Warning: Strong language ahead.

Nigger has been banned in New York. Yep, they’ve tried to ban a word. The city that’s becoming famous for legislating against anything it doesn’t like has decided to declare a “symbolic moratorium” on a word used more these days by black rappers than anyone intending offence. Four other states have towns that have come to a similar decision, but it’s all only so much hot air. It’s an unconstitutional decision that is completely unenforceable due to the constitutional right of Free Speech.

Already most Americans and American media refer to it as “the ‘N’ word” for fear of upsetting people. The word is gaining a special place in the lexicon. Worse than Harry Potter’s friends refusing to utter the name of Voldemort for fear of giving him power in J K Rowling’s hugely successful fiction, the same is happening here. It’s just a word! If I call a black person a nigger, then I’m being offensive and racist, either deliberately or through ignorance. But if I refer to the word nigger in context, it’s no different than any other word. We have many words that are considered very strong language and used rarely, if at all. The word fuck has lost a lot of its sting in recent years, but cunt is still a word few dare to utter. But it’s still used without fear of anything more than a sharp intake of breath and perhaps a disapprovingly furrowed brow. So strong is America’s guilt, however, that it usually can’t bear to use the word nigger in any context at all and any that do are instant pariahs.

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Interestingly, the move, according to the man behind the motion, Leroy Comrie, is aimed at blacks in an attempt to stop them from using it to refer to each other. In much the same way that the gay community appropriated queer and removed its power, the black community has done the same thing with nigger. Or nigga, as even they seem to shy away from using the word in its accepted correct spelling. Sure, changing the spelling but keeping the phonetic makes all the difference. Oprah Winfrey was even corrected on her show when she accused a rapper of perpetuating “the ‘N’ word”. He explained that he spelled it with and ‘a’, not an ‘er’ and it was therefore not the same. Right. The guy’s plainly an ideot.

The word has been traced etymologically to the Latin niger, meaning black. It has a history close to slavery and is considered to be a subhuman, inferior, deliberately insulting reference. We get it. It’s a bad word. But legislating against it with a “law” that is completely without penalty is lip service of the worst kind. I could call someone a fucking prick and it would be equally insulting. But it’s just a selection of words to describe a position held. A woman in Texas put it best when the Mayor of Brazoria suggested a US$500 fine for anyone saying nigger; “What about the girls that are called white cracker, even whore? It’s not right to only pass it for the n-word.” Though even she showed the indoctrinated fear of the word when she felt fine saying white cracker, but couldn’t bring herself to say nigger.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on the word nigger for some interesting facts and a pretty good history of its use in literature.

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