Friday, January 14, 2011

"What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"

Attention: This post contains strong language which some readers may find objectionable. Proceed with care.

I’m coming to this party a little late, but I have some strong opinions about this, so I thought I might as well usher in the new year at Lingwë with something controversial. Just to give you the background (though probably unnecessary): Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, is producing a bowdlerized version of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which every occurrence of the word nigger — more than 200 of them — is replaced with slave. You can read more about it here. Or just ask Google; everybody seems to be talking about this. But in all the discussion, one thing is not being said much. The offending word itself. That’s part of the reason for this post.

By the way, a note for my international readers. It’s possible that some of you don’t quite grasp what a taboo word nigger is in the United States. It is perhaps the most offensive word in the modern American colloquial lexis—much worse than fuck, shit, cunt, etc., all of which have venerable histories, by the way. And the profusion of the word nigger in hip-hop culture, ironic as that is, makes it even more taboo in mainstream conversation. Even scholars and newspeople cannot or will not utter the word, not even in discussions of what Professor Gribben is doing to Huck Finn. That’s right: the word is so distasteful that we can refer vaguely what Gribben has done to the text, but we aren’t supposed to actually say it. Usually, “the n-word” is substituted. Everybody knows what that means, though, so what is gained by referring to the word without actually saying it? This is much too Puritanical for me. But I digress …

More to the point is whether bowdlerizing the text is right or wrong. People on one side are crying censorship; while those on the other hail the change for bringing the book to a new audience, one that would otherwise be much too squeamish to touch it. Still others point out that since Huck Finn has gone into the public domain, anyone can do anything he likes to the text — which is true; how long until we have a zombie version?

The issue is a troubling one. I feel that bowdlerizing a text is never the right answer. In full disclosure, I have something of a vested interest; I’ve been a big fan of Twain for as long as I have Tolkien — since I was about Huck’s age. The very first book report I ever gave in school was not on The Hobbit, but on The Autobiography of Mark Twain. (This book is in the news again too, with the recent publication of material suppressed from it for the past one hundred years. But that’s a topic for another post.)

A satellite issue that I find equally troubling is that so many people crying censorship are unwilling, themselves, to put front and center the word at issue: nigger. They are, in effect, voluntarily censoring themselves while decrying the censorship of Twain. I posted some of these thoughts on one of my friend’s blogs; he removed them (with apologies) because they actually spelled out the heinous word that must never even be spelled out.

I don’t suppose I blame him for this. It is a horrible epithet, freighted with a history of bigrotry and murder. But before and after all of that, it is just a word. True, the word may remind us of that history of bigotry and hatred; it should, however painful the reminder. Might refusing to say it or even spell it be an attempt to ignore or forget that history? I’m not calling my friends ostriches, but to me, there is no reason that intelligent people making intelligent arguments should be unable to utter the word. How can we rationally discuss a difficult subject if we are unwilling even to name it out loud? The very people who have historically been the target of this epithet should applaud its use in thoughtful conversations about race.

Naturally, I don’t mean to suggest the word should regain it old currency. I’m not saying anyone should hurl it at anyone else; that is absolutely wrong. Words can naturally be used as weapons — this word, along with many others. But words are not weapons inherently, by their fundamental nature. We should be able to use any word in a critical discussions about words.

Apart from the dangers of bowdlerization in a (supposedly) free society, I have another problem with the substitution of slave for nigger in Huck Finn. The former actually occurs in the novel, maybe half a dozen times, as compared to a couple hundred of the latter. By replacing one word with another that actually occurs in the text, you lose the ability to distinguish between the substitutions and the cases where Twain actually wrote slave.

As to substituting n—, which is often suggested, that would be better than a different word, but not very much better [1]. It’s still a problem for young readers, because they will naturally ask what n— means. The people who have a problem with exposing young people to Twain’s own words would have great difficulty answering, probably offering something like, “that’s a very bad word which none of us is allowed to say; it’s so bad, I can’t even tell you what it stands for.” Is a lame answer along these lines really the way to educate our children? I don’t call that education.

