Racist Language

by Miroslav Imbrišević

I’m white, but I know a thing or two about racism. When I was three, my parents moved to Germany. In kindergarten, a boy once invited me to come and play at his home in the afternoon. I had never been to a German home. We played in the vegetable patch, and I remember that we pulled carrots out of the earth, shook them a bit, and then we ate them. They tasted great. Even today, carrots are my favourite.

Then the mother called us in, and she served “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) – that great German tradition. I don’t think we got real coffee, but I loved the cake, and I was looking forward to future visits to eat some more of it. But I was never invited back again. My five-year-old brain thought it strange, but I stopped thinking about it after a while.

In this provincial town, I never experienced any racism that my young mind would have noticed. Six years later, we moved to a metropolitan area. There, I wasn’t the only foreigner. In my school, there were kids from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey. Here I heard for the first time in my life that I was a “dirty foreigner” (“dreckiger Ausländer”). But I wasn’t actually dirty, because my mother made me wash all the time.

Another insult for us foreigners was directed at what we ate. The general insult for all of us was “Knoblauchfresser” (garlic eater). Italians were “Spaghettifresser” (spaghetti eaters). Turks were ‘Kümmelfresser’ (cumin eaters). The German kids didn’t know what the Spanish, Portuguese, Greeks or us Yugoslavs ate, so we were spared a targeted form of name calling. These were insults, because in German you have two verbs for eating. One is used for humans (“essen”) and another for animals (“fressen”). They tried to tell us that we ate like animals, or perhaps that we were animals? We didn’t take it lying down. We countered with “Kartoffelfresser” (potato eater) and “Sauerkrautfresser” (sauerkraut eater).

Occasionally my classmates asked me to say something in my language. They probably thought that it would sound funny. I asked: “What do you want me to say?” “Say anything!” they would reply, so I would oblige and tell them: “Ti si glup.” (You are stupid).

The recent treatment of Greg Patton, a professor of business communication at USC, made me think about my German childhood in the 1960’s. In an online lecture for MBA students, Prof. Patten introduced a common filler word in Chinese, just like ‘err’, ‘umm’ or ‘you know’ in English. Some students thought that the filler ‘na-ge’ (那个) sounded just like the N-word in English. Three students raised the issue in their feedback forms to Prof. Patton on the same day. “When I read them, my heart dropped, and I have felt terrible ever since,” Patton said. He explained: “I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur,” particularly if you consider the difference in “sounds, accent, context and language.” He immediately apologized to the class in an email and sent another apology the next morning.

But some students imputed ill intent to their professor. They wrote a letter to the dean about the use of the Chinese word in Prof. Patton’s lecture. The dean, Geoffrey Garrett, reacted quickly and announced that Prof. Patton would no longer be teaching the course. “It is simply unacceptable for the faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” the dean said.

There is evidence that people listening to Chinese speakers mistake the filler word ‘na-ge’ (meaning ‘that’) for the N-word. The BBC reported: “In July 2016, a fight broke out on the subway in the city of Southern Guangzhou, after a black man heard a Chinese man saying na-ge and mistook it for the N-word.”

Now, you would think that particularly for black businesspeople, who are visiting China, it would be useful to know that the Chinese are not actually insulting them (using the N-word), when speaking Chinese. A common filler word, to mask pauses, just sounds like an insult for black people in English. But in Chinese it literally means “that.”

Neither the students nor the dean understands the importance of context and the value of education. A harmless word in a different language that sounds like a swear word in your own language is not an insult, and it is not objectionable when this is taught in an educational context. It is actually for the benefit of the students to know this. The fight on the subway in Southern Guangzhou could have been avoided, if that man had attended Prof. Patton’s lecture.

In their letter to the dean, the students wrote: “There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community. The negligence and disregard displayed by our professor was very clear in today’s class.”

Two things in this passage are noteworthy and baffling. The students seem to think that Prof. Patton could have chosen any other character from the more than 10,000 in Chinese to illustrate the use of filler words. But this is nonsense, of course. Arbitrarily introducing any other characters that are not filler words doesn’t really help the students. I suspect that there are only a handful of filler words in Chinese, just like in other languages, so the pool of candidates would have been small. But, more importantly, the students don’t know what a synonym is: a word which has the same meaning as another word (these are distinct lexical items and they sound differently). The Chinese filler ‘that’ is not a synonym for the N-word in English. Instead, what we have here is a homonym across two different languages: two words which sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently. I am surprised that the dean didn’t pick up on this.

