WASHINGTON — Merriam-Webster defines the word "nigger" as, simply, a "black person."
Not so, says an ad hoc coalition of civil rights and black activists, who argue that the "N-word" actually is a defamatory slur associated with black people--not a broadly sweeping noun synonymous with them.
This sort of etymological debate typically rages within a self-contained community of wordsmiths laboring unseen and little noticed on college campuses or at major publishing houses. Rarely does it explode into public view.
But as American society swells with more and louder voices of a polyglot nation, language has become one more battleground for fierce clashes of authority, multicultural expression, freedom of speech and marketplace sovereignty.
Even dictionaries disagree. The nation's four best-selling college-level dictionaries--Merriam-Webster, Webster's New World, American Heritage and Random House--each offer slightly differing definitions of the N-word.
So, too, for offensive terms used derogatorily to refer to Italians, Latinos, Jews and gays.
So, who can definitively say what any word means?
"There are no easy answers," said Paul Dixon, a freelance editor for Merriam-Webster and author of several books on writing and language usage. "There are two groups of people who lay claim to language. One group says language is owned by the authorities--people who prescribe it, who protect it and act as its custodians.
"The other group says language is owned by the people who use it and are affected by it. That's where the debate is."
By most measures, Delphine Abraham, a 37-year-old black woman from Ypsilanti, Mich., is the most unlikely entrant into this battle over words. A computer technician not at a loss for words, Abraham thumbed through the 10th Collegiate Edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and was stunned to find, on page 784, halfway down the first column, a surprising definition: "1. a black person, usu. taken to be offensive."
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "The next morning I called the president of Merriam-Webster to complain.
"I told him that definition was wrong. A nigger isn't a black person; it's a derogatory term used to dehumanize a group of people."
The folks at Merriam-Webster were unmoved. So she began a word-of-mouth, letter-writing, e-mail campaign.
Abraham does not argue that the word should be stripped from the dictionary. She does not even argue that it should be censored from speech.
Her view is simple, if nuanced: a nigger is not a black person, it is a derogatory slur used to describe black people, usually by bigots. Letting bigots have the final say on how she and other black people are defined is what galls her most.
Abraham's campaign, which has attracted international attention and support from politicians and civil rights activists, is likely to generate more support from other ethnic and racial groups. She predicts that by 2000 she will have focused enough public pressure on dictionary publishers that they will redefine many words that label ethnic, religious and racial minorities.
"It's not just the N-word," she said. "I think [lexicographers] should make it clear these words are slurs, not people."
Given the nation's changing racial, religious and ethnic complexion, Abraham's discovery raises a broader question about language. In a nation of many sensibilities, who owns words?
"As you get more and more into a sensitive society, you have to stretch the definition of a definition," said Justin Kaplan, a prominent writer and editor of Bartlett's Quotations. "I don't mind that. But a dictionary has a certain intellectual responsibility. You can't bend to everybody's preferences."
Abraham is not the first to protest language as racial or ethnic slur. In 1994, the Anti-Defamation League took umbrage at the use of "jew" as a verb in the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary. In a letter to Hasbro Inc., the company that owns Scrabble-maker Milton-Bradley, the Jewish group said the game-maker's inclusion of "offensive terms . . . is literally playing games with hate."
John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Assn., said the complaint led to a reexamination of the dictionary and the removal of 150 words deemed offensive because of their racial, religious, sexual or vulgar overtones. While the words aren't in the Scrabble dictionary, they are still used in some tournaments and can be found on Internet bulletin boards.
"Context is the key," said Williams, who continues to lecture and write about how words function in real-life situations. "To a white person living in the rural South during the 1950s, calling someone a nigger wasn't a slur. It was a statement of fact, a way of describing who might be coming to drop off a package. But to the black man who hears it, it has another meaning. It's offensive, and it hurts. I don't know that a rigid definition on a page can contain both ideas to the satisfaction of everyone."