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Word of the Year

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary,
December 13, 2006

The business of naming a "Word of the Year" began as a half-whimsical exercise in 1990, when the members of the American Dialect Society decided at their annual meeting to pick the word that best encapsulated some feature of the prevailing Zeitgeist. Within a few years, the press was picking up on the vote as a cute end-of-the-year feature, and dictionary publishers and others began to get into the act, with an eye to getting some free publicity.

This year's winners are already trickling in. The Oxford American Dictionary chose the expression "carbon neutral," and the linguist Dennis Baron picked "roadside bomb" at his Web of Language website. But while both those terms have been in the headlines, they aren't particularly interesting as words in themselves, no more than bird flu  or polonium. Webster's New World Dictionary named crackberry, which actually peaked in 2000 when Karl Rove was using his Blackberry to dispatch messages to the Republican troops with both thumbs -- the word seems a little arriere-garde six years later, when Research in Motion is fighting to hold on to its market share.

A better choice might be truthiness, which Merriam Webster named as 2006 word of the year on the basis of an online survey. The only problem is that that's the same word the American Dialect Society picked for 2005, and not even Stephen Colbert should get to win two years running for the same performance.

Anyway, those are merely the Golden Globes and People's Choice awards of lexicography. Serious wordinistas will be waiting for the linguistic Oscars, when the American Dialect Society makes its selection in January.

It's a strong field this year, what with contenders like Islamo-fascism, netroots, dwarf planet, buzzkill, and "the decider." Or if you were looking simply for the most bounce to the ounce, you might decide to go with macaca, an item whose first and only appearance in American public discourse could be credited with tipping the Senate to the Democrats. Given the razor-thin margin in the Virginia Senate race, it's a fair bet that George Allen would have kept his seat if not for the flap when he used the word to refer to an Indian-American at a campaign rally and then tried to explain it away as a term he'd made up on the spot without knowing what it meant. If that was so, it was certainly a bit of freakish bad luck that led him to tumble on a word that happens to be a racial slur in the North African French spoken by his mother.*

But in that case, maybe the word-of-the-year nod should go to another career-derailing racial slur that found its way via YouTube into the national spotlight. True, the career in question wasn't nearly as high-flying as Allen's. Before his meltdown at LA's Laugh Factory, people rarely referred to Michael Richards without adding, "you know, the guy who played Kramer on Seinfeld." But that's just what made the uproar so notable from a purely linguistic point of view. Here's a B-list celebrity who lurches into an incoherent racist diatribe in the middle of a nightclub standup routine. And the next thing you know he's all over the media and making the customary circuit of public contrition with Letterman and Jesse Jackson, delivering himself of the turgid self-analysis that betrayed a life spent in acting classes: "I was in a place of humiliation…. I need to get into the depths of my being…." It was as if Richards was the only person who didn't understand that nobody remotely cared what kind of place he was in when he went into his rampage. The whole business was simply a pretext for giving audiences another chance to watch the mesmerizing spectacle of someone giving in to the rage that's implicit in that word:

Clip: "He's a nigger, he's a nigger, he's a nigger"["Oh my god"] "He's a nigger, look, he's a nigger."

That woman's voice you hear pretty much sums up the first reaction of most people: "Oh my god!" Of course everybody knows the word, but nowadays most middle-class whites have suppressed it as a redneck vulgarity. So it was a shock to hear it yelled as a venemous insult, particularly by the endearingly rambunctious character who used to come crashing through Jerry's open door every week.

No, we can't ban the word, but we can't easily pretend we've gotten past it, either. "I'm not a racist" Richards said, with apparently genuine puzzlement. But that's the thing about that word -- whatever you think your intentions are, it trails its own history of hate and violence into the room. That's why Richards' outburst led some black comics like Paul Mooney to announce that they'd be dropping the word from their own material from now on.

Of course this particular epithet has been in the running for word of the year before. It could have been selected in 1998, when black leaders threatened to boycott Merriam Webster for not beginning their dictionary definition of the word by labeling it as offensive. Or in 1995, when a tape of Detective Mark Fuhrman using the word was played at the OJ trial, reinforcing the jury's suspicion that the LA police might have planted evidence.

Or if the linguists had been voting back then, the word could have been chosen in 1988, when the group NWA or Niggaz With Attitude brought gangsta rap into the musical mainstream with their album Straight Outta Compton, and set off an ongoing controversy over the use of the word by black entertainers. Or in 1966, when Lady Bird Johnson asked the US Board on Geographic Names to change the name of Nigger Head Mountain near Burnet, Texas.[1]

Or in 1948, when Strom Thurmond ran for president as a Dixiecrat and told his audiences that not all the troops in the Army could force Southerners to admit the nigger race into their theaters, swimming pools and churches. Or in 1928, when Paul Robeson was criticized for singing the word in the lyrics to "Old Man River" in a production of the Kern-Hammerstein musical Show Boat.[2]

Actually, that's why it's unlikely that anybody will choose the epithet as the word of the year for 2006. The Richards episode may have been shocking, but it didn't really tell us anything we didn't know already. And anyway, you can be sure the word will be back in contention for the honor in years to come.


*Added 12/14: On the August 23 edition of Chris Matthews' Hardball, the Washington Times' Tony Blankley defended Allen's remark by saying, "In Italian, I'm told [macaca] means clown." It's true that Allen's mother speaks Italian as well as French, and that Italian macaco (not "macaca") does have the meaning "fool, idiot." (It's also a pejorative term for a Mac user, but that sense is unlikely to have figured in this instance.) So it's possible that Allen's mother used the term in this sense around the house when he was growing up (though it's equally possible that he had heard her use the French macaque -- which as a speaker of a North African variety she would have said as something like "macaca," pronouncing the final vowel -- as a racial epithet). If the "fool" story is true, though, it's puzzling that Allen didn't mention this relatively innocent explanation at any point, and it remains to be explained why he would have changed the final vowel from o to a. Return

1. The name was officially changed in 1968 to Colored Mountain. Return

2.The original version of the lyrics began: "Niggers all work on de Mississippi/ Niggers all work while de white folks play…" When Robeson sang the words in the 1928 London production of the play, Harlem's Amsterdam News said, "If anyone were to call him a 'nigger' he'd be the first to get offended, and there he is singing 'nigger, nigger' before all those white people." The word was omitted from later versions of the musical, which tended to soft-pedal its racial themes and to play it as a colorful costume drama about the old South. For the 1936 film version, "niggers" was changed to "darkies," and then to "colored folks" in the 1946 Broadway revival.  That in turn became "Here we all work on the Mississippi" when Frank Sinatra sang the song in white tails in Till the Clouds Roll By, Arthur Freed's 1946 film biography of Jerome Kern.  And by the time Freed made his 1951 film version of Show Boat, nobody was working on the Mississippi -- the chorus was cut entirely For more background, see "They Just Keep Rolling Along," by Douglass K. Daniel. Return

Copyright © 2006 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.