What a week it has been for WORDS!  I am talking about the one word that brought down a marketing empire, destroyed major product endorsements and threatened to undo all that its Queen – Paula Deen – had built up.  That word is the N-word.

Out of respect for anyone who is offended by the N-word, I will not spell it out in this post. I have no desire to stir the pot of rancor that this word elicits.  I do not know anything specific about the current controversy regarding Ms Deen, nor do I need to. (Google Paula Deen and see how much she has accomplished and you will understand why I respect her as a person because of the enormous odds she has overcome.) It is painful to watch all the hurt that the media has caused Ms Deen by reporting in minute detail every facet of this controversy. But I do understand exactly what Ms Deen meant when she said (and I paraphrase), Anyone over 60 who grew up in the South has said that word as a noun without thinking about it, and especially without intending disrespect. 

First, a little background. I was a Sociology student at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi when it came to our attention that the N-word was offensive to some of our people.  I remember all the discussion that this engendered.  If they didn’t want to be called by that name, what would be acceptable?  Negro/Negra, African-American – what? Finally many of us decided that “black person” or simply “black” might do, since we did not find it offensive to be called “white person” or “white”.  Unfortunately, none of us bothered to check our choice with an actual person of the offended demographic. When I went home after this buzzstorm had hit the papers, I asked the lady who worked in my aunt’s house (where I lived) what she would prefer to be called.  She said: “Julia”.

Lesson learnedInteract with people by their name, not their race…

I am fascinated by the power of this word. Nowhere else have I heard about a word with so much actual power except the word Yahweh, which we were told had the power to strike one dead, if he/she were so callous as to take the name of God in vain, unless the name of God was being invoked to actually curse someone.  Well, we all know how that worked out.  “Curse” words have now become reduced to “cuss” words, and we don’t give a thought to uttering God’s name in any string of words, for any reason. (Well, some of us do, but that’s another story.)

As always when a certain word intrigues me, I have to research it.  And so today I googled the N-word and got Kevin Cato: Intertext. (I am probably on a list now for googling the N-word itself, but no substitutes would do in a precise search.) I read about the background of the N-word with great interest. Please read it completely through to the end, as it is a bit wordy, but well worth the trip.

No one owns individual words.  We don’t even own our own names. We can trademark all we want, but someone else could use that name as well, no problem.  So to that extent, ALL words have power. On the back of my business card, I wrote the following:

I write.  You read.  I speak.  You listen.  Together we learn… Words Change Lives!

When writing fiction, it is interesting to see all the possibilities raised when you name your characters. Research the meanings of their names  and work those meanings into your characters as their personas develop throughout your work.

What is your name? Who chose it for you? Were you baptized with a long name, such as the the string of names to be given to the forthcoming British heir? What does your name mean? If you were allowed to re-name yourself, what would you name YOU?