Prof. Patton has been teaching this course for ten years without any incident. Some students, just like the instructor, may have been oblivious to the similarity in sound; others may have noticed it and realised that this would be useful to know when doing business in China. If he ever gets to teach this class again, Prof. Patton could of course warn students beforehand that some people might mistake the Chinese filler word for an English swear word. But he could stress how important it is to know this in order to avoid any misunderstandings when interacting with Chinese speakers. There might still be people who are aggrieved about this, but sensible university administrators would see the educational benefits and support their staff.

There is a word in English, which comes close to being a homonym of the N-word: the adjective ‘niggardly’. It means “ungenerous,” “tight-fisted,” “stingy.” But the origin of this word goes back to Old Norse and precedes the N-word by many centuries. The only thing they have in common is that they both have negative connotations, but they are different words with different meanings.

In 1999, an English professor used the word while discussing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as Chaucer uses it. A black student, who wasn’t familiar with the word, objected. The professor explained the meaning of the word, and kept referring to it in subsequent classes, but the student was still offended. She expected the professor to stop using it.

After 35 years of living in Britain, I don’t recall anyone ever using the word ‘niggardly’. For this reason, I consider it to be obsolete. But, I do remember reading about the occasional controversy it has caused in the US. When studying English literature and language at university it is perfectly legitimate to discuss this word. Students of law and theology might also encounter it. [1]

Personally, I wouldn’t use it, because it’s not in my active vocabulary, and if people aren’t familiar with the word, they might take it the wrong way. This is easily done. I once used the phrase “to pass muster” in class and soon realised that the students (aged 17-18) were not familiar with it and thought it had something to do with passing the mustard at table.

‘Niggardly’ is not a word that is central to English, unlike words like ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’. We can do without this adjective in ordinary life, especially if we wish to avoid conflict. I find it strange that a 4th grade teacher from Wilmington thought it appropriate to introduce her students (aged 9-10) to this word, particularly as there were black children in the class. Even if you explain its meaning, this will inevitably lead to mischief from the children. Things might get trickier when we are dealing with teenagers studying Macbeth. Shakespeare uses a derivation of the word (“Be not a niggard of your speech.”). If the students are mature enough, reading such passages can be done in a sensitive way. However, there are instances when some adults have used the word deliberately to rile up black people, and claim innocence afterwards. It can be used as a code-word. I would only use the word in very specific educational contexts, but not in everyday life. [2]

Twenty years ago, when I taught philosophy in school, I was always looking for ways to awaken my students from their teenage stupor. I would start my first class about John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty by stamping my foot repeatedly and shouting three times “Kant! Kant! Kant!” and after a short pause, “that great German philosopher!” Initially the students would think I was swearing, because the correct pronunciation of “Kant” sounds like “cunt” in English. I explained to the students that a central theme in Mill’s book is how society puts pressure on the individual to conform, and the pronunciation of “Kant” is a great example, because many philosophers in the English-speaking world, who should be resistant to the pressure to conform, did not pronounce his name correctly. I explained that there was only one among the many Oxford philosophers who would resist changing Kant’s name, and that was P.F. Strawson.

One year, I had a student who wouldn’t accept basic logic, not even the law of non-contradiction. I recommended that he change subjects, and the principal supported me. His mother, a lawyer, was not pleased, however, and threatened to sue me because I had used swear words in class. This mother made the same mistake as the students who objected to the Chinese filler ‘that’. A word in another language that sounds the same in your own language is not the same word. It usually has a different meaning. I always found it funny when Germans said “Jawohl,” because in Croatian it sounds like “I am an ox.” But even as a child I knew that “Jawohl” just meant “yes” and that it was a German word.

There is no doubt that it is important to be sensitive to the reasonable concerns of students. But when this turns to folly, as in the case of Prof. Patton, it must be resisted. Those errant students and the university administrators, who support them in their folly, definitely need more education. Learning a foreign language might be useful.

Miroslav Imbrišević has taught philosophy in high school and at university, most recently at Heythrop College/University of London. He works in the philosophy of sport and in political and legal philosophy. Miroslav blogs here.


[1] Occasionally, some US judges have used the word in their decisions. In the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, Paul (II Corinthians 9:6) is made to use the word. However, the King James Version uses ‘sparingly’.

[2] More on the controversy about ‘niggardly’ here.






