When Slang Becomes a Slur

The linguist who testified against the Redskins in their trademark proceedings explains why the team's name can't be separated from historical hatreds.
A vintage postcard depicts the relationship between tourists and Indian Americans. ( Don Harrison & the UpNorth Memories Collection / Flickr )

The thing to bear in mind about the Redskins trademark case is that it was basically about the ‘60s—and the ‘60s of Mad Men, not Woodstock.

Whatever the connotations of “redskin” now, the question facing the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was whether it was disparaging when the team first registered it as a trademark in 1967. If that was so, the registration would have fallen afoul of the provision of the Lanham Act that disallows the registration of trademarks that may disparage the members of a group. You have the right to pick a slur for your product name, the thinking goes, but you can’t expect the government to protect your exclusive use of it by restricting the speech of others.

That was the argument of the petitioners who first asked the US Trademark Office to cancel the mark in 1995, initiating a legal process that would wind up 19 years and two trials later in last week’s decision that the mark should be canceled, which is where things stand pending appeal. But the historical perspective made things more difficult for the petitioners, and for me, as their linguistics expert. How do you determine what the connotations of a word were back in the ‘60s?

That may not have been so terribly long ago, but the racial attitudes of that era can strike us as primordial. What should we make of the fact that before the mark’s registration, no dictionaries labeled “redskin” as offensive, the way they did slurs for blacks and Jews? In fact it was only in 1967 that the Random House Dictionary became the first to provide such a label, and more than a decade went by before any others followed suit.

The team’s attorneys and linguistics experts argued that this demonstrated that the term had never really been disparaging—just a “robust informal synonym” for “American Indian,” which dictionaries only started to label as offensive in response to political pressure from a few Indian activists. But lexicographers are creatures of their age, and before the ‘60s members of the dominant culture were selective in their sensitivities. Merriam-Webster’s monumental Third International, published in 1961, warned its readers off “nigger,” “chink,” and “kike,” but it didn’t feel the need to indicate that some people might also take offense at “white trash,” “gook,” “wetback,” “pansy” and “fag.” Not that those words hadn’t been derogatory or demeaning all along. It’s just that lexicographers and most everyone else weren’t capable of imagining how those words would land on the people they targeted.

Reuters

“Redskin,” too, has been derogatory for a long time. It was recently discovered that the word actually began its life in English 200 years ago as a translation of an Indian term, via French—it didn’t have anything to do with those stories about bounties for bloody Indian scalps. But then “nigger” had a benign origin, as well. Since the mid-19th century “redskin” has simply been the slang word the white man used for the Indian, and like all slang words, it was infused with the attitudes about the thing it names. In the passages from books and newspapers and the movie clips we provided the court to document the word’s history, the word is inevitably associated with contempt, derision, condescension, or sentimental paeans to the noble savage. It couldn’t have been otherwise—what other attitudes were out there?

That all started to change in the ‘60s, though it took dictionaries a while to catch up. The sea change in social attitudes that led to the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 also transformed the way we talked about race and ethnicity. That was when we collectively acknowledged that every group was entitled to control its own linguistic destiny, and decide what it should and shouldn’t be called—that groups had the right to define themselves.

The principle had far-reaching consequences. When the decade opened, liberal-minded people referred to Negroes (or to “the Negro,” as LBJ liked to say), while an unreconstructed rear guard still talked about “coloreds.” By the decade’s end, pretty much everybody was using “blacks.” Over the following decades Orientals became Asians, queers became gays, and the new terms “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “Chicano” were added to the vocabulary. And the old word “slur” acquired a new meaning to refer to a word that conveyed an ethnic or racial insult, one whose use was not just unkind, but as a social thought crime. Not even the vocal reactions against “political correctness” in later decades called the right of self-naming into serious question. Those on the cultural right may ridicule PC ideas about race and gender, but in their public discussions they’re as fastidious as anybody else about avoiding words that are regarded as offensive or simply outmoded.

There are exceptions to that pattern, but “redskin” isn’t among them. By the 1970s, the word was widely considered as a slur. All modern dictionaries label it as offensive or disparaging, just at they do the N-word—no journalist would begin a story, “Redskin astronaut John Herrington was honored last night…” Not all Indians object to the word, it’s true. In surveys, it’s offensive to 35 to 45 percent of Indians enrolled in tribes, but far fewer among the much larger—and rapidly growing—population who self-identify as Indians, many out of a spiritual affinity or a family legend about a Cherokee princess four generations back. Whatever the exact number, it offends enough people to put it off limits as a form of address. Any white person who uses the word injudiciously to a group of Indians can count on receiving a sufficient quota of angry stares.

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Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist and an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information. He is the author of Ascent of the A-Word.

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