Naacp Wants Dictionary To Update `N' Word

Posted: October 17, 1997

The NAACP wants the Merriam-Webster dictionary company to change its definition of the word ``nigger'' to emphasize its derogatory connotation.

Although the civil-rights organization did not go so far as protesters from Michigan who want the word out of the dictionary altogether, the NAACP hopes to persuade 600,000 members nationwide to join a letter-writing campaign to protest Webster's current definition.

The dictionary first defines the word as ``a black person. A member of any dark-skinned race - usually taken to be offensive.''

A secondary definition says the word ``now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English.''

``There clearly needs to be a correction immediately,'' NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said in a statement. He said the offensive word ``is not a definition of a person's race, but a derogatory word.''

The NAACP believes the word should be presented in the dictionary as an epithet or a derogatory term, first and foremost.

NAACP officials said they were prepared to ask American public schools, colleges and universities to stop buying dictionaries from Webster's unless the Springfield, Mass.-based publisher agrees to alter the definition.

The grass-roots Michigan protesters touched off a national debate on hate speech and censorship this month by demanding the word be eliminated from the dictionary.

``The word needs to be removed,'' said Kathryn Williams, curator of the Museum of African American History in Flint, Mich., who sent petitions signed by hundreds of angry people to the dictionary-publishing company in Springfield, Mass.

Another leader of the campaign, Delphine Abraham, of Ypsilanti, Mich., said she was ``really surprised to see that it's in the dictionary in 1997.''

Last week, Merriam-Webster officials, replying to the petitions, said its definition follows the form used for other ethnic slurs, listing the oldest usage first, followed by its current usage.

``We do not believe we can make offensive words go out of existence by leaving them out of the dictionary,'' said Frederick Mish, editor-in-chief of Merriam-Webster. ``People do not learn these words from the dictionary, nor would they refrain from using them if we left them out.''

Publisher John M. Morse said last week Merriam-Webster would re-examine its definition for the next edition. New editions are issued every 10 years, but minor changes are made annually.

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