October 11, 2003

The conventions for expressive content words

Geoff Nunberg recently commented on the DC District Court's surprising decision to permit the Washington Redskins to retain their current name. The decision is surprising because it is so clearly opposed to the established conventions for using and understanding epithets and other expressive content words. In general, such words have the property that their interpretation on a given occasion of use is out of the speaker's control. It rests instead with the audience.

It is quite common to find instances in which some hapless public figure has forgotten this convention and tried to use an expressive content item in a new way. Consider, for instance, the report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (July 27, 2000) titled Garcia's epithet creates outrage, which opens with 'The new superintendent of Clark County says his use of a racial slur was not meant to be offensive'. According to the report, Garcia said the following during a speech intended to "make his stand against racism clear":
"Niggers come in all colors. To me, a nigger is someone who doesn't respect themselves or others."
Garcia's attempt to redefine nigger on the fly failed miserably. His audience refused to budge on the word's usual interpretation. The passage is worth considering alongside something like, "Artists come in many forms. To me, an artist is anyone who can eat fifty eggs in one sitting". This redefinition of artist is decidedly nonstandard, but an audience is likely to accept the special usage.

In one famous incident, the audience's interpretation held sway even when that interpretation was agreed to be basically incorrect by all involved. In 1999, a Washington D.C. mayoral aide resigned after using the word niggardly. The aide himself told the Washington Post, "Although the word, which is defined as miserly, does not have any racial connotations, I realize that staff members present were offended by the word." Niggardly has neither historical nor semantic links with any racial epithet. Yet the fact that some speakers were offended sufficed to generate controversy.

Why are the meanings of expressive content items basically out of their users' control? The answer probably lies in the fact that they are a kind of performative word. Peformatives permit speakers to accomplish certain acts merely by uttering them. The verb promise is a typical example: uttering I promise to take out the trash just is the act of promising to take out the trash. Similarly, in uttering the word nigger, Garcia expressed an extreme form of disapprobation. The damage was done even before he had reached the verb phrase offering his redefinition. The flap over niggardly shows that even origin and meaning can be beside the point if the word's sound pattern has certain properties.

Thus, it is surprising that lawyers arguing against the name Redskins did not win their case merely by presenting evidence that redskin is likely to be interpreted by a large segment of the audience as offensive. The court's assumption seems to have been that every possible use of a word must be offensive in order to make it an inappropriate brand name. But this just isn't how the conventions of language work. Posted by Christopher Potts at October 11, 2003 07:51 PM