28 responses to “Racist Language”

  1. s. wallerstein

    There’s a Bob Dylan song, Hurricane, from 1975 where he uses the n-word. The song is a defense of Ruben Carter, an African-American boxer unjustly accused of homicide and so Dylan’s intent is not racist. The word appears at 6:00 in the video. I don’t live in the U.S. and I don’t follow these controversies closely, but I wonder what the politically correct reaction has been to Dylan’s song. Maybe someone can fill me in how the song has been treated by the woke set.

  2. Or what about this famous — and incredible — song by Patti Smith, which actually has the n-word in the title?


  3. Seth Leon

    Not just Dylan–Patti Smith, The Stones, I think Elvis Costello as well have used it. I think there has been some blowback, but I think mostly they got a pass. I could be wrong there. I think a white artist doing so today, however would get a lot more blowback.

  4. I remember that “niggardly” incident.

    Growing up in Australia, “niggardly” was a familiar word. I don’t think I had heard it used since moving to the USA, until that incident. Yes, it would be wise for us to avoid using that word.

    When I hear people talking in Chinese (which I do not understand), I often hear them using what sounds like the N word. But they use it in just about every second sentence, which was clear evidence that this was just a very common Chinese word that happened to have a similar sound. It isn’t reasonable to expect the Chinese to change their normal way of talking.

  5. davidlduffy

    Yeah, but…Should the university have an “Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX”? Should they ever investigate complaints? Are they allowed to dismiss complaints immediately? If not, do they have to follow a protocol specified either by law, or set up to be procedurally fair according to the university’s legal advisors? It seems that
    they took a whole month before concluding the complaint was sincere but baseless, and had greatly embarrassed the university.

    Down here in Queensland, a football stadium was named in the 1960s after a footballer whose nickname came in turn from an early 20th century brand of shoe polish.

  6. davidlduffy

    “Stand”, not “stadium” — gggrrr.

  7. John Lennon explains the title of his and Yoko Ono’s song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYjEz441I4M

  8. Bunsen Burner

    So what usage of ‘snigger’ like these days in the US?

  9. Paul Taborsky

    I’m not even sure that 那个 is ‘very similar to the N-word’ as the report implies. I’m semi-fluent in Manadarin, and not once in many years did it ever occur to me that the two words could be thought of as sounding similar (although that could be because I’m not American).

    ‘Umm’ and ‘that’, which are sometimes used to translate it, don’t fully capture its meaning as they don’t convey very well that the Chinese word is nearly always used in combination with other words, and never exists outside of a compound expression (except perhaps in questions), unlike ‘umm’ and ‘that’ in English. It is an unstressed modifier or adjective of other words; in this way it is perhaps most similar to the English definite article ‘the’.

    Even for a non-Chinese speaker, the sentence intonation and speech patterns make it pretty clear that the word is an unstressed modifier that carries litlte meaning in itself. The professor’s example was artificial as he was simply demonstrating or mentioning the word, not actually using it in speech.

    (Incidentally, what in the world is ‘The city of Southern Guangzhou’? I think the BBC report meant to say ‘The southern city of Guangzhou’.)

  10. “Good old boys” by Randy Newman.

    Quoting from memory:

    “Last night I saw Lester Maddox in a TV-show
    With some smart-ass New York Jew …”

    “We’re rednecks, we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
    And we’re keeping the niggers down.”

    Jews, Southern rednecks and people of color. In the first lines of the first song of the album!

    “Initially the students would think I was swearing, because the correct pronunciation of “Kant” sounds like “cunt” in English.”

    That one I don’t understand. “Kant” pronounced correctly doesn’t sound like “cunt” at all, in my opinion. Am I pronouncing “cunt” incorrectly? (Not that I use the word often.)
    I learned something, however. You can be and MBA-student – an MBA-student! – without knowing what the word “synonym” means.

  11. Perhaps there is a difference in pronunciation between the US and the UK? In British English ‘cunt’ sounds like the German name ‘Kant’.

  12. Here is an example of how the Germans pronounce ‘Kant’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ2t5h6dYxs

  13. s. wallerstein

    That’s not how people in the U.S. (where I grew up) pronounce “cunt”.

  14. I have a friend who was a professor of Spanish. She used the word “negro” because it’s the Spanish word for “black.” A black student got offended, as “negro” (in English) is antiquated, and someone who uses it is, at best, out of step, and at worse, trying to offend black people.

