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Life on the Mississippi (Improved)

Last month a new edition of Mark Twain's classic novels was published: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in one volume, edited by Auburn University professor Alan Gribben. The book has attracted some press attention for the editor's decision to systematically change two words that occur in both of Twain's books.

In place of Injun, Gribben uses Indian, and in place of nigger he uses slave. Injun occurs mainly in Tom Sawyer where the character Injun Joe (now Indian Joe) figures prominently. Nigger occurs mainly in Huckleberry Finn, where one of the main characters is Jim, a runaway slave.

Why the change? Professor Gribben, who is a Twain scholar and has taught the books for many years in many different contexts, has written a lengthy and thoughtful introduction to the book. In it, he lays out his editorial thinking and how it developed; it seems to boil down to this:

In this edition I have translated each usage of the n-word to read "slave" instead, since the term "slave" is closest in meaning and implication. Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers.

Toning down Mark Twain for mass consumption has a long and full history. The brilliant success and huge penetration into Anglophone culture of his two great novels about 19th-century boyhood arise mainly from the fact that they are masterpieces; but among English speakers who can give you a thumbnail summary of one book or the other, how many have actually read them?

Many people's knowledge of Tom and Huck has come about piecemeal, through adaptations in the form of comic book, stage play, Broadway musical, movie, or TV miniseries. Among these, you will never find a production or adaptation of Huckleberry Finn that accurately represents this passage, from chapter 19, when Huck and Jim are well on their way down the Mississippi:

Soon as it was night out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle we let her aloner and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things—we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us—the new clothes Buck's folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn't go much on clothes, nohow.

There you have it: unsupervised same-sex, interracial, intergenerational nudity, under cover of darkness, with tobacco use thrown in for extra kick. It's probably safe to say that no high-school drama-club production of Huckleberry Finn has hewn very close to the original in this respect. There may well be, among aspiring young thespians, one or two who would like to go out on a limb and tell the story like it is; but adults, in their sober wisdom, would override such a rash choice. Professor Gribben has joined the long line of sober adults in deciding how doses of Mark Twain should be administered to students.

Professor Gribben argues at some length that the n-word in the classroom causes considerable angst, awkwardness, embarrassment, and offense for students and teachers alike. What experience of the great books remains for those who read them in the professor's emended versions? Here is a passage from the Gribben edition, early on in Huckleberry Finn, before Huck runs away from his drunken, abusive father and begins his adventure on the mighty Mississippi. Huck's father delivers a tirade on the subject of suffrage:

"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free slave there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane— the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the state. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home."

Gribben's editing here results in the rather odd oxymoron "free slave." More to the point, however, it causes a bit of cognitive dissonance, suggesting that Huck's racist, good-for-nothing father, in the midst of a besotted rant, would have the thoughtfulness and sensitivity to avoid "the more offensive word" – though it is surely the only one that he would ever use.

Many of the uses of nigger in Huckleberry Finn are in fact reported speech of Jim, the slave – it is the only word he uses for people of his own kind. Here, for example, is Jim's speech in a passage from the book in the original version:

You know that one-laigged nigger dat b'longs to old Misto Bradish? Well, he sot up a bank, en say anybody dat put in a dollar would git fo' dollars mo' at de en' er de year. Well, all de niggers went in, but dey didn't have much. I wuz de on'y one dat had much. So I stuck out for mo' dan fo' dollars, en I said 'f I didn' git it I'd start a bank mysef. Well, o' course dat nigger want' to keep me out er de business, bekase he says dey warn't business 'nough for two banks, so he say I could put in my five dollars en he pay me thirty-five at de en' er de year.

This passage points up a use of nigger that is perhaps the most awkward and difficult for today's scholars and readers alike to countenance: its one-time use as an English dialect word for Negro or black, without any pejorative sense intended. Can it be used this way today? Certainly not. But neither can it be erased from history. Here is Twain's explanatory note at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

Few authors state their intentions so clearly, but here Twain has told the reader that he wrote, painstakingly, exactly what he meant. It would be hard to argue that, in the mouth of the character Jim, the word nigger is anything other than the word for black in what Twain calls the "Missouri negro dialect."

