Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Contagious Words

I've been aware and annoyed lately by the seemingly contagious word choices used by the general public. It seems like some words get picked up and associated with certain stories, and that association somehow can't be disrupted. Did you hear about the maverick politician? Or the raunchy video made by the Navy captain? As accurate as these words may or may not be, why can't people mix it up a little?


I think maybe there's a sort of shorthand labeling at play here. Reporters perhaps use the same words over and over and over again so that listeners can immediately get in tune with what story is being discussed. But, I wonder if this repeated word usage only serves to take actual meanings away from the words that represent them. Or worse yet, this repeated word usage may be making fact out of opinion.

I think it's one thing to choose a word to describe a situation the first time. It would probably serve me well to describe my own writing as spellbinding or transformative. But, if those words spread through other voices lacking imagination or their own ability to assess my writing for themselves, then suddenly the world would seem to agree with my chosen self-compliments. This wouldn't make them true, but it could give the impression that the words were true, especially by people not willing to look at my writing for themselves.

On a sort-of related topic, did y'all hear that a new version of Huckleberry Finn is being published without the n-word in it? Rather than filing this under censorship, some scholars are claiming that this will allow the book to be read by a younger audience who is currently being prohibited. There's some argument (although I don't quite see the logic in it myself) that replacing the word with "slave" somehow helps to express Samuel Clemens' original intent in contemporary times. My initial reaction was that this is all wrong, but I'm willing to be open-minded temporarily to see if any argument can change my opinion.

What say you?


  1. In my own humble opinion, I think the 'n' word should be kept in the book.

    In teaching Monster Baby about the world today, there are, of course, words I use that she doens't understand. Redneck is one of them. I've told her that just because I use it doesn't mean that she can. I've told her it's a curse word.

    I think the 'n' word should be treated as such. I don't use that word, never have. However, I think it should be kept in the book to show how derogatory it really is.

    Like the 'c' word. I don't use that one either, except in EXTREME situations. It too is deragatory.

    Besides, Twain wrote in a time where that word was essential to the language. Will taking the 'n' word out of that book make us want to censor other books, other words.

  2. Censorship is censorship, no matter how you try to 'white-wash' it!

    I think the word is an integral part of the story and shows the feelings of that time/place.

  3. What's interesting is to substitute a word, maverick/orphan, raunchy/dirty.

  4. That's really irritating to me that they're taking out the word. It's like dumbing something down for readers. They're smart. They can figure it out. My heck. I agree with Anne. If we censor out that word, where does it stop in classic literary fiction? Because there are words and phrases and scenes even in Shakespeare that I can see people censoring.

  5. I think if an author writes it one way- and it was published that way- then there should be no judgment on rewriting it, that takes away from the piece rather than adding to it. I would suggest people learn that Just because it wasn't written in the now, doesn't mean it should be rewrote to be acceptable now. whats the point really? it takes out what used to be, it makes it less then. The N word should stay!

  6. Anne, I'll say first that I agree with you at the moment. But, to play devil's advocate, does it matter that the word was essential to the language at the time when Twain wrote it? If the word is no longer essential now, doesn't that justify substituting the word for something more relevant?

    Scott, Something that I'm wondering about is whether or not the publishers of the new version consider this to be a companion to the original or a true substitute. I wonder if they expect that the original will coexist with this new version. Maybe it would be better to call this by another name, like Huck Finn for Young Readers, if that's their real intention.

    John, agreed. Why don't people do this more?

    Michelle, other opponents have definitely used Shakespeare as an example. I think it's a good point. I actually don't know much about whether or not Huck Finn is being kept from young readers. I don't remember ever having a problem getting access to this book as I was growing up. And, I remember the n-word being discussed when I did read it. I thought it was a very educational experience in the original form.

    Summer, I think that's well put. I also don't know how much these classic books have changed over the years. I'd hope that they haven't changed much, but I imagine that they get changed more frequently than I realize.

  7. @Domey - repeated use of the same, slightly colorful word is a deliberate technique of propaganda and an unintentional aspect of social coding. Either way, it does create a label that categorizes something or someone. This is not always bad; often is is useful to help get a point across efficiently, and sometimes it is necessary in order to communicate a complex concept. But it is, in essence, a cheat.

    It's also a byproduct of laziness. As someone who did this on the radio (for only a year a half, but long enough), I can tell you that when a news item comes through "over the wire," it's pretty easy to just go with the wording that's there, especially if it seems snappy. I would be more surprised if journalists, reporters, and announcers all came up with unique wording to report the same item.

    As for Huck Finn, I'm torn in a million directions.

    First, I hate the word censorship here, because it is a publisher making the choice. It's cleansing or sanitizing, but it's not as if the government or an outside agency is forcing the change, which is what the hot-button word censorship implies. It's in the right ballpark but it's disturbingly imprecise.

    That said, the author himself has no say in the matter for obvious reasons, and that bugs me. When I think about someone tinkering with my words after I'm dead, I roll over in my grave prematurely.

    But, then again, part of life as a producer is knowing at some point you lose control of your product. If it doesn't happen until a hundred years after your death, I'd say that's a pretty dang good run.

    Still, on the face of it, adjusting literature to make it more acceptable seems offensive to my sensibilities. It also seems silly and extreme.

    But, then again, my iTunes library has an awful lot of NWA and Eminem songs in their clean versions, because I don't particularly want to hear the f-word every two seconds, but I like the overall music and the rest of the lyrical cleverness.

    And I wonder if it's okay to say, "You know what, there are a lot of African Americans who are never going to read this book because they don't want to see the n-word all over it, but they might enjoy the rest of the book."

