The BBC is to broadcast what is now referred to as the ‘C-word’ in a drama about Dylan Thomas. ‘It was in an actual letter by Dylan Thomas,’ the screenwriter Andrew Davies said at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, ‘and the word was being used in a tender and affectionate way. We won that battle.’
No doubt any word can be used in a tender and affectionate way. A fortnight ago, BBC Radio 4 devoted a whole programme to what the title called the ‘N-word’. The suggestion was made that nigger is offensive even when used by blacks. The poet Dean Atta, who had published a volume of verse called I am Nobody’s Nigger, particularly opposed black rappers using the term. ‘That’s one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard,’ he said. ‘So don’t tell me it’s a reclaimed word.’
The Oxford English Dictionary ties itself into decorative knots in charting the connotations of the word, noting not only of whom it has been used, but also by whom. As long ago as 1949, the American folklorist Benjamin Botkin observed: ‘The Negro has taken over the objectionable word “nigger” (though not “darky”) and made it a term of praise.’ Among ‘African-Americans’, as the OED calls them, at least one meaning takes in ‘tender and affectionate’ usages. ‘Kim is my nigga, she’s just so understanding’ is an example from 1999. From 1960, before rappers were invented, came: ‘Obie, I got to be with you, you know that. You know you’re my nigger.’ But would it be so ‘tender and affectionate’ if it were ‘Kim is my bitch, she’s just so understanding’? Bitch is widely used by gangsta rappers, in a proprietary way.
Even as a synonym for ‘slave’, nigger can be taken as a badge of downtrodden pride. ‘My people [Jews] were the white man’s nigger when yours [blacks] were still painting their faces and chasing zebras,’ says Hesh Rabkin in The Sopranos. Roddy Doyle in The Commitments has a character say: ‘The Irish are the niggers of Europe.’ If you substitute the C-word for the N-word in the examples above, the tenderness and affection quotient shrinks markedly.
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