BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Wednesday, February 28th, 2007, in an act of historic irrelevance, the New York City Council voted unanimously to ban the N-word. There would be no penalties for breaking the ban. It was a symbolic act, symbolically silly, according to The Daily Show.
JOHN OLIVER: Leroy, are you at all concerned that we are banning one of the most versatile words in the English language? It can be used as a noun -
LARRY WILMORE: Yo, yo, whassup, my n___[BLEEP]
OLIVER: A verb.
WILMORE: Hey, man, don’t n___[BLEEP] those potato chips.
OLIVER: An adjective.
WILMORE: Oh, so now you [BLEEP] ___itch. .
OLIVER: An adverb.
WILMORE: Man, that’s some [BLEEP]___ly [BLEEP].
OLIVER: Are we kissing goodbye to all of this?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On January 15th 2014, the Israeli Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill that would criminalize the use of another N-word, “Nazi, Nazism” and its symbols, in anything other than an educational or certain artistic settings. Violators could draw a fine as high as $29,000 and up to six months in jail. The bill still has to pass three more readings in committee discussions before becoming law, and a similar effort in 2012 failed at the committee stage. But the bill's sponsor said he seeks to prevent disrespect of the Holocaust, the kind that results when Nazis are invoked casually, whether in political invective or adolescent insults. To most Americans, such a ban is shocking. The idea that the word “Nazi” shouted on the street could land you in jail makes no sense.
Paja Faudree is a linguistic anthropologist and a professor at Brown University. Paja, welcome to the show.
PAJA FAUDREE: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Roni Bar wrote in Ha'aretz that the committee backing the bill wants to preserve the trauma of the Holocaust. She doesn't agree with that, but she says they worry about the loss of meaning. Is that, in fact, what we’re sseing?
PAJA FAUDREE: I think that one of the things that’s really interesting about this proposal is that it's not attempting to ban this particular set of words or symbols outright. It wants to stipulate the way they should be used. They want to preserve this really close relationship between particular symbols and words and this particular historical event, which, of course, has a very particular space in Jewish history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it that they're afraid that the horror of those things will be diluted and that that, in itself, given that this is a political body, might have political consequences?
PAJA FAUDREE: I think that that is one possible interpretation, particularly to the extent that they see this as a pattern of speech that's prevalent among young people, people who are more distant now from the Holocaust, as Holocaust survivors increasingly pass on, that the attachment to the Holocaust and to this narrative of the past is part of what makes the Jewish state hold together, in spite of its many differences.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's interesting that you talked about generations because Roni Bar, that young woman writing in Ha'aretz, likened those ministers supporting the ban to the wizards in Harry Potter who are unwilling to utter the name of Voldemort.
PAJA FAUDREE: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She said that her generation has their own meaning for “Nazi.” She has her own.
PAJA FAUDREE: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She has her own. It's not the meaning her grandmother has, and she wouldn't invoke it to upset people of the older generation. But she doesn't plan to give up her meaning of the word “Nazi” and she's currently talking about the evolution of a word.
PAJA FAUDREE: That's what language tends to do, It tends to evolve and change, as it gets passed from one speaker to another, from one generation of speakers to another, and these kinds of top-down legislated attempts to enforce a kind of freezing of language tend not to be very successful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What I think is particularly interesting is that, in a way, Roni Bar is battling this issue out on the same field as the ministers who support the ban. They want it there because they want those words to remain powerful, but Roni Bar wrote that Hebrew speakers have gained courage. They have chosen to remove the stinger from the word to disarm the killer of his weapon to take control. We haven't cheapened the term, we’ve defeated it.
PAJA FAUDREE: What is, for some people, a cheapening of the language is, is for other people a liberating move to be sort of freed of the pall that is cast by the past in which this word was created. And we have a long history of that happening with language. Terms like “queer,” for example, all kinds of words that used to be racial, sexist whatever, epithets who - that have been reappropriated have followed a similar trajectory, where the initial charge of discrimination, of being pejorative has abated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you said, language is always evolving. But what fuels that evolution? Who endows words with power?
PAJA FAUDREE: Ultimately, it’s always the speakers of the language. Sometimes they are speakers of the language who have more power than others. The editor-in-chief of the [LAUGHS] Oxford English Dictionary has more power over certain aspects of the language than does your average speaker, but it is ultimately always subject to the micro decisions that speakers make every day that tends towards dynamism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet – and yet, Paja, there are entire industries devoted to manipulating language, especially in the realms of commerce and politics, “finger-lickin’ good,” “pro-choice,” “pro-life.”
We’re awash in signifiers. So you can do it from the top down and not just from the bottom up.
PAJA FAUDREE: But I would say even in the cases where top-down attempts have certain kinds of success, their success is still partial because they never have total control. We have lots of cases of whole languages, for example, being subject to bans and to attempts to eliminate them entirely or to eliminate them from public context. And it doesn't wind up preventing those languages from continuing to exist. It just drives them underground.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think would happen if this passed? Would anything change? I mean, there's a sense that –
- banning the word could, ironically, spark all sorts of subsequent discussions in which the word itself would have to be used.
PAJA FAUDREE: I also think it's very likely that there will be overt attempts to resist the law, either by doing things that kind of test the boundaries around the circumscribed spaces that this law sets aside, namely educational purposes and some artistic purposes. If they use this word satirically or ironically, you know, what are the limits around those categories? What are the spaces where it's possible to use these words or symbols and get a pass? It just opens up a whole other set of questions about how to enforce it, how to police it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I was thinking what it would be like if they banned the word “Nazi” here, and it would be awful because it's such a wonderful indication –
- that a person has a bad argument or is losing the debate. The New Republic called it “reductio ad Hitlerum.”
PAJA FAUDREE: [LAUGHING] That’s wonderful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paja, thank you very much.
PAJA FAUDREE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paja Faudree is a linguistic anthropologist and professor at Brown University.