Lurking behind Gribben's editorial choice, and his lengthy defense of it, one senses his hope that actively removing offensive words from the notice of young readers might contribute to their demise in English. But words don't die so easily, and in fact the use of nigger in the works of Mark Twain is one of the very few places in which its appearance may provide teachable moments par excellence: about the power of words, their history, and their ability to mean different things to different people in different contexts. If not in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, where else are young readers and listeners going to encounter this word? They may hear it in the form nigga or niggaz in a rap song; they may see it scratched into the paint in a truck stop toilet stall, or hear it spat out of the mouth of a truncheon-wielding cop in some video gone viral on YouTube. None of these contexts are likely to provide a supervisable opportunity to learn something about the history of the most loaded word in English and why it cannot be used in any neutral way today.

Fortunately for us all, the texts of Twain's works, without 21st-century improvements, have long been in the public domain and are available as free eBooks: here's Tom Sawyer and here's Huckleberry Finn. There are numerous other full editions available online. The books are as refreshing, hilarious, and engaging as they were when they were written 150 years ago, and no English speaker should forgo the pleasure.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 1st 2011, 1:40 AM
Comment by: Graeme R.
I suppose the common word for Gribben's editing is censorship. It's offensive to literary sensibilities even when well intended. Alternatively it could be called "dumbing down." If it's published as Mark Twain's work, then let it preserve Mark Twain's words. As he is reported to have said, "The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." And then there are bugs that don't emit any light at all.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 1:52 AM
Comment by: Elena B. (Glendale, AZ)
Isn't it enough that our politicians have run amuk with political correctness. Now respectable scholars are infected with the same disease! I agree with Graeme R. However, "dumbing down" is not strong enough. Dishonest scholarship is more to my liking. And this is not the first time in history that predecessors have been censored. The Soviet era has seen a lot of efforts at "rewriting" history and literature. There they tried to rewrite history to suit their political tastes. Then the had the gall to trifle with the literary genius of Pushkin, Lermontov and Gogol! Everywhere those noble souls had written "God" with a capital letter, the much wiser Soviet censor had substituted the word "god" with a small letter to bolster their official atheism. Look what 70 plus years of censorship has done for them! The system finally collapsed because the people knew better than the experts.
Mark Twain was reflecting the thinking of his environment. To try to "correct" or censor him is dishonest and hypocritical. And the reader will not be dumb enough to accept it, not in the long run.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 2:09 AM
Comment by: Brenda S.
Mark Twain was the master of the American novel. I read his works with delight in high school, including the heartbreaking Huckleberry Finn. The instructor taught the book with grace and sensitivity, as any good teacher would. As an African American woman, the use of the n-word still makes me wince, but without the word, Huck Finn is NOT Huck Finn. In fact, I hope the new edition withers and dies on the vine; Samuel Clemens doesn't need a faint hearted twenty-first century censor to "fix" any of his works. I hope to teach college one day, and when I teach (about race and American culture) I plan to use Huckleberry Finn--as Twain wrote it.

Twain used that word with deliberation and intent. A psuedo-scholar who doesn't know how to teach Huck Finn should just leave it alone.

All "niggers" weren't slaves in Twain's time. Gribbens editorial decision is more offensive than the loaded n-word.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Well said, Orin. Why would a teacher pass up a teachable moment? It baffles me. And knowing as we do how consciously Twain chose his words, why would we dare change them? If we do, why stop at the n-word? Surely "mulatter" is offensive to some? When I copyedit, I have to remember that it's not my work. Gribben should have done the same.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 8:56 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Alan Gribben has done for Mark Twain what Thomas Bowdler did for Shakespeare. We can now add "gribbenize" to the language, defined as: "to alter a literary work to conform with political correctness." It's commendable to rewrite history so as not to allow it to fall behind the times.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Barry M.
Exactly, David C. I wondered how many comments it would take before "bowdlerization" came up.Shakespeare remains well-known, and often-read long after most people have forgotten who Bowdler is. I expect the same fate awaits Gribben.

There was a movement in legal circles about 10 or 15 years ago to add (sic) after every use of non-gender-neutral language in cited case law, because the ignorant judges of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries didn't know they were being offensive.It was--fortunately--short-lived.

