WHEN THE NAACP -- outraged that Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the word "nigger" as "a black person" -- threatened last year to boycott Webster's dictionaries, it was hardly the first time the company had heard from angry readers: Merriam-Webster is always getting complaints.
On any given day, letters arrive from unhappy parents whose precocious little angels think the dictionary gives them license to spout scatological slang; schoolmarms write to object that the dictionary includes a variety of unmentionable terms for naughty bits; spinsters are disappointed about "old maid"; members of racial and ethnic minorities are livid at the inclusion of racial slurs; and, who knows, the New York Times is probably bent out of shape to find "scumbag" in print. Complaints are an inescapable part of the dictionary business: As long as there are ugly words, people will blame lexicographers. Usually Merriam-Webster dismisses complaints with a pleasant, if patronizing, from letter describing how and why words get into the dictionary. But faced with an NAACP boycott, the company decided it was high time they changed their treatment of offensive words. That's when the trouble really started.
The tempest was sparked by an Ypsilanti, Mich., computer technician, Delphine Abraham, who is black. Shocked to find the n-word in her dictionary, she complained to Merriam-Webster. But this being the computer age, she leverage her own anger with an e-mail petition drive. When Emerge magazine featured Abraham, the complaints started to pile up. Merriam-Webster stood firm: "We have made it clear that the use of this word as a racial slur is abhorrent to us, but it is nonetheless part of the language, and as such, it is our duty as dictionary makers to report on it."
Which isn't to say the company wasn't willing to pander a bit -- the statement continued, "To do less would simply mislead people by creating the false impression that racial slurs are no longer a part of our culture; and that, tragically, is not the case."
The flap caught the attention of Kweisi Mfume, the publicity-savvy president of the NAACP. He quickly appropriated the cause and Abraham's letter-writing campaign; soon he was issuing demands and making threats. Merriam-Webster decided to cave in -- or rather, the company impaneled a committee to determine how best to cave in. Last fall, Merriam-Webster convened a multicultural group of in-house experts and outside consultants to determine whether, and how, to change the way it describes a wide range of opprobrious slang and other vulgarities. The company announced with much hoo-ha that the panel's recommendations would shape the new edition of the Collegiate Dictionary. The NAACP was placated; newspaper columnist William Raspberry declared "a small victory."
But now that the recommendations are in, Merriam-Webster is learning the price of political appeasement. It doesn't matter that the new definition of the n-word sets off more alarms than a clumsy Fort Knox heist. If doesn't matter that, before a definition is given, readers are pointed to this warning about the word's usage: "the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English." Mfume is not satisfied. He is so unhappy with Merriam-Webster that a boycott is no longer enough: Two weeks ago Mfume announced ominously that the NAACP will investigate the corporate structure and hiring practices at the company. "I'm convinced there may be something in their corporate structure that would not allow them to understand how grossly offensive that definition is," Mfume told the Washington Post.
Could it be Mfume is peeved because Merriam-Webster didn't just take out the n-word altogether? That would be too easy. Mfume wants something more extraordinary than mere excision, and his demand has left the language mavens at a loss. Mfume wants Webster's to invest a new part of speech, the racial slur. "Our problem with Merriam-Webster had to do with specifically the fact that they used and described 'nigger' as a noun synonymous with a black person," Mfume said. "We believe it is a racial slur, not a noun."
The notion that the n-word is not a noun seems to have originated with Abraham. Reached in Ypsilanti, she says "'Nigger' isn't a noun, because it isn't a person; it's a slur-word." Abraham continues: "If 'nigger' is a noun for a black person, then you could look up 'a black person' and the definition would be 'nigger.'" But if the offending word isn't a noun, then what part of speech would Abraham have it be? "A derogatory term used to dehumanize a group or race of people."
Grammarians that they are, the folks at Merriam-Webster draw the line here. Even improper nouns are nouns. "The dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive," aphorizes company spokesman Deborah Burns. Thus, they will stick with the new committee created format for the 200-some words that the company deems offensive. Interestingly, Burns refuses to provide a comprehensive list of verboten slang. Interesting, because it suggests that Merriam-Webster's front office is finally getting wise. If Mfume is steamed about the n-word, how happy would he be to learn that Webster's New International Dictionary includes these additional slur-words for blacks: "smoke," "jigaboo," "spade," and "boogie"? You can't blame Merriam-Webster for not wanting to add fuel to the book-burning.
Not that it's the words that really matter: If previous NAACP pressure campaigns are any indication, Mfume won't be satisfied even if Merriam-Webster does invent a new part of speech for him. When it comes to atonement, it's cash settlements and lucrative, long-term sensitivity-training contracts that the NAACP most respects.
Don't be surprised if, as a result of the company's experience, Merriam-Webster discovers a new verb -- "to Texaco."
Eric Felten, a Washington writer, has just finished his first novel.