March 30, 2007

More N-word meta-humor

Right after Wednesday night's "Daily Show" featuring Larry Wilmore and John Oliver investigating the N-word, "The Colbert Report" kept the theme going with the invited guest, Washington Post columnist Jabari Asim, author of The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why (video here). Unlike Oliver, Stephen Colbert didn't have a proxy who could safely say the word nigger, so instead he pursued a line of questioning that hilariously sent up the verbal somersaults of taboo avoidance.

Colbert: First question. Did you want to name the book The N-Word and they said, "No, you have to call it The N-Word"? Or, did you say, "I want to name this book The N-Word," and they assumed you meant, you know, The N-Word, when in fact you meant The N-Word?

Asim: I think I suggested calling it The N-Word and they thought it was a good idea to play it safe and call it The N-Word.

Colbert: OK, this actually, this raises another interesting subject to me, is that the N-word has become so anonymous [sic] with the N-word, uh, is saying the N-word pretty much like saying the N-word? Because I would never say the N-word, but I don't want somebody to think I'm saying the N-word by saying the N-word. You know what I mean? Because I would never say that word that begins with the letter after M.

It's a testament to the astonishing dynamism of our linguistic faculties that we can listen to this conversation and readily distinguish between the N-word as an avoidance substitute for nigger and the N-word as a meta-descriptor of the substitution. (We can also easily follow Colbert when he malapropistically replaces synonymous with anonymous.) In fact, it's effin' unbelievable.

[Update: I originally rendered Asim's response to Colbert as: "I think I suggested calling it The N-Word and they thought it was a good idea to play it safe and call it The N-Word." A few emailers heard this as "I think I suggested calling it The N-Word...", implying that Asim wanted to call his book Nigger but was overruled by his publisher. Listening to the clip again, I believe I hear enough intonational contrast between the two instances of N-Word to support that construal, so I'll defer to the wisdom of the masses.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 30, 2007 09:56 AM