Thanks to Brenda S. for pointing out the "faint-heartedness" behind gribbenizing.I will never forget the climactic moment of Huckleberry Finn, when a raft of slave-catchers hailed Huck and asked him whether his passenger was white or black. After contemplating the consequences, including the likelihood that he would go to hell for abetting the theft of Jim, another person's property, Huck answered: "He's white." In that short passage Twain said everything that can be said about friendship, and about doing the right thing even when the consequences might harm your personally.Censor the guts from the book like Gribben has, and that moment in the book becomes almost nonsensical.

Certainly the book should be taught with sensitivity. But it should be taught as it was written.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 9:46 AM
Comment by: David C. (Carrboro, NC)
Brenda S. wisely uses "the heartbreaking Huckleberry Finn" to describe this book perfectly. It is a deep and deliberate work, fit for reflection and rumination. And sorrow.

But I wonder: How many high school hearts does it break? Who feels its depths in English III? Why is it taught in American high schools? Or Gatsby? Or The Scarlet Letter? All great books, but their inclusion in the high school canon seems likey to drive the habit of reading into the deep mud of analysis, symbolism, and "hidden meanings." I worry that no one really learns to talk about the reading of books as lived experiences, or to experience reading as the evocative, consequential dreaming it ought to be. Or worst: reading is for English class, not life in this moment. How is it possible for these works to be living experiences for a fifteen year old?

I am not arguing against a canon, nor do I deny the gifts of great teachers, but I am arguing against English class as the equivalent of Auto Mechanics. My suspicion is that little in the classroom teaching of these books will help to determine a life's commitment to reading. And as my first high school English Department chairman told me in my first week of teaching: "If they never read a book again, we've failed."
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 9:49 AM
Comment by: David C. (Carrboro, NC)
Sorry. "Likey" should be "likely."
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Stuart R.
Gribben's use of the term "translated" suggests that contemporary readers need a translator. I do my best to read in a non-native language (in which I have some proficiency), enjoying thoughtful annotation when available. Language usage is an important part of the literary experience. Our language has not changed so much in 150 years for us to need translation. Perhaps Dr. Gribben is using a bit of whitewash himself.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 10:54 AM
Comment by: james G. (littleton, CO)
In a market economy, we "vote" by how we choose to spend (or not). Professor Gribben will not be receiving any dollar votes from me, nor - if the comments I read are representative - from many subscribers to this site. May Professor Gribben and his work fade unmourned and forgotten from our collective conscious.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Isaac L. (Cumming, GA)
In today's culture the communicator would be branded with a racial stigma. In Mark Twain's culture it was not so. Twain wrote about his life experiences and culture. That is why he became famous.

The stigma does not seem to attach when used by the black culture as it does with the white communicator today.

Instead of rewriting Huck Finn, we should be using it as a teaching moment to explain cultural changes. To do otherwise is to "dumb down" our children.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 11:40 AM
Comment by: David D.
This is an excellent commentary by Orin Hargraves and truly correct. Gribben undoubtedly means well but he is completely in the wrong on this. Some of my black friends cringe more at the use of "slave" in reference to any black person than they ever did at the use of "nigger." Removing the "caustic sting" in Twain's work to remove a "revolting effect" on contemporary readers is like taking the melody from a song. When young people learn these words in proper context, they may titter at first, but they will be informed and become the wiser for it. Young people will seek the words they believe offend. The first place they look in a new dictionary is to find the "f-word" and when they note that it is considered vulgar in most usages, they learn that concept. Discomforted teachers might want to emulate their students.

