25 May 2007
A dog by any other name

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Guy Gibson was the leader of the Dam Busters, the raid to which Pajamas Media recently dedicated an article.  His dog was called “Nigger” as was the codeword used on the operation to indicate a successful bomb drop.  These are facts that Pajamas Media cannot bring itself to mention.

They’re not alone in such squeamishness.  According to Wikipedia, ITV edits the n-word out when it repeats the Dam Busters movie.

So Gibson was a racist then?  As it happens he probably was - most people were in those days.  But there are racists and there are racists.  He was after all risking his life to destroy the most violently racist regime ever known - risks that eventually got him killed.  There is a big difference between thinking that members of another race are inherently inferior - or just undesirable - and wishing their deaths.

But does his use of the n-word prove it - his racism, that is?  That’s where things get trickier.  You see I am not sure that at the time and the place it was an insult.  Take some British English uses from about the same period.  Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Ten Little Niggers, for instance.  Or a little vignette I once picked up from a documentary on black American soldiers in England in World War Two.  They found that the natives at first and in all innocence referred to them as “niggers” - a usage that was dropped soon enough after the black servicemen let it be known that where they came from “nigger” was deeply offensive.  I have found other uses in which the term has a neutral meaning, in much the same way that black (in British English, that is) has today.  And I have found others where it implies pity but certainly not contempt.

According to Fowler, the afficionado of all things to do with English usage, writing in 1926, it could be an insult but only when applied to non-blacks.  (Thinks: would I be insulted if called Chinese?)

Another aspect I find interesting is that there is no white equivalent.  “Honky” just doesn’t cut it.  Oh, I guess if I was being called “honky” half-a-dozen times a day in clearly hostile manner it might get to me.  But ordinarily…

I wonder why that is?  Is it because blacks allow it to be an insult?  Is a reaction to this behind the naming of the band Niggaz with Attitude and the Samuel L Jackson character’s extraordinarily frequent use of the word in Jackie Brown - a bit like the way veterans of the BEF referred to themselves as the ”Old Contemptibles”?

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  1. What about “Gweilo” for a white equivalent? For the Chinese, who have the same sense of cultural superiority that westerners have, it’s clearly an insult. Westerners have done exactly what blacks have done with “nigger” and co-opted it as their own so as not to allow it to be an insult.

    Posted by Bishop Hill on 25 May 2007 at 02:23pm

  2. “Cracker” is an equivalent term, directed against whites:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cracker_(pejorative)

    Posted by knirirr on 26 May 2007 at 12:51am

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