Kids are going to find out one way or the other, so you’ve only kicked the can a little further down the street — but at the cost of vandalizing Twain’s masterpiece. Are children’s ears really so sensitive? Or is it not rather the parents who are so uncomfortable? This reminds me a bit of the attitudes of shame and avoidance by everyday Germans about the Holocaust in the decades following World War II. Even today, I’m told this topic is verboten in polite conversation in Germany. I would be pleased to hear from my German friends on this point.

I do sympathize with Professor Gribben’s aims. His point in making the change is to bring the book — all but that one word, anyway — to students who would simply not be allowed to read it otherwise. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, he might say. On the surface, it’s a laudable goal, but is bringing these readers a bowdlerized book better than keeping the original from them? A legitimate question for debate, but I don’t think so. Better would be to continue chipping away at the prejudices in the Deep South from the inside until they’re ready for the real thing. These prejudices are the reason the book can’t be taught as written. To change the book seems to me to be coddling these prejudices, rather than confronting them. They shouldn’t change the book; the book should change them.

My friend referred to Twain’s observation that “the difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”, and that is spot-on. In the case of Huck, to substitute the lightning bug for the lightning itself is nothing more than hiding away the very issue that should be at the heart of the discussion, and hiding it from kids at precisely the age where these prejudices can be most effectively battled.

I’ve read that the book makes one other change, substituting Indian for injun, the latter being now also regarded as a racial slur (though evoking nowhere near the reaction of nigger). This change is total nonsense. First, Indian is not accurate; if you want to vandalize the text, just substitute Native American. Second, injun is not a racial slur — or at least, no more than Indian is — it’s a dialectal variation. It really just comes down to local accent, represented orthographically by Twain. And by the way, injun only occurs about ten times in the novel, about one-twentieth the frequency of nigger. Were there Native American schools refusing to teach Huck Finn because of the word, or is this merely meddling to suit the tastes of the editor? And if an editor wants to change this particular word, why not flatten out all of Twain’s meticulous use of dialect? Twain carefully reproduces six distinct regional dialects, if I recall. This is something we ought to preserve, not smooth away.

[1] This has been tried before, and recently. Joseph Conrad’s 1897 novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus — oh my god, it’s right there in the title! Children, avert your eyes! — was reissued in 2009 by WordBridge Publishing as The N-word of the Narcissus. In this bowdlerization, every occurrence of the word nigger, including in the title, was changed to n-word. Absurd. Even when the book first appeared in America (a little more than a decade after Huck Finn), it was published here under a different title, The Children of the Sea. It is seldom read today, almost certainly because of the offense this word continues to give.


  1. In the 1950s there was a gung-ho British war film called "The Dam Busters", about an RAF raid on German dams. A small part of the story involved the black Labrador belonging to the leader of the raid, who was finally killed in a road accident shortly beofre the raid. The black dog's name was ... yes, Nigger. The film is frequently repeated on UK TV. However,some time ago the dog's name was edited out - and more recently the dog has been edited out altogether.

    So it's not just in the USA.

  2. The Dam Busters however is not edited when shown in the US.. I saw it not too long ago on Turner Classic movies and nearly spit my drink when I heard them refer to the dog.

  3. There actually is a zombie version: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim. In this tale, a new mutant disease, a hybrid of TB (there's another euphemism for you!) and smallpox, kills off its victims, who shortly return to life as shambling you-know-whats. In an attempt to keep society going, President Buchanan freed all the slaves before Huck was born, and the n-word has been replaced throughout society with the b-word: bagger (etymology uncertain, but perhaps in reference to the burlap bag into which victims are placed so they can be destroyed if they are uncontrollable). But the disease mutates again and again, and the baggers change their temperaments ... and things go horribly worrrrng ....

    I don't know how I feel about all this. I'm white. When I was five, I referred to a little girl in my kindergarten as a nigger, and she burst into tears and howls. The principal brought my parents in to school, and I told them truthfully that I had read the word in Tom Sawyer, and had no idea that it was insulting. Of course, most five-year-olds can't read, never mind read Twain, but I could and did. Since I had acted in total ignorance, I wasn't punished, but I'm sure Gwen has a very different story.

