I’m a great believer in the notion that sticks and stones can, indeed, inflict much more damage than mere epithets.
Certainly when you work in some fields, such as journalism or politics or debt collection, you expect the fires of damnation to rain upon you from time to time.
You get used to it.
And yet, there are some words that have garnered such a villainous connotation, one is loathe to use them even in private confidence, let alone public pronouncements.
The one word that usually comes to mind is the N-word. And I don’t mean Newfie. Because, frankly, no matter how demeaning you think that term is, it hardly measures up to that shameful chapter in human history from which the other word arose.
The N-word is a pretty offensive word.
It has an immediate, dehumanizing effect. It conjures images of injustice and cruelty in the southern U.S., of burning churches, of whips, chains and nooses. Even the more benign forms of discrimination — special seating in diners and on buses — are unthinkable today, yet were routine only half a century ago.
Nonetheless, it was with some surprise that I learned a jury in Manhattan has decided that no one — not even black people themselves — should be allowed to use the word.
This is truly interesting, because even those of us detached from street vernacular know that the word has been making a comeback within black communities.
We see it in movies, as when Samuel L. Jackson turns to a “brother” and says, “Get over here, nigger.”
It’s meant as a friendly tease, or even a term of affection.
Tone, however, has a lot to do with it.
When 38-year-old Brandi Johnson was subjected last year to what her lawyer called her boss’s “four-minute nigger tirade” about inappropriate workplace attire and behaviour, she wasn’t feeling the love.
As ABC News reported Tuesday, her boss, Rob Carmona, was slapped with $250,000 in compensatory damages by a federal jury. That doesn’t count an imminent decision on punitive damages.
In closing arguments, Johnson’s attorney Marjorie Sharpe said the negative impact of the word cannot be watered down with subtle innuendo. The fact Carmona was also black made no difference.
“When you use the word nigger to an African-American, no matter how many alternative definitions that you may try to substitute with the word nigger, that is no different than calling a Hispanic by the worst possible word you can call a Hispanic, calling a homosexual male the worst possible word that you can call a homosexual male,” Sharpe said.
The lesson is, don’t just assume you can use a word and then redefine it afterwards.
Which brings me back to Newfie.
The difference, apart from the historical scale of discrimination, is that despite its negative connotation in some circles, the word has always enjoyed a friendly association, as well.
No matter who coined it, or why, it was quickly adapted as an easy and familiar way for Newfoundlanders to refer to each other. (And to their homeland, as in the phrase, “flying back to Newfie.”)
You may find the term Newfie annoying — as I sometimes do — but it’s still not worth making a federal case of it.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s