to use these terms — pro-life, pro-choice, abortion clinic — even knowing their manipulative emotional nature?

NPR’s solution is to go with what they think are more neutral phrases — “abortion-rights advocate,” “abortion-rights opponent,” “OB-GYN doctor,” and “family planning clinic.”

What do you think?  Are the phrases used in the abortion debate too incendiary Can you think of better language to use when talking about this issue?

Want to study all the hidden linked words in this post?
Check out the Choice: blog LM studylist on!

Language Matters: The (lack of) Sept. 11th Vocabulary

In the days after the September 11 attacks, they were described as the event that defined a generation and as the new Pearl Harbor.  But have they, and the resulting war on terror that followed, left any other kind of linguistic legacy?

No Language Legacy: Where’s The Sept. 11 Vocab? (NPR, 7 Sept 2011)

Often, the effect of an event or a movement can be almost directly measured by the number of new words it introduces to our lexicon.  The Internet, for example, has given us “blog,” “webinar,” “LOL,” and “google,” just to name a few.

But 9/11, supposedly one of the most game-changing events in the last decade, seems to have left no such linguistic trace.

Compare this to WWII, which brought about many words we don’t even realize came from that time period, like blockbuster, bloodbath, and blitz.  Or the Vietnam War, which coined the phrases, “stay the course,” and “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Of course, those wars were more visible in society than the war on terror.  WWII especially, when nearly everyone had a family member in the military and women were flocking to fill the open jobs.  Those wars hit us at home.

The only real lasting phrase from the war on terror, ironically, comes from the fact that this war hasn’t had much of an effect on us in our everyday lives.  It’s even become a running joke when discussing the way we live.

“If I don’t go shopping the day after Thanksgiving, the terrorists win.”

“If I don’t take that vacation to the beach, the terrorists win.”

“If I change anything about my life because of this war, the terrorists win.”

Looking only at the changes to language over the last decade, it’s clear that the proliferation of the Internet has affected the way we speak in a vastly more direct and influential way than the September 11th attacks.  Not that we don’t remember that tragedy or honor its memory — we do.

We just don’t talk about it that much.

What do you think?  Do you know of any 9/11-related phrases that aren’t mentioned?  How have the events of September 11th changed your life?

Language Matters: Proud to be a Slut

Some words provoke instant and strong reactions, affecting us at a deep, almost visceral level.  And when those words are challenged and their meanings turned upside down, it’s hard not to take notice.

The power of a word: Reclaiming “slut” (BBC, 9 May 2011)

It’s one of those words that doesn’t quite qualify as profanity, but you still probably wouldn’t want to use it at the dinner table.


Originally, the term was used to describe slovenly or dirty women, and evolved to mean women of loose or low character.  Today, while the dictionary still includes “prostitute” or “slovenly woman” as definitions for the word, it is almost always used in its connotative sense — to mean a promiscuous woman.

While there have been some attempts to reclaim the word by feminists and other progressive groups, it was not until a Toronto policeman advised women to not dress like sluts to avoid becoming victims of rape that the word grabbed significant media attention.

Protests called “Slutwalks” have appeared all over the United States, as well as Canada, the UK, and Australia in response to the policeman’s “slut-shaming” advice.

While the main message of these protests is to remind those who think like that Toronto policeman that rape is never the victim’s fault, that message is accompanied by a movement to take back the word “slut” and make it a positive, self-affirming term of unashamed sexuality.

With the signs reading, “Don’t tell women what to wear; Tell men not to rape,” and “A dress is not a yes,” women also held signs proudly proclaiming their status as sluts and refusing to accept that a slut is a bad thing to be.

Reclaiming the word is also a strike at the double standard of sexuality, in which a man is lauded for his sexual conquests and called a “stud,” but a woman is condemned and shamed for the same behavior.

Still, like other insults that have been reclaimed by the communities they originally put down (“queer” and “bitch,” for example), the word in its reclaimed, positive sense can only be used by those within that community.  If an “outsider” were to use it, even with good intentions, it could still be perceived as insulting.