    Is that exact situation likely to recur? Not very. Is it worth producing this edition if it saves one white kid from a horrible social gaffe, and one black kid from a horrible experience? Probably.

    Now I'm fifty-two, and my two-year-old grandson is black. I'll never use the word again, but when he grows older, he quite possibly will. I don't know how I feel about that either.

    A philogical point: What's being done with the two instances of free nigger in the text? Free slave would be self-contradictory.

  4. John, thanks for letting me know about the zombie version of Huck Finn — ugh. Some people like these books, but I feel they’re vacuous and opportunist. I don’t believe copyright should last forever, but these books certainly seem like an abuse of the freedom of the public domain.

    Thanks even more for sharing your personal story. I’m white too. A bit younger than you; I wasn’t yet conceived during most of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. My wife and I have a high school friend, as white as a lily, who married a very dark-skinned black man. He’s a lieutenant commander in the Air Force, and a few years ago, they were stationed at a base in Alabama, where interracial marriage had only just become legal! Though it had long since ceased to be enforceable, interracial marriage was still illegal in Alabama until the end of 2000. The looks they used to get. Seriously.

    I don’t know how I feel about all of this either, except to say that (a) Twain was part of the solution, not the problem, and (b) although they do have power, words are only words — until they are suborned to harm others. I think we should be able to discuss the word by using the word, and I think the force of Twain’s original language should be allowed to stand. It is a powerful tonic when allowed to do its work.

    By the way, the irony is not lost on me that in some of Twain’s writings, words that are seen as rather innocuous today, like damned, had to be written d— in those days.

    By the way, I don’t know what Gribben has done about free nigger. Excellent question! You have zeroed in on another problem with wholesale substitutions of this kind: words are never totally equivalent.

    Lagomorph and Anon., thanks for that. I have never heard of this film, but that’s very interesting. And thanks for your comment as well, Cat. It’s very nice to hear from open-minded people.

  5. Because Peter Jackson was developing a remake of The Dam Busters, there has been some talk about the epithet on Tolkien forums, as here.

    (That link took longer to find than I expected, because entering the obvious term into the forum's search function brought up hundreds of responses for "snigger".)

    Your reference to 19th century bowdlerization of "damned" reminded me of the 1934 British film of The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which, when ladies repeat the rhyme about the hero, they point to the floor rather than say "hell", but have no problem uttering "damned elusive pimpernel".

  6. Yes, N.E. Brigand, all of which goes to my point that words are just words. They may be put to all sorts of uses, good and bad, and fashions and tolerance will ebb and flow over time. Why, I know people who avoid the word niggard like a landmine, simply because it sounds like the racial slur — even though its etymology is totally unrelated.

  7. Funny thing about this is, I never even knew the word was taboo (to Americans) until a couple of years ago. I mean, I knew it was horrible to call somebody a n- but living where I do, it's not something that even gets mentioned. I had seriously read the word in books my whole life and never given it a 2nd thought. Kids only make an issue if adults do. I'm pretty sure countless kids over the last century have read those books and never thought anything of it. Changing it will not help anyone in my opinion. I think that everyone has the right to know that back a hundred years ago, "white" people refered to "black" people that way. If as a child, you have no living examples of the word being used as it was, then how are you expected to know why on earth it is such a bad word! I can't believe you've never seen Dambusters Jason, it's classic film. Even I've seen it.

  8. David Doughan1/15/2011 5:31 AM

    Lagomorph, thanks for the info about the US showings of "Dam Busters". I take it this was on a not-free-to-air channel, e.g. cable or satellite or similar - this may be the same in UK too, but we personally live in the electronic stone age with only terrestrial analogue reception... we need to change.

