From a little while back, a language-and-politics story that got some press coverage: the tale of this bumper sticker:
At first, people suspected it might be a fabrication. But no. Here, on the Forbes site, is the beginning of the piece “Seller of Controversial Anti-Obama Sticker Says It’s Not Racist” by Roger Friedman on March 17th:
Exclusive: Paula Smith of Hinesville, Georgia has a company called Stickatude.com. And they’re selling their own version of an anti-Obama bumper sticker that reads “Don’t Re-Nig 2012.” Ms. Smith told me in a telephone conversation on Saturday afternoon that the bumper sticker has been in their inventory since June 2010, but just in the last few days it’s started selling. The price is $3. Ms. Smith insisted that the bumper sticker is not racist. I asked her about the “N” word, for which “nig” is the shortened version. “According to the dictionary [the N word] does not mean black. It means a low down, lazy, sorry, low down person. That’s what the N word means.”
Hat tip to Ben Zimmer, who found this flat denial that nigger means what it does mind-boggling, as did I. I suspect Smith is going to have a hard time finding a dictionary that agrees with her. Friedman went to one standard American dictionary; this is what he found:
In Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the word is defined as “member of any dark skinned race. Taken to be offensive.” Dictionary.com says the word “is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War. Definitions 1a, 1b, and 2 represent meanings that are deeply disparaging and are used when the speaker deliberately wishes to cause great offense.”
Other dictionaries would not be more supportive. NOAD2 has this:
offensive a contemptuous term for a black or dark-skinned person.
usage: The word nigger was used as an adjective denoting a black person as early as the 17th century and has long had strong offensive connotations. Today it remains one of the most racially offensive words in the language. Also referred to as ‘the n-word,’ nigger is sometimes used by black people in reference to other black people in a jocular or disparaging manner, or some variant in between (in somewhat the same way that queer has been adopted by some gay and lesbian people as a term of self-reference, acceptable only when used by those within the community).
AHD5 marks it as Offensive Slang and gives the senses:
1. a. Used as a disparaging term for a black person
b. Used as a disparaging term for a member of any dark-skinned people
2. Used as a disparaging term for any member of any socially, economically, or politically deprived group of people
Smith might try to interpret sense 2 as conveying merely ‘low-down’, but that’s a stretch. And in any case picking through dictionary definitions to find one sense that might comport with your claims about meaning blatantly disregards the contexts in which words are used; it’s a scurrilous strategy.
She expresses astonishment — which it’s hard not to see as disingenuous — at the way her bumper sticker has been understood:
“I do find it amazing and entertaining that one of our stickers has become a racist thing,” Ms. Smith told me. I asked her if she thought the “N” Word was a bad word? “No,” she said, ” because I don’t use it. I have kids here around me that are black kids. I call them my own kids. I’ve helped black families…to guide them in the right direction.
So she doesn’t use nigger herself. Hmm.