Words that wound Editorial
Stabroek News
January 26, 2002

The 1998 edition of the Chambers Dictionary defines coolie as "an Indian or Chinese labourer who emigrated under contract to a foreign country; a hired native labourer in India and China (offensive); in South Africa an India (offensive)." The dictionary says it probably originated from Koli, a tribe of West India or from the Tamil word kuli, which means hire. The same edition defines nigger thus: "a Black person, or a member of any dark-skinned race (derogatory, now especially offensive); a black insect larva of various kinds. - adj Black (derogatory, now especially offensive)." The dictionary says it was taken from the French negre or from the Spanish negro, both of which were derived from the Latin word for black.

There is an ongoing debate about the use of the 'c' word in a Guyanese short story -- written by W. Haslyn Parris -- first in the headline and then several times in the story. Guyanese of East Indian origin have expressed deep hurt over the use of the term. Noted writer Dr Ian McDonald and the Janus Young Writers Guild, have come in for their share of criticism for praising and publishing the work.

People who have been on the receiving end of racial slurs know that contrary to the saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me," there are words that wound, just as there are words that heal. In their book, Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment(June, 1993), Mari J. Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlè Williams Crenshaw say: "Words, like sticks and stones, can assault; they can injure; they can exclude." The writers of this work are all academics and they are all minorities. Matsuda is a Japanese American law professor and she is married to Lawrence an African American law professor. They both lecture at Georgetown University. Rodrigo is a multiracial law professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and Crenshaw is an African American professor of law at UCLA and Columbia School of Law. In their book, these legal scholars draw on their experience of injury from racist hate speech. They argue that only a history of racism could explain why defamation, invasion of privacy, and fraud are exempt from free-speech guarantees while racist and sexist verbal assaults are not.

The book criticises the 1791 First Amendment of the Constitution of America, which says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The book challenges the thought that all speech should be protected and examines the intent behind many words that are taken for granted.

Meanwhile, in a new book released just this month in the US, Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, an African American, creates "a forum for discussion of the word he calls a 'reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience,'" a book review says.

So what is in a word? It depends. It depends on who is using it and the context in which it is being used. Just as African Americans use the 'n' word affectionately when referring to their 'homies' (homeboy or very good friend), some Guyanese Indians have used the 'c' word as a term of endearment. But this does not grant open season in the use of these terms.

Veteran journalist of '60 Minutes' fame, Andy Rooney, said this week on the programme, that the best way to get rid of a problem was to bring it out into the open and examine it from all sides. Perhaps he is right. We could ban slur words, but we can't erase them from people's minds. Maybe this is an opportunity to bring this word out into the open and dissect it.