The comments by readers are wonderful.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
The use of many words has changed with language and cultural changes. Twain's use of "nigger" creates an excellent opportunity to have a discussion of how that happens. High school kids are quite capable of understanding and participating in such a discussion. The origin of the word (from the Spanish "negro"-black), and its subsequent evolution by being mispronounced makes a good lesson in word evolution and the change in its cultural significance would be an excellent sociology lesson. It would take a sensitive teacher and a school with a highly evolved administration for it to work but I kind of wish I weren't retired because I would love to work up a lesson and implement it. The kids would be great in such a lesson - I'm not so sure about their parents and God help us if the politicians got into the fray!
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
Outstanding article and comments. I learned a lot. We in the Land of the Werdnerds can indeed 'vote' with our dollars. But, recalling Twain's words--"God made the Idiot for practice and then He made the School Board"--I am reminded that the School Board can also 'vote' with OUR dollars.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Okay-- I am driven to agitate for further Gribbenization: He has omitted to make acceptable another word which I now realize should elicit great pain and offence in a great many of us.
It is the word 'white'.
It makes me appear as some blood-drained ghoul ! Revolting !! And there it is, right there in the slave-catchers' question called over the water : "Is he black or white?" and Huck's supposedly well considered response of "He's white."
How offensive ! It invites the worst kind of segregation as false terminology exposes me and my children to derision. (How dare they draw attention to, and separate me for, my skin which is far from being the colour of white? )
Even worse than being classified as something so odious as 'white' is that name still heard in some places and certainly printed in so many different books that it might be a Herculean task for our hero Gribben to erase: the name "Whitey".
How many others must this master of revision bend his [benighted] efforts to ? One supposes he is obliged to wait for the copyright to run out....
[which brings the realization that the correct word for what the gentleman does might not be 'editing' but 'plagiarism']
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Okay-- I am driven to agitate for further Gribbenization: He has omitted to make acceptable another word which I now realize should elicit great pain and offence in a great many of us.
It is the word 'white'.
It makes me appear as some blood-drained ghoul ! Revolting !! And there it is, right there in the slave-catchers' question called over the water : "Is he black or white?" and Huck's supposedly well considered response of "He's white."
How offensive ! It invites the worst kind of segregation as false terminology exposes me and my children to derision. (How dare they draw attention to, and separate me for, my skin which is far from being the colour of white? )
Even worse than being classified as something so odious as 'white' is that name still heard in some places and certainly printed in so many different books that it might be a Herculean task for our hero Gribben to erase: the name "Whitey".
How many others must this master of revision bend his [benighted] efforts to ? One supposes he is obliged to wait for the copyright to run out....
[which brings the realization that the correct word for what the gentleman does might not be 'editing' but 'plagiarism']
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 7:48 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your comments, which largely confirm my initial response, on learning of Gribben’s book. Thanks especially to Brenda S., for your perspective as an African American, and to David C. David, you raise in interesting point that I don’t know the answer to. I agree that teaching canonical classics to high schoolers does often get reduced to something not very meaningful, and my first, early readings of Huck Finn and the Scarlet Letter didn’t grab my attention beyond familiarizing me with their contents. Rereading each of them as an adult provided two profound experiences that have shaped my thinking on many different matters. But I think I would still credit my early teachers for at least making me aware of the books.
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Kedarnath A. (Pune India)
It's best to stay away from editing other people's works. For example, the flavour of the last passage from Twain quoted by Orin is entirely dependent on the choice and spelling of words together with the idiosyncratic grammar. If one wanted to replace the word "nigger" there what would one replace it with? I don't know the Pike County dialect, but from my sojourn in some parts of the US I've visited, "niggah" perhaps?
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 10:04 AM
Comment by: donnave A. (cleburne, TX)
I'm thrilled to see an article so thoughtfully advancing the thought that we cannot edit history...we must learn from it. Has anyone any thoughts about the wonderfully lyrical "Song of the South", which has been successfully expunged from our libraries?
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Klaus B. (Cologne Germany)
Thanks for this inspiring article! I would certainly go along with the general idea – don't edit true literature. But I still have an objection to make.

The word is still around, and not just in pristine copies of Twain's books and graffiti in places where no one dares to go to wash them away. Which doesn't mean that I would ever use it. Then again, I'm an educated white person, I have no first hand experience in this. I must resort to literature to get a feeling for reality here.

Let's for a moment assume that “The Wire” is a contemporary form of the Great American Novel and its author David Simon is amongst Mark Twain's rightful heirs. He will certainly claim that the language makes accurate use of various Baltimore vernaculars as spoken during the past decade. What term other than “nigger” could a character like, say, Snoop possibly use to refer to her peers? For her, for her colleagues as well as for Huck's friend Jim it's the word that denotes “black person”, and it's not in the least derogatory. Incidentally, the cops in “The Wire” often use “yo”, which is.

A quick glance at the “Corpus of Contemporary American English” shows 1311 hits for “nigger”, which makes it pretty frequent. And that's written language only.