What do you think about this issue?  Could “slut” become a sex-positive term used with pride, or is it too firmly rooted in its derogatory past?  Is it even a worthy cause to try to reclaim it?

Language Matters: LOLing at the OED

Language is undoubtedly a living, evolving thing.  And this is good, because otherwise we’d be stuck with a language from the Middle Ages to describe 21st century ideas.  But sometimes language can change in unexpected and potentially undesirable ways.

‘LOL’ added to the OED (BBC, 8 April 2011)

Raise your hand if you’ve used “LOL,” either online or in real life.

Wow!  That’s a lot of you.

I expected as much.

Still, some language purists have raised eyebrows at the recent decision to include “LOL” and “OMG” in the definitive book of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The terms, as you might know, mean “laughing out loud” and “oh my god,” respectively.

Their ubiquity and the fact that they usually don’t need defining are what made them qualified to join the official ranks of our language.

Most people know them, many use them or have used them at some point, and even the most ardent “lol-haters” recognize their position in the language as a way of expressing amusement or a tongue-in-cheek appreciation of a joke in text or an online environment.

However, the inclusion of these terms in the official English language has led some to question whether the widespread use of such slang terms is harmful, especially for young people who are still developing their communication abilities.

Not so, say others.  In fact, it may actually be helpful.  Kids who use slang are engaging in code-switching, a linguistic task that involves using elements of two languages at the same time — something that bilingual people do.

This is not the first time that the language of the Internet has been given official sanction by the OED — the term “google” used as a verb was added in 2006.

What do you think about this issue?  Should “LOL” and “OMG” be counted as “real” words in English?  What about other Internet slang, like “BRB” or “ROFL”?  Why or why not?

Language Matters: Words for Thought

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We think in words.

We tell ourselves what we want to hear, we talk ourselves out of (or into) things, we listen to that little voice in our heads that tells us what to do, we talk through an idea (or we think out loud), and we sometimes escape to hear ourselves think.

How many times have you grasped at an idea, knowing that you knew what you wanted to express but you couldn’t quite express it, so you grappled with your thoughts and muttered some related words to yourself until you finally hit upon that right word with a “Eureka!” moment and felt immense relief at having found the word that matched your meaning?

But what if you didn’t know that word?

How would you express that meaning?  More importantly, would you even be able to conceive of that concept if you had no word to associate it with?

Studies have shown that vocabulary size in children is associated with the ability to grasp new concepts and understand new information.  Kids with more word knowledge have an easier time thinking about unfamiliar subjects because they have more words to think with.

Words are like tools.  If all you have are nails, planks, and a hammer, you could build a rough shelter.  But if you want a big, elaborate house, you’re going to need more specialized tools.  Similarly, basic words can communicate basic concepts, but if you want to express full, complicated ideas, you’re going to need more sophisticated words.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!

Language Matters: London gangstas say f**k the 5-0

Why bother with all this vocabulary stuff?  How is it relevant in the ‘real world’?  You might be surprised by how much the words you use affect the meaning of what you say.

The language behind the England riots (BBC, 12 August 2011)


Po po.

The 5-0.

These are just a few new words in the UK’s lexicon — all of them slang for the police — that traveled across the ocean from the United States with their hip hop and rap origins.

These are the "po po" according to rioters, even though they're not the same police that LA rappers were talking about when they invented the term.

These words, along with others of non-US origin (such as “yard” for home or “end” for part of a city), have drawn increased attention from the media because of the London riots.

While the words have changed meaning somewhat from their origins — the word “feds” obviously does not refer to the FBI when used in the UK — they carry a connotation that connects their users to a subculture that is known to hold contempt for police.

And they're not afraid to tell you how they feel.

In a similar way, when the media referred to “the community,” it was generally accepted that the term meant everyone who was not involved in the looting and riots.

Even the choice between the word “rioter,” which implies a political motivation, or “looter,” which implies simple theft, holds great weight in this situation.

Clearly, looters are the more reviled group.

These examples demonstrate the power of words and their importance in expressing meaning, especially when dealing with emotionally and politically controversial events around the world.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!