What Does Ni**er Mean?
Growing up black taught my dad to doubt himself.
Even as a kid, I noticed how his lightly accented English lost its roundness when he spoke to strangers. How his pronunciation stiffened when he answered the phone. He wore his carefully managed eloquence like a suit of armour. A shield against accusations of inferiority.
So it’s not surprising that he was determined my sister and I would speak English well.
On Sunday afternoons, as penance for dragging us to church, he took us on long, aimless drives along narrow country roads. Bill Withers and Luther Vandross oozed from the speakers, bumpily devoured snacks stained our Sunday clothes, and in between games of “I spy” and “20 Questions”, he probed for chinks in our defences.
“How do you spell ‘onomatopoeia’?” he asked. “What does ‘audacity’ mean? Can you think of three synonyms for ‘erudite’?”
He started us early enough that we thought of this as play.
But of course, being kids, we were more interested in the words he didn’t teach us.
From movies, we learned words that would help us verify whether someone spoke English or get snakes off our plane. With friends, we invented words that baffled our parents and irritated our teachers. On our playgrounds, we noted which words would make the other kids gasp or giggle or cry.
And from history books and news reports and rap music, from tearful peers and anxious elders and hostile strangers, we learned that the worst word of all was reserved exclusively for people with skin like ours.
A word so unspeakable you could refer to it with just its first letter. A word so monstrous that no synonym could hope to match it. A word that meant…well, let’s think about that, shall we?
If, for some reason, you decided to look up the n-word in a dictionary, you’d find something like this:
Ni**er (noun; An extremely offensive name for a black person.)
But while this tells us what the word does (or at least what it’s intended to do), it doesn’t tell us what it means. What ideas is the word supposed to evoke? What information does it convey? What is it meant to…