    Another example of retrospective denunciation of the use of taboo words: Dorothy L. Sayeers is frequently pilloried as a racist because in her fiction she uses the word "nigger". In context, however, it looks rather different The main instance quoted is in "Unnatural Death" (1927), where a minor character refers to a black clergyman as "a dirty filthy nigger". Wimsey's comment in response:
    "Nigger", to a Miss Timmins, may mean anything from a high-caste Brahmin to Sambo and Rastus at the Coliseum - it may even, at a pinch, be an Argentine or an Esquimaux."
    The said clergyman, who is a potential murder suspect, is found at an East London Mission, and the detectives brace themselves to confront the villain:
    "The door, however, was opened to admit an elderly West Indian, of so humble and inoffensive an appearance that the hearts of the two detectives sank into their boots. Anything less murderous could scarcely be imagined, as he stood blinking nervously at them from behind a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles ...."

    Now this does not strike me as the language of the KKK! But then I have polluted my mind by actaually reading the book, which doubtless disqualifies me from impartial judgement.

  9. Thanks for this, Jason; I find it eases my irritation with the current top-two news stories (this, and the Tucson shooting). I especially liked your counterposing of coddling versus confronting prejudice; while the whole was excellent, I concur with that insight as fundamental to the questions at hand.

  10. Good read, Jason. I could write my own blog about how pissed it makes me. But the short version is, I despise that anyone would try to edit/destroy the original texts. Whiny, sensitive politically correct ass clowns make me insane.

  11. Julian Lander1/15/2011 4:20 PM

    I would suggest that the correct action would be to include a prefaratory note explaining that the word "nigger" appeared in the original text and that it is currently considered to be offensive, and then leave it in.

    Some time ago, the television program _Cold Case_, which is fictional, had an episode set in the south around 1960. They chose to use the word "critter" as a substitute for "nigger" in dialogue, which I thought was an interesting and appropriate choice. In this case, of course, we are dealing with fiction written in the period during which the word "nigger" was recognized as offensive. Viewers of a certain age certainly knew what was going on, the two words have a similar rhythm, so it seemed to work well in the dialogue.

  12. I find it hilarious that the word "slave" is the preference, if nothing else. If anyone alive now had been a slave back then, the word would surely cause a mental cringe as well as horrific memories of what it's like to be a slave. In contrast, nigger is mostly a lazy offshoot of "negro," with which we could into the world of western culture linguistics all day long. It doesn't really "mean" anything. No one is actually a nigger, but many people were actually slaves. It's almost like referring to a Jewish person by his Auschwitz number instead of calling him a kike. Kike doesn't really mean anything. That number certainly does.

    Linguistic arguments aside, art is not the place to throw around your PC paint brush where you like. I would rather the Venus de Milo be crushed into dust completely than see someone use a Sharpie to put a bikini top on her because they're offended by naked breasts. In essence - if you don't like it, stop teaching it altogether before destroying it. Just leave it alone. Leave it to parents to either let their children read it, encourage them to read it, or not to. If Mom wants to take white out to every page before she turns it over to Junior, that's her business. It is, however, NEVER the business of academia to not only allow the destruction of art, but to promote it, and teach it.

  13. Allison, Kate, Mulberry — thank you all for the great comments. And Kate, you probably know that a lot of classical sculptures have indeed been vandalized to cover up their nudity. In far too many cases, sex organs have been chiseled off, or plastered over. Some sculptures have been destroyed outright. A terrible loss.

    Julian, thanks for your comments as well. The substitution of critter for nigger makes me roll my eyes. Of course, it has to be done on our Puritanical television networks, but
    critter could just as easily have been the offensive word, in which case nigger might have been the word substituted. Just words.

    I always find it funny when a kid in high school is sent to the principal’s office for saying “fucking”, but not for saying “freaking”, “frigging”, “frakking”, or something similar. The intended meaning is precisely the same, but one set of phonemes is acceptable and another is not. Intent is irrelevant to punishment. Absurd!

    If the word is so offensive, why shouldn’t the contries Nigeria and Niger change their names? Oh, but the latter is “safe” because it’s pronounced /ˈnaɪdʒər/ or /niˈʒɛər/. But both come from the Latin niger, meaning “black”, exactly as the English slur, nigger.

  14. Jason, I think your "kicking the can" comment gets at something that's been missing from much of the discussion of this new edition of Huck Finn: how it's a weird attempt to stall dealing with the issue, which I think is capitulation to a bureaucratic mindset.

