Using a racial slur

From “3 Tulsa Strangers, Familiar With Struggle, Met One Fate” (by Manny Fernandez) in the New York Times on April 14th:

The shootings unfolded the day after Mr. England used a racial slur on Facebook to describe the man he believed had killed his father, Carl, in April 2010.

The slur in question was of course nigger, but the Times avoids the word, even in quotes where it would be an indication of a speaker’s mindset (as in this case).

The background: The five shooting victims (three dead, two wounded) in Tulsa were all black. And:

One of the suspects, Alvin L. Watts, 32, is white, and the other, Jacob C. England, 19, is an American Indian who has also described himself as white.

Prosecutors declined to file homicide charges against the man who was a person of interest in [the death of Carl England], Pernell Jefferson. They determined that Mr. Jefferson, who is black, was justified using deadly force in self-defense under Oklahoma law.

So race is central in the case, and the obvious racial slur for Jacob England to use is nigger. But the Times is wary of the word, regardless of the context. Despite that, it does appear in their pages on occasion (and more often in on-line commentary). Here, for instance, is the lead paragraph of Deborah Sontag and Manny Fernandez’s story “For Perry, Texas Roots Include Racial Backdrop” from last October:

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who often waxes nostalgic about his small-town roots, grew up in an almost all-white rural area where many referred to slingshots as “niggershooters.” One elderly black resident recalls being introduced by her boss at a party decades back as “my maid, Nigger Mae Lou,” while just four years ago, a black high school student found a noose in his locker.

Now, as a bonus, some words on the syntax of the verb call, inspired by this observation by Neal Whitman on ADS-L on April 10th:

Probably because of the “slur” thread that began here last month …, I got to thinking about a phrasing I heard on NPR this morning: “called him an ethnic slur.” I pictured someone telling someone else, “You ethnic slur!” or “You’re an ethnic slur, you know that?” If it had been written, as “called him a[n ethnic slur],” that wouldn’t be so strange, but in spoken English, it reminds me of actually saying things like “expletive deleted” or “beeeeep” in avoidance of taboo language.

Searches for “called him an ethnic slur” and “called him a racist slur” on Google got ~300 and ~3000 hits, respectively (which then boiled down to 32 and 23 hits). On COCA, “[call].[v*] [p*] [at*] [j*]” slur brought up these three hits:

When a classmate called him a racial slur during an intramural game, for instance, (2010) Not a week goes by that a bus driver doesn’t call me a racist slur. (2006) And what if you call them one slur but call them a different slur the next day? (1993)

The thing is that call with a direct object (DO), referring to the person called something, and a second object (2O), referring to what that person is called, can take either of two sorts of 2Os: either one reporting the words used or one characterizing the nature of those words:

Kim called me a fucking faggot. [words used; Kim said something like “You’re a fucking faggot”]

Kim called me a nasty name. [nature of the words; what Kim said was a nasty name, unspecified]

On ADS-L, Ben Zimmer noted that the OED does have cites for the second of these uses, from the 17th century on, but only for to call names ‘to apply opprobrious names or epithets to (a person)’. But clearly the range of 2Os in this use is now considerably broader, and we have things like call s.o. an ethnic slur and call s.o. a racist slur.


2 Responses to “Using a racial slur”

  1. Plain talk in the NYT « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Here we get “a common racial insult that starts with “N” “, a fancy version of “the N-word”, and then an asterisked version of nigga. For the NYT‘s avoidance of such slurs on other occasions, see (for instance) here. […]

  2. Wilson Gray (@hwgray) Says:

    “Old [colored] folk” say, “call one out of one’s name” as the ordinary euphemism for “call someone a ‘nigger’.”

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