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Women protest dictionary definition of racial slur

October 10, 1997

DETROIT (AP) _ In March, a computer operator from a Detroit suburb cracked open a Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to look up the n-word.

Delphine Abraham of Ypsilanti was shocked to find that the definition _ ``1: a black person - usu. taken to be offensive″ _ treated the word ``nigger″ as a synonym for blacks, with its derogatory nature mentioned secondarily.

Her indignation has launched a debate over the word, its meaning and whether it belongs in dictionaries.

``I think people are really surprised to see that it’s in the dictionary in 1997,″ said Ms. Abraham, 37. ``I don’t want my nieces and nephews thinking that they’re niggers because it’s printed that way in the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.″

After reading the definition, Ms. Abraham drafted a petition calling for the word’s removal from the dictionary and has collected about 2,000 signatures and sent them to Merriam-Webster.

Frederick Mish, editor in chief of the Springfield, Mass.-based company, said he did not know what the company would do in response to the criticism.

``As dictionary makers, we do not believe that we can make offensive words go out of existence by leaving them out of the dictionary, any more than the media can make racism go away by failing to report about it,″ the company said in a statement. ``People do not learn these words from the dictionary, nor would they refrain from using them if we left them out.″

Kathryn Williams, curator of the Museum of African American History in Flint, also has been gathering support for her efforts to get the publisher to change the definition or delete the word altogether.

Although only 50 miles apart, the two women have never met. But their efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Hundreds of people contacted Merriam-Webster after its definition of the racial slur was printed in the September issue of Emerge magazine. That prompted the 150-year-old dictionary maker to issue its statement.

``We have tried to make 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,″ the company said.

``To do less would simply mislead people by creating the false impression that racial slurs are no longer part of our culture; and that, tragically, is not the case.″

The word is derived from the Latin term for black, said Walter Edwards, a Wayne State linguistics professor. The offensive form of the word developed during slavery.

In Merriam-Webster’s most recent edition, a paragraph was added, saying that ``nigger,″ although used by writers like Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens, now ranks as perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English.

``I don’t think the word should be used, but if they’re going to leave it in there it should be printed as a derogatory term used against the black race,″ Ms. Abraham said.

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