    She refused to back down. She didn’t get in trouble. But neither did the student.

    I can’t help but to think that the student did something terrible. He either knew or he didn’t know that “negro” was not used by Spanish-speakers, as a class, to insult black people. If he didn’t know, he should have taken the professor’s, the class textbook’s, and the Internet’s word for it that “negro” is used merely to mean “black.” If he did know, well, isn’t that incredibly imperialistic? Yes, this whole language and culture didn’t invent this word to offend you, but that doesn’t matter; you are offended, so literally one billion people should figure out a new word to refer to a color because hearing it brings up uncomfortable associations for you.

    I’m using (by my standards) purple prose right now. I don’t know why this incident–and the “niggardly” incident with David Howard–upsets me so much. I think it’s because there is a demonstrable fact that everyone knows and agrees to, but that it doesn’t matter. Yes, I KNOW the word means X. But it SOUNDS to ME like Y, so NO ONE should use the word anymore.

    My father died of kidney failure. Every time I hear the word kidney, the association of it with my father’s death happens. Understandably. But if I were to then conclude that you shouldn’t use the word “kidney” around me — that just seems so fucked up.

    I realize that niggardly doesn’t NEED to be used. We could always use “stingy” or “mean.” But why? Imagine a parallel situation: I have a glass I like to drink scotch from. Someone doesn’t like that glass. It annoys them. So they tell me to stop. It would be easy for me to use another glass. I have many glasses! But not only would it be ok for me to NOT stop, it’s INSANE for them to make the request in the first place. What could their motivation possibly be, when all the facts are put on the table, other than, “my irritation is more important than your ease”?

  15. I actually think the take on ‘niggardly’ contradicts the message of the rest of the essay, and I told Miroslav this prior to publication.

  16. s. wallerstein

    What happened with David Howard? I ask because he is an old friend of mine (I assume it’s the same David Howard).

  17. s. wallerstein

    Sorry. I googled “David Howard niggardly” and it’s a different David Howard.

  18. I know how Germans pronounce “Kant”.
    I think only a dirty mind could understand it as “cunt”, but I’m not British nor American.

  19. Mark Manning

    In spain I have also encountered words where I am not sure whether they are racist or not.

    They refer to people from Pakistan and from ships owned by people from Pakistan as “pakis”. In the uk this is dis jeered extremely derogatory and racist. However in spain it seems to be part of modern parlance. For me whether something is racist depends upon the intention or the speaker, but also Potentially the perception of the listener (they perceived it as racist, even though the utterance was not from the speaker’s point of view).

    I would like to say that speakers of Spanish are not explicitly intending to make a negative comment about propel from Pakistan. However I do find that people in spain are quite racist in a general sense of having quite preconceived ideas about races. Similarly they Say “chinos” when referring to Chinese people and ships owned by Chinese. I am somewhat offended by this as my partner is Chinese. What offends me is that I know the ignorance that Spanish people generally have towards the Chinese. They associate them with poor quality, cheap, dirty food etc. anyway just adding to the conversation. Interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this. Cheers 🙂

  20. s. wallerstein

    I live in Chile and it’s similar to what you describe. Racial and national stereotypes are much more accepted here than in the U.S. as are ones about people’s physical appearance (calling someone “gordo” (fat) or “guatón” (pot-bellied), etc.) As you point out, the people who use their stereotypes are not explicitly intending to make negative comments.

    I don’t know what’s worse, the political correctness in the U.S. and Great Britain or the acceptance of stereotypes in countries like Chile. By the way, I’m Jewish and those stereotypes in Chile certainly extend to Jews.

  21. davidlduffy

    There is a long discussion of pronunciation in the Language Log posting which might have brought this episode to prominence (as well as the earlier ones in 2011 and 2016):

  22. Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” is one of his best novels. At the time, in England, the offending word did not have quite the same connotations that it has today.

    It is one thing to be wary of and sensitive to historical instances of crude racial stereotyping but a lot of good literature is currently being pushed aside with the bad.

    A sense of history is being lost. I would have thought that any decent general (and certainly literary) education would aim, amongst other things, to instill an understanding of the ways the meanings and connotations of words and expressions change over time. Unfortunately, however, it is so much easier to ignore the facts, to see ourselves as paragons of virtue and to rewrite history to support a favored narrative.

  23. You are right Mark – Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is one of the victims.

  24. Having experienced both, I much prefer the “older ways.” The current climate is just utterly suffocating.