More than a year ago, faithful reader Anne the English Teacher suggested we tackle words with sinister origins – she started with denigrate, a word meaning to “criticize unfairly; disparage” (Oxford). The origin of the word is clear:
Late Middle English (in the sense ‘blacken, make dark’): from Latin denigrat- ‘blackened’, from the verb denigrare, from de- ‘away, completely’ + nigrare (from niger ‘black’). (Oxford)
Anne’s concern is that the very word denigrates black (that is, African-descended) people by associating their skin color and racial signifier with impolite behavior. It goes without saying this can be a problem when it comes to black:
Europeans called Africa “The Dark Continent” for years, partially for its impenetrable geography, but also because of its dark-skinned denizens. That epithet lingered on well into the 20th century – the Busch Gardens African-themed park in Tampa went by The Dark Continent until the 1990s. Whether you think of darkness or blackness as evil or simply mysterious, the association is one of otherness, something to be wary of.
Could the same argument be made for white? Whitewash can be a negative word, as can whiteout. I think it’s safe to say, though, that these two words don’t make European-descended people shudder when they think of a sudden snowstorm.
But do black people shudder when they hear denigrate, considering most English speakers don’t know the origin? By the same token, do women recoil at hysteria or southpaws when they read the word sinister in my opening paragraph? I think there’s a reason that these words continue on with little controversy (outside college campuses), where an equally innocent word like niggardly does not.
Guest writer Lylah Alphonse and Otto advised against using the word, even if the former head of the NAACP didn’t have a problem with it. (“You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding,” he said, earning Julian Bond a Lexicide Lifetime Achievement Award.) Even though it sounds like a racial slur, niggard is not – it’s not even etymologically derived from the Latin for “black.” However, I reflexively shudder when I hear it, as I do when I hear chink used to mean a break or flaw, even though I know it’s meant innocently.
But denigrate, hysterical, and sinister don’t seem to stoke the same disgust in decent folk as established slurs or even words that sound likes slurs. Then again, it’s questionable whether most people of color get upset when they hear blackguard, blackmail, or blackball. I’m Chinese-American, and while I’m not cool with Yellow Peril or yellowface, I don’t think twice about yellow journalism or yellow-bellied. But that’s me.
Anne and Spike Lee make a good point, one that Lexicide cleaves to – words have meanings, and the meanings mean something. If you’re the sort who refuses to use black mark in a sentence, maybe you should wave off denigrate, even if its origin was not meant as a slam against black-skinned people. Ultimately, Safire’s maxim (“Never use a word sure to sow confusion.”) and the advertising copywriter’s axiom to “know your audience” should reign supreme.
– Otto E. Mezzo
See also Lylah Alphonse’s Lexicide article, which is about words that people think are offensive but are not, sort of the mirror image of this article.
Reference: Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee, 1992