I think that words are more or less appropriate, right through to grossly inappropriate, depending on context, communication partners or target groups. But they are never “good” or “bad”, let alone “taboo”. This kind of distinction is for small children and elementary stage language learners. Twain, Simon and the like define their context clearly and for good. Search/replace operations like the one undertaken by Prof. Gribben are grotesquely out of line.
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
What I see in this page is unanimous condemnation of such Bowdlerizing/Gribbenizing-- bordering on outrage.
The potential loss of true depiction of times past, and also of concomitant teaching opportunities, is serious.
We must safeguard our heritage but particularly we have a duty to future generations.
These comments (mostly much better verbalized than mine), do not come from a mindless blogging segment of society.
Can we trust the provider and editor of these pages to get the message to publishers, book sellers, schools, and-- hopefully discouraging future meddling with our literary heritage--also to the Wizard Gribben ??
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
What I see in this page is unanimous condemnation of such Bowdlerizing/Gribbenizing-- bordering on outrage.
The potential loss of true depiction of times past, and also of concomitant teaching opportunities, is serious.
We must safeguard our heritage but particularly we have a duty to future generations.
These comments (mostly much better verbalized than mine), do not come from a mindless blogging segment of society.
Can we trust the provider and editor of these pages to get the message to publishers, book sellers, schools, and-- hopefully discouraging future meddling with our literary heritage--also to the Wizard Gribben ??
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 4:34 PM
Comment by: Isaac L. (Cumming, GA)
Nora,
You can say that again! d:o)
Wednesday March 2nd 2011, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Isaac L. (Cumming, GA)
I feel the same about Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Uncle Remus as I do Mark Twain's stories. If they are changed, we lose the cultural element of that period and by the law of unintended consequences, change history for our future generations. How can we know where we are going without knowing where we have been?

It makes me wonder if we have raised children who have become adults so ashamed of their past that they attempt to change it to avoid their own feelings.

Works from Joel Chandler Harris are a national treasure depicting a historical time. We should be proud of his stories just like Mark Twain.

We should use them to teach cultural history.

I would just as well burn down a historical museum.
Thursday March 3rd 2011, 1:27 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
Would Klaus B. or someone please explain why "yo" is a derogatory term. I could be missing something. Having been retired from the classroom for about fifteen years, I might be insulated from contemporary culture a little bit. I must, however, disagree with Klaus B. on one point. In today's culture, the use of "nigger" is inappropriate whether it's in spoken or written form and regardless of who uses it. Its only proper place is in discussions such as this one or in a cultural or sociological context.
Thursday March 3rd 2011, 11:20 PM
Comment by: David D.
Wow! This issue aroused a lot of response. That is great. Some people are paying attention and thinking. All is not yet lost.
Friday March 4th 2011, 5:48 AM
Comment by: Klaus B. (Cologne Germany)
@ Tom L.: “Yo” is not derogatory as such. But when used by a Baltimore murder police, who is constantly forced to look into the dark corners of society, it invariably appears to be short for “yet another braindead yo”. Whether it is meant to sound hateful, cynical, frustrated or sad is left to the imagination of the reader. In any case it's not nice.
Friday March 4th 2011, 5:55 AM
Comment by: Klaus B. (Cologne Germany)
@Tom L. again

The point is: There's way more out there than just one culture. I quote a top entry from urbandictionary.com, that says it all:

“nigger - A word that everyone else is afraid to define except in utter seriousness, for fear of being branded a rascist, in total ignorance of the colloquial usage of the word, its characterization in popular culture, and the populations of people it is used most by.

(Example)
'You shouldn't ever say the n-word, you rascist cracker asshole.'”

(note: "rascist is not a typo!)

This entry got 45.000 “thumbs ups” and 14.400 “thumbs downs”. One way of bridging the insulation could be to occasionally have a look at sources like this one, amongst others.

True, participants of “discussions such as this one” never use the word. On the other hand, those “populations” who do use it are in no danger of ever reading this. At the end of the day, the attempt of eradicating any word, specifically a word like “nigger”, from the living language burns down to a call for cultural segregation.

