If ‘N-word’ is bad for one, it’s bad for all

By Tom Joyce

November 16, 2013

Most people learn about bad words while growing up, usually from their parents and teachers or by listening to comedians such as George Carlin — who did a whole routine on “the seven words you can never say on television.”

These taboo terms are well-known to all of us, and one thing that helps define a dirty word is if you have to refer to it by an abbreviation — using the first letter of the word in question followed by a hyphen and the word “word.” For example, when a child tells his mom that Daddy has used the “S-word” again after hitting his thumb with a hammer.

We also have come to gauge the magnitude of bad words or phrases, including some George Carlin didn’t mention, by whether or not they are bleeped out when we watch a movie or reality show on television.

One must remember that when a film, for example, was first released to theaters, there were no restrictions on language so there are no bleeps. Since movies are rated according to content, someone who attends an R-rated production knows full well to expect such things as foul language and nudity, or both.

But when these movies hit the small screen, such language is verboten, which is where those pesky bleeps enter the picture. Recently, I saw the movie “Scarface” with Al Pacino on television and most of the lines his character spoke were basically one continuous bleep.

In other words, he uses a certain term starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet numerous times in that extremely violent movie. Interestingly, scenes of a man getting cut up with a chainsaw or others in which people are riddled with bullets are left intact, but the bad words are all meticulously bleeped out.

Another thing that defines dirty words is that we are taught they are never, ever supposed to be uttered. People can, of course, be allowed some slack under extreme circumstances such as when jumping out of an airplane or coming face to face with Sasquatch.

Generally speaking though, a bad word is a bad word, period.

Yet there is one term that is considered bad to use, but not all the time and not by everyone. That is the so-called “N-word,” which depending on your point of view and the context in which it is uttered can be considered an inexcusable racial slur or an endearing term for a friend or acquaintance.

The N-word appears to be unique in this regard compared to all the other universally accepted bad words in our vernacular.

This has been brought to the forefront recently by a situation with the Miami Dolphins football team in which a white offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, has been accused of bullying another, a black player, Jonathan Martin, including referring to him by the “N-word.”

In some of the discussions on TV sports shows about this issue, I have been alarmed at one trend, especially among commentators who are black. This involves the fact that in an era when bullying in schools has become a major concern in society, the main focus on the Dolphins situation involves not physical or mental abuse in itself, but the fact that the despicable “N-word” was used by a white guy.

This highlights the double standard associated with the use of that term.

I hear it time and time again in the rap music I sometimes listen to (yes I do like rap, mainly because of the creativity involved). It also shows up in movies and books, and I have heard people of color use it to refer to each other, without incident.

However, white folks are expected never to say the “N-Word” under any circumstances, which can lead to all hell — excuse me, all “H” — breaking out.

But since it is so freely tossed out among others in society, it is easy to reach the conclusion that for all practical purposes, the “N-word” exists as a trap for those who don’t run in certain circles.

I prefer to go back to the old idea that a bad word is always a bad word, regardless of who speaks it or the circumstances involved.

A dictionary definition I found for the “N-word” says it all. It refers to that term as “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.”

When that word is intermittently used in a bad or “good” way, how do explain the difference to a child? When they learn about its dreadful and hurtful use against the backdrop of racism that has plagued this country at times, then hear the “N-word” tossed about freely in a rap song or movie, mixed signals undoubtedly are sent.

Logic dictates that if a word possesses such inflammatory qualities, it ought be avoided by everyone at all times.

The simple fact is that when the “N-word” is voiced by anyone, and tolerated, that diminishes its significance as a bad term overall. Either everyone should quit saying it, or else don’t bent out of shape when others use that word.

Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or