Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Just One Word's Power

I am currently reading a really funny, delightful, Victorian novella, titled "Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog," by Jerome K. Jerome.
In between its very funny pages are also some really beautiful passages, like this gem I read this morning:

It was a glorious night. The moon had sunk and left the quiet earth alone with the stars. It seemed as if, in the silence and the hush, while we her children slept, they were talking with her, their sister-conversing of mighty mysteries in voices too vast and deep for childish human ears to catch the sound.

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god they have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

And yet it seems so full of comfort and of strength, the night. In its great presence, our small sorrows creep away, ashamed. The day has been so full of fret and care, and our hearts have been so full of evil and of bitter thoughts, and the world has seemed so hard and wrong to us. Then Night, like some great loving mother, gentlylays her hand upon our fevored head, and turns our little tear-stained face up to hers, and smiles, and though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone.

Sometimes, our pain is very deep and real, and we stand before her very silent, because there is no language for our pain, only a moan. Night's heart is full of pity for us: she cannot ease our aching; she takes our hand in hers, and the little world grows very small and very far beneath us, and, borne on her dark wings, we pass for a moment into a mightier Presence than her own, and in the wondrous light of that great Presence, all human life lies like a book before us, and we know that Pain and Sorrow are but the angels of God.

Only those who have worn the crown of suffering can look upon that wondrous light; and they, when they return, may not speak of it, or tell the mystery they know. (77-78)

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of these passages, or any passage, in this book is overshadowed by one very nasty word that is contained in this book: the n-word. The word does not seem to be uttered with the same feeling of hate or disgust that I normally associate with it. It is mentioned in a passage where one of the characters is talking about a particularly "loud" jacket and it is said, "considered as an article of dress for a human being, except a Margate nigger, it made him ill" (49). Still, the word certainly has a negative connotation and it disgusts me that it is in the book at all when any other word would be better.

While I know that the book was first published in 1889 and that the word was more common back then, the word is still unneccessary and is still fraught with horrible, derogatory meaning. What disturbs me the most about reading the word is knowing that in just one word a whole group of people is excluded. One does not expect one to continue reading or to be reading a book you wrote in the first place if you insult them. There are some people that think that this word is sometimes okay to use, but I disagree. This word is so fraught with demeaning meaning that any time someone hears or sees it, one is disgusted. I have to believe that there are always better words to use in any situation, in any time period. Words matter. Always.


  1. But suppose you were to write in a work of fiction: "Alex made a beef and tomato sandwich with a little mayonnaise, and packed it in a bag for lunch."

    Now imagine a future in which the eating of carrion is regarded with even more disgust than you and I today regard the n-word...

  2. Words should only be judged by the intent behind them. J.J. implies that niggers have a poor fashion sense. He was not known for racial hatred, and much more obnoxios things could be said aabout a group of people than an insult to their fashion (especially in a joking, not serious manner).

    As for the word 'nigger' itself, its origin comes from negro, meaning black. There is nothing insulting about calling someone black, or any other colour. The person it should insult, if anyone, is the person using the word, as they are most likely using a highly inaccurate description.

    The word has been associated with horrifically racist ignoramuses, but acting like the word holds some sort of magic power will only make it worse.

  3. I understand your objection to the term nigger. However, the book is historically correct (as, say, Uncle Tom's Cabin) and stands as an object for study of the times. I've read opinion that suggests the term "Margate nigger" refers to a class of black-face minstrels popular at the time. Again, the black-face act is, today, frowned upon; does that mean all reference is to be stricken from the record of the past?

  4. Oh, please! Spare me the phony indignation!

  5. I'm reading Three Men now. I came across this blog when I googled the term: "Margate nigger". The word certainly jars when juxtaposed with the passage of superlative cosmic imagery you quote at length but it also jars with the rest of the earlier passage in which it appears.

    What on Earth is a "Margate nigger". I worked in Margate in the 1970s and I can't remember seeing one black person. How many fewer must there have been in Jerome's late Victorian England?

    As to whether it disgusts me. The answer is no. Having just finished Huckleberry Finn, I think it would be a tragedy if we were to lose vocabulary to PC. Jerome is likely referring to some popular seaside minstrel show of the era.

    Whoops! Are we allowed to use the word: "minstrel"? One of my favourite black writers is Zora Hurston. She used the word "nigger" often in her stories. At the time, she was also condemned by other black writers for her "minstrel-like" characterisations.

    Hurston's body of work still stands as a living testament to the humour, resilience and humanity of her people. She is also highly regarded by black feminists like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

    Maybe we should forgive Jerome and Hurston both.

    Now, let me get back to Three Men...