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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

On Language Police and Naked Emperors

I have an ambiguous relationship with the language police. On one hand, I appreciate that discouraging the use of belittling, offensive, or just plain inaccurate language can move our culture toward inclusiveness and respect. I lived through the days of being called a “my girl” when what my boss meant was that I typed for him, and even before anybody thought there was something wrong with that, it used to make my skin crawl. But I used the phrase myself when writing about that period in my novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove, and I dug in my heels when an editor suggested changing my references to the “boys and girls” of the Vietnam draft and protests to the P.C. language du jour: “young men and young women.” We were kids, which was a lot of the problem. Nobody knew what they were doing! Especially the people who claimed to know.

As an editor, I’ve altered offensive language. “I thought he was only a clerk” worked just as well as “I thought he was a clerk,” and the writer never even noticed.

As I story lover, I’ve cringed every time I’ve listened to the audio recording of one of my favorite authors, Eudora Welty, reading one of my favorite stories, “Why I Live at the P.O.” (written in 1941), when I’ve heard the line: “Of course Mama had turned both the niggers loose.” I was surprised to discover many “N”-word lines rewritten in the 1980 edition of the collected stories. But this was done by or at least with Ms. Welty’s approval.

In the preface, she writes that her stories come from where she lives (Mississippi): “They come from living here—they were part of living here, of my long familiarity with thoughts and feelings of those around me, in their many shadings and variations and contradictions.” She ends the preface by saying: “I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.”

The front pages of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn include two warnings:

NOTICE
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G. G. Chief of Ordnance

EXPLANATORY
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
THE AUTHOR

Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1912


Fiction writers write with intention, in the land of imagination. Their choice of words is part of that land, in its time, and through the characters they birth there. If the words cause offense in an unknown future time, then that is cause for discussion, not censorship. To censor robs readers of feeling the awfulness of certain things. People should cringe at hearing words like "nigger." The erasure of such words sterilizes our history, perhaps inadvertently satisfying only those who would swear that emperors always wear clothes.

For the full story, as well as the Twain scholar's explanation of the recent decision to replace the word "nigger" with the word "slave" in a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, see Kurt Andersen's blog and Studio 360 radio interview.
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