    So, honestly, I'm not sure how I feel.

    If this were being forced by the government or an external agency like that, by the way, I would be entirely in opposition. But as long as it is the choice of the rights-holder, I feel conflicted.

  8. By the by, as Mr. Bailey reminded me to think about yesterday, I'm not sure my copy of Huck Finn when I was a kid even had the n-word in it.

  9. Those are some excellent points, Mr. Nevets, and some good things to think about. I'm thinking about the whole thing from one POV, but you're right about it not being an outside government or agency pushing it. It really does depend on how you look at it. I also have some songs in my library with certain words censored.

  10. What I find most disagreeable about this edition of "Huck Finn" is that, by removing the hard edge of racism from the book, the book no longer has any thematic purpose. It's a book about racism hidden inside a boy's adventure story, not a boy's adventure story with inappropriate racism inside it. Orwell demonstrated pretty well that control of language can equate to control of discourse and control of social reality, and I think this is a slippery slope.

    I should also say, in the interests of full disclosure, that a character in my book Cocke & Bull uses the word "nigger." Because that's the word he'd use.

  11. It's a disgrace to change the wording. The use of that particular word is reflective of the period, regardless of whether we find it offensive or not. And whether we as readers (and writers) like it or not, we can't change history. Words like that did exist (and still do in some people's vocabulary), and we can't just ignore it. What we CAN do is use this as an example for our children to explain why it's wrong, why it's not appropriate, why such language should be considered beneath us. Mark Twain used the words he used for a reason. For us to go in and change it is just as obscene as the words we object to.

  12. Culterally I don't think the word should be subsitized. Part of the reason Huckleberry Finn is such a classic is that is paints an unsavory picture of history and Changing history is dangerous. I remember reading the book aloud with my brother when I was twelve or so and substituting the word with "slave" but the idea that the actual word was there in print reminded me why it was so uncomfortable to say aloud --that people really did use it in everyday speech to discuss a whole race of people as if they were less than human. I don't know if profanity in (most) music is quite the same thing. Not unless the use of the word in the song really does make it mean something different.

  13. Contagious words, eh? My first thought was about how people tend to use words that they've recently seen or heard. But you just had to write about something else. Shameful.

    About that Huck Finn: I think they should leave the word in there; altering words alters meanings (ask the Bible), and I grow weary of people hiding from the truth.

    "Help! I may have to live with something unpleasant! Rewrite it so that Romeo drinks chocolate milk instead!"

  14. Why the need to kid friendly the book? For generations, Huck Finn has been just fine. So, why change it now? Political correctness, perhaps? Outrage that, in this day and age, such a word is in a book available for all to read?

    In the end, I agree with nevets, that adjusting literature is "silly and extreme".

    Mark Twain wanted the word in his book. He wrote the word in his book. His editors/publisher didn't omit the word from his book. So, in my lofty opinion, the word should stay in his book.


  15. I've heard it said that all American Literature began with "Huck Finn". Sad to think that we now feel it necessary to change that first great example of Am Lit to make us all a little more comfortable with our history. Shame on us. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. And, as Robert Heinlein said, Those who don't know the correct history are just doomed.

  16. I don't think they need to mess with Huck Finn. I know I'm not African-American and perhaps can't truly know how denigrating that word is, but the point of the book is that it was a denigrating idea, and it shows slavery and the attitudes that went along with it at that historical time.

    Ha, as for the other words--you sound like a writer. You like a variety of words, and you like your words to mean specific things. Nothing wrong with that!

  17. The schools that don't allow "Huck Finn" in classrooms because of the n-word just don't want to discuss the word (and America's history of slavery and racism) with school children, because the discussion will make the adults uncomfortable and some people would rather we pretend that slavery never happened and that America is race-neutral now. Twain's book isn't the problem.

  18. The Daily Show is good at pulling together montages of contagious words. I think the word choice has less to do with accuracy and more to do with sensationalism.

    Also, in print, headlines of have people/groups "slamming" each other. They also "blast" a lot. I don't think they're really doing either.

    My favorite though, is the phrase " the strongest possible terms." I bet means someone dropped a f-bomb.

  19. My wife and I watched an episode of Being Erica a while back where one of the characters quoted a line form a poem by Larkin: “They screw you up your mum and dad,” only that’s not what Larkin wrote. He famously wrote, “The fuck you up your mum and dad.” I was appalled. I’d have rather they left the quote out rather than mangle it. As for the use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn I would keep it but I would be okay with a footnote being added to the first page on which it’s used explaining why the word was acceptable back then. Imagine in they remade Roots and tried to make it politically correct.

  20. Jim Murdoch: "Imagine in they remade Roots and tried to make it politically correct."

    In my opinion the politically correct thing to do is acknowledge America's real-life history. Sanitizing books is a cowardly act.

  21. @Scott - I agree totally. It's important that kids see that adults can learn from their mistakes. If they brush them under the carpet what lesson will their children take away?

  22. The n-word is wrong. But where will Big Brother stop?

    I'm a Christian and I'm offended when Christ's name is taken in vain. But I'm not for people going back through every book and changing it to "Gee!" Granted, it was wrong in the first place, no matter what the day and age was like and how they spoke. Wrong is wrong.

    But we can't legislate morality. You can't force people to think a certain way. You can force someone to speak a certain way... if there is a threat behind the order.

    And changing a book without the author's permission (dumbing it down for smart people), dead or alive... I'm not for that type of censorship.

    It won't end here. Trust me.

    P.S. Never used the n-word. I think it's foul and 100% wrong.

  23. Sorry for the rant. Also, I didn't realize that it was the right's holder making the changes. Doesn't change my stance, though.


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