In this sense it is diametrically opposed to the work of authors like Twain or Simon, who actually go to those places, dig into those cultures and use the language they find to tell their stories. I have the utmost respect for their courage, their candour and their capability. They should be defended.
Friday March 4th 2011, 8:57 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
Klaus B., I checked out the site you mentioned (urbandictionary.com). Are you sure you want to use a site that is so steeped in ignorance to back up your thesis? The site is somewhat reminiscent of Bierce's "Devil's Dictionary" without Bierce's classic sardonic wit or his class and style. I don't believe the writers for the site exemplify mainstream American culture. Most of the definitions I looked up on urbandictionary.com seemed to have been written by "Larry the Cable Guy" or Jeff Foxworthy.
Saturday March 5th 2011, 9:55 PM
Comment by: Ritesh B. (Piscataway, NJ)
Besides the 'n-word'; the professor should also be concerned about interracial same-sex nudity and under-age tobacco smoking. In other words Professor Gribben should edit the whole book and simply title it as "The 21st Century Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn" by Professor Gribben.
Sunday March 6th 2011, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Kedarnath A. (Pune India)
That's a real eyeful of comments. A couple more shouldn't harm...
First of all I think it's important to understand that even chronologically speaking words have a descriptive function before they accrue any pejorative currency. The word in question is of course "negro". Its evolution to the n-word may be a combination of two things.
The first is purely socio-cultural which is to say that negros did form the bottom rung of society for a significant part of American history. The second aspect is to do with two separate aspects of spoken English. The first is common to many English-speaking countries (not India though!) which is the process by which the "r" sound no longer grrrowls but purrs. (A strange reification if you like can be noted in the manner in which words like Asia and Australia, devoid of the letter "r" are often pronounced as "Ashier" and "Australier".)
The second is peculiar to US English, which uses both a vowel shift (if you don't come from certain parts of the US and come there for the first time it's practically impossible to to distinguish the word "black" from the word "block") and the second is of course the famous American drawl so exemplified by the Georgians (the US Georgians that is!) that can extend small sentnces to occupy exceptional durations. The last paragraph quoted by Orin has Twain's word "laigged" which typifies this.
The morality of usage is another matter entirely. Humans are not terribly nice to each other as a species. But you may have fewer riots and other forms of social unrest if some taboos on current usage are kept intact. Even so, that is a scant excuse for meddling in works written at another time, place and context.
Sunday March 6th 2011, 7:42 PM
Comment by: Jane M.
Stimulating discussion, everyone. Let me share some of my dilemmas with you. I teach 11th grade English at a diverse urban high school near San Francisco. How could I not include Huckleberry Finn in an American Lit survey class?

First, I weighed whether to force-feed the entire book to my students who rate reading a very poor form of recreation compared to texting or playing video games. I decided that, instead of slogging through the entire book for a month, we would together read the first half of Chapter 16 in which Huck outwits some men looking for lost slaves, and protects Jim, by making up a story about a plague on the raft. Even to do justice to that small bit of the book, I presented a lot of context, showing students some of the Ken Burns show on Twain's life and on the impact of Huck Finn on post-slavery America.

Then I faced the same problem that we have been discussing in this thread: should we use the N-word in a mixed high school classroom as we read it out loud? My text was the original Twain. The students and I decided to substitute "black," "slave," or "brother," depending on the context, as they read out loud. This compromise protected everyone's sensibilities even as they read the text with their own eyes. Maybe that's diluting the literature, but one does face dilemmas when one teaches vulnerable young people.

Our Huck Finn class opened a rich vein of discussion. As we read, we looked at Huck's crisis of conscience: he realized by helping Jim escape, he was also creating a situation where Jim might even steal his own children back! We contrasted what Huck said to himself with what he actually did. Though we dipped into the book for just one class, I hope that my more curious students will explore more of the book for themselves.

A lesson on the history of the N-word would have provided even more background. A good idea for another year.
Sunday March 6th 2011, 10:05 PM
Comment by: Stuart R.
Jane M: I don't think you censored - you and your students had the full text in front of you, and you acknowledged that using that word today is not something to take lightly. Chapeau!
Monday March 7th 2011, 7:04 AM
Comment by: Klaus B. (Cologne Germany)
Well Tom L, I wouldn't dare to cast a final verdict upon urbandictionary.com. It's one of those new web-things which is read by millions and created by thousands and thousands of contributors. Surely not all of them are certified heroes of English language witticism, like Ambrose Bierce. Ok, it's the internet's first resource on slangy issues, but surely one shouldn't believe everything written there, I happily concede that much.