    The novel makes some administrators, teachers, students, and parents uncomfortable, but by common assent, it’s an essential part of the curriculum, so few people are brave enough or clever enough to craft an argument for leaving it out or postponing students’ exposure to it. Therefore, since they don’t like the novel as it’s written, they ask a publisher for a watered-down version, simply so they can check off the box that says “taught Huck Finn,” even though they really didn't.

    I live near a cathedral, and I see this sort of thing often. A bus full of schoolkids pulls up. They have an emotional reaction to a cool, neo-gothic building. They hit the gift shop. As a class, they look for the gargoyle shaped like Darth Vader. They leave. No discussion of architectural history, religion in America--nothing that engages their brains or expands their understanding of the world. I stand there and think, "Why didn't that teacher just save herself the time and trouble and simply show her kids a DVD of The Empire Strikes Back?"

    I feel like we're seeing lots of this in American education these days: hoop-jumping and box-checking, with many teachers and administrators (and parents!) showing little understanding of what these books, lessons, field trips, etc., are even supposed to teach.

  15. Really good points, Jeff, thanks! I don’t even know where to begin here, so I’ll just leave your indictment of the American education system to speak for itself.

  16. 1) I was going to ask what John Cowan asked, about what's being done with the phrase free nigger.

    2) Running off what Kate said: If injun is a dialectical variation of Indian, nigger is no less a dialectical variation of Negro, at least in origin, though the connotations may be stronger.

    3) It is true, as John Cowan also said, that allowing children to learn epithets without clearly indicating how toxic they are3 may result in inadvertent use. But, following what you were saying about the N-word, if we consider things so taboo we don't even teach what the taboos are, we run the even greater risk of the taboos being broken through ignorance, or of children imagining that the taboo means something else entirely. George Orwell has some interesting comments regarding his childhood bafflement over vague warnings against (what he didn't realize at the time referred to) masturbation.

    4) Lastly, I hope we will always clearly distinguish between the legal question of what people have the right to do to texts in the public domain, versus the moral and aesthetic questions of whether we think they ought to do it.

  17. Thanks for the comment about Orwell, David. His thoughts on language and the abuses to which it can be bent are relevant as well. And I agree that we should keep in mind the legal versus moral and aesthetic issues. For good and for ill (but mostly for good), Twain’s novel has gone into the public domain. I prefer that copyrights should expire eventually, even with the unfortunate side effect of zombie adaptations. :)

  18. I cannot believe that they are actually going to white wash Mark Twain's book. I am epically saddened by this. This book is the perfect time for teachers to bring up the discussion about racial epithets and why they are so damaging to people of different races or creeds.

    It does us no good to hide our heads in the sand. Slavery and the racism that created it and was perpetuated by it is a fact of our history. We are trying to white-wash a dark period of our history, but when we do things like that, we are allowing the possibility of the perpetuation of the exact thing we are trying to stop.

    Mark Twain was nothing if not empathetic to the plight of African-Americans in the South. His whole book is to show how this "poor n______" was a better parent to Huck than his own white father. At least that it what I got from the parts I read in high school. I never finished the book, because I didn't enjoy it. And even though I loathe the "n" word, having been called it only once (and once was more than enough), I would still never be so arrogant as to think that changing the word choice of one of America's greatest novelists is the right thing to do.

  19. I find all these comments to be extremely denigrating, eh, deslaving. I shall have to remember to order Slavey Sushi next time I go to a Japanese restaurant.

  20. Gary Schmidt1/19/2011 9:19 PM

    If you do order that, get some sashimi as well -- when it comes to sushi, there's no sense being niggardly about it.

  21. Gary, thanks for that. I don’t have any response except wide-eyed and jaw-dropped incredulity at such asinine behavior. Actually, calling this asinine is an insult to honest, hard-working donkeys. I think we need a new word for this kind of thing. How about stultacular? By the way, it seems the mayor realized his error and offered to rehire the aide (who declined to resume the post of Public Advocate — irony! — but was willing to take another job).