Inside the Avebury stone circle at the Red Lion the young people at the next table were having a discussion about the f-word. A tall young man with several piercings and alert eyes offered the opinion that it was the forbidden nature of the word that created its attractiveness to his juniors. He drew the common conclusion that if we did not forbid the word, it would soon lose its power. This is a variation of the “well if we just get all this talk about sex out in the open and not hush it up, we won’t have these problems anymore.” I have not often heard that in the last ten years, but it was a common refrain when I was younger. In popular culture, we seem to have talked about nothing but sex for several decades, and I have not noticed a decrease in sexual preoccupation, but an increase. So apparently being frank and candid was not quite the way to get back to the garden.
But I perked up my ears at the next part, as this lad had done more thinking than the average bear. “Take the word nigger,” he said. “Because you can’t say it, it’s become a worse insult. It used to be just coarse and stupid; now it’s a real insult, much more cruel.” This is not blindingly profound, but it represents more exercise of the little gray cells than I had expected. Words of opprobrium do change in strength in inverse proportion to their use. The phrase “you suck” has nowhere near the insultive power it had when I was a boy. And I think the man from Avebury is correct: nigger is a worse insult now than it was then.
One word became more acceptable, one less, and their intensity changed accordingly. Though by giving good evidence for his minor point he undermined his major one. When a word is in common use it does not provide the contrast an uncommon one does. When you heard the n-word in the 1960’s, it was not immediately clear whether the speaker was being vicious or just stupid. Stupidity is now a very unlikely explanation. It was good that we forbade the word and gave it more power. By doing so, we removed a lot of the dilute racism from our discourse and concentrated it into the few individuals who really meant it.