Yet if you value your own wisdom so much higher than the rapidly diagnosed ignorance of the uninformed masses, where did you get it from? When did you last share a toke with members of that inner city black community, from the next metropolitan limbo, to learn more about people's lives and language?

Seriously, if you are not into participant observation in that particular field, you might want to resort to corpus linguistics. And the coca ( http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/), your gold standard of contemporary American English, ranks the infamous n-word at around 20.000 on the frequency list, out of hundreds of thousands of words. Since it's predominantly used in fictional text, which only account for about 20% of the coca, one can safely say that it's really very frequent in today's American literature.

If someone took the trouble of creating and evaluating a corpus of (spoken) AAVE, I betcha the n-word would appear even much higher on the list. I wouldn't be surprised if that data already existed in some research project, does anyone out there have it?

That's quite amazing for a word that “shouldn't” exist at all. No, its use is not restricted to Twain's world and time. Facts can be really irritating, especially when they contradict pre-existing world views.

Now all that doesn't imply that the use of the n-word is unproblematic, not at all. But simply ignoring it won't help. I too applaud Jane M., for her thoughtful way of handling it in the classroom. Making use of the wisdom of the people, in this case the students, surely is the key.
Monday March 7th 2011, 10:26 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
Jane M: Bravo! You handled the lesson in a sensitive environment with sensitivity and class. Most importantly, you handled it. I am sure several of your pupils will want to read more of the story and do a little reading on their own. Experience teaches that you might be surprised at which ones decide that, for this instance at least, reading can be pretty exciting stuff. Maybe even more so than that computer game "just this once". I sincerely hope you will develop a future lesson on the origin and history of the word.
Tuesday March 15th 2011, 12:16 AM
Comment by: Joan Seifried Taylor (Silver Spring, MD)
To Jane M.: Good job on the sensitivity, but I am sorry you didn't read more of the book in an 11th grade American Lit class. Had you attempted to read from the beginning of the book and gauged the interest/progress, you might have been surprised by your students. In any case, congrats for including it in your syllabus!
Tuesday March 15th 2011, 12:45 AM
Comment by: Joan Seifried Taylor (Silver Spring, MD)
Regarding urbandictionary.com, I put it right up there with wikipedia - a collection of verbiage written by assorted people who (rightfully or not) consider themselves to be experts on various topics, edited by more people who (rightfully or not) consider themselves to be experts on those topics, read and used as reference material by others who take it as Gospel Truth. Error!

As for "Song of the South," I loved the Disney movie of this when I was a child, and count myself lucky to be old enough to have seen it. Thank you, Donnave A., for bringing it back to mind. This is another example of senseless censoring. Perhaps because of where I was born (New York State), I saw nothing racial in this at all. The only thing that bothered me was that the Tar Baby (no idea what that was all about) was scary looking with those button eyes!

Great comments and discussion here. I have just discovered this site, and as a WerdNerd (as someone put it), a would-be Grammar Girl, and an Anglophile, I am in heaven. Cheers, all, and carry on the good work!
Sunday March 20th 2011, 8:00 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Here's a segment that aired on 60 Minutes on March 20th, covering much of the same territory. I was happy to see that "teachable moments" figured prominently:

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7360065n
Tuesday December 27th 2011, 6:50 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Censoring Mark Twain is an interesting attempt. It's like diluted soda. Abridged versions of "Pride and Prejudice" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles". It doesn't exactly work. Take, for an example of an example, the point made with the oxymoron "free slave." In this case, the N-word means an African American person, not a degrading term. It's a sort of slang word that was used at the time. If Huck Finn was insulting Jim, why did Jim said with him? Exactly. Huck Finn wasn't insulting Jim, and Jim wasn't insulting his own people. It was a common slang word at the time for African American. "Free slave" makes no sense. "Free African American" or "Free black" does. However, the censoring of the N-word, I think, was intended to avoid people taking offense of this term of segregation. So we have to give him at least a small pat on the back for his efforts, however extreme they may be.
I do want to award the laurels to Jane M. Successfully avoiding the N-word, but not censoring the literature- you deftly managed both. You have my most sincere thanks, congratulations, and admiration.

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