February 02, 2007

Taboos of the Nation

Oh, the things we staff writers at Language Log have to do as part of earning an honest living as language specialists. My co-worker John McWhorter (who also moonlights at the Manhattan Institute) had to be on the NPR show Talk Of The Nation yesterday to talk about sexually and ethnically offensive taboo words. Which would have been fine, only... host Neil Conan (following policies necessitated by the Federal Communications Commission, of course) had to make everyone go through the entire hour talking about these words and their use and their offensiveness without ever mentioning a single one of them. Talk about painful. You could sense the pain and frustration. I thought John might suddenly crack and start shouting: "What the fuck is the use of talking about the possible subtle sociophonetic differences between nigger and nigga if you assholes won't let me say what fucking word I'm talking about?" John is such a consummate professional that he would never lose it like that (though I almost did when I was on Talk Of The Nation.) He was calm throughout.

So they prattled about two different N-words, two different F-words, two different C-words, and a K-word (yes, K; try to guess it). At one point John had to ask which F-word he was being asked to talk about. Neil Conan made the ridiculous suggestion that they distinguish between "the F-word" and "the F bomb", but couldn't (of course) say which he meant by which. Off went John, and it soon became clear that he was talking about fuck. Neil stopped him, and explained that he meant the other one, you know, about gay men; so they decided they could draw a distinction between the one ending in k and the one ending in t. John backed up and started out again, this time apparently talking about faggot.

There was some mention of the possibility that we are giving these words too much power and influence by suggesting that their mere utterance can hurt people, and some mild criticizing of the idea that they might be actually legally banned, rather than merely despised (which is closer to my idea of the view we should take about such words). But never any possibility of implementing such a policy on National Public Radio. On they went with the guessing game of initials.

Of the two C-words referred to above, the first was cunt: it begins with a C and ends with a T and names a normally concealed part of a non-male person's body, John informed Neil, very subtly mocking the whole coy procedure, and then made the very interesting point that it used to be a respectable technical term in medicine. The second came up later, when a bipolar woman called in, and wondered whether she should just call it the C-word rather than say it out loud: the meant crazy (this is offensive to those who are differently abled as regards their endocranial biochemical endowment, she appeared to think).

When discussing the possible difference in sociophonetic flavor in offense-generating and solidarity-emphasizing uses of the pronunciation usually written nigga or niggah, as opposed to the normal pronunciation of nigger (a caller brought it up, with some struggling to get the point across without violating the agreed taboo), they started talking about the A variant and the ER variant of the N-word. And so the alphabet soupfest of avoidance went on.

I think the K-word might have been kike, since Jewish people had been mentioned by that stage in the conversation.

Don't ever think it's easy being in the language biz. Sure, it seems like we Language Log people must live a glamorous life, with our radio appearances and champagne receptions and foreign travel and everything; and sure, linguistics is enormous fun; but I was listening, and John McWhorter was working for his living out there in radioland.

Thanks to Ned Deily and others for correcting inaccuracies in the first version of this post.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 2, 2007 05:48 PM