What's In A Word?

Andy Rooney Looks At The Names People Use

A weekly commentary by CBS News Correspondent Andy Rooney:

I never thought I'd hear myself say the word but a Harvard professor named Randall Kennedy has written this book: "Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word."

It's a good book because he turns a thousand interesting little ideas in it.

The best way to get rid of a problem is to hold it up to a bright light and look at all sides of it. That's what Professor Kennedy does in this book. He takes a lot of the poison out of the word while he's doing it.

He even questions whether he's offending people by using it in his title instead of the euphemism "the N-word."

A book review calls Randall Kennedy "African American." I don't know whether he likes that or not. I don't like it.

I don't call myself "Irish American." I'm American. That's good enough for me. Professor Kennedy is American.

I'm called "white" and he's called "black," even though he isn't black and I'm not white.

I'm actually an unattractive pink. He's that good-looking shade of brown that pink people try to get to be by sitting in the sun all day.

I never understood the Indian objection to being called "Redskin." It isn't used in a disparaging way. I do agree with them that the tomahawk idea is juvenile and objectionable. I guess if they don't want to be called "Redskin," we shouldn't do it, but people don't get to choose their own nickname. You know, like "Hey Shorty!"

Our thoughts about words change over the years. In 1968, I wrote a television show called "Black History, Lost, Stolen or Strayed" for Bill Cosby. I remember being uneasy with the word "black" because the acceptable word back then was "Negro." Today, I wouldn't use "Negro." It's a good, strong word, but now it sounds wrong to me.

Different ethnic groups of Americans have always had terrible nicknames for each other. I remember hearing them as a kid. You don't hear them much anymore because they always make the person using them sound like such ignorant jerk.

Italians were wops. Germans were krauts. Kikes...Spics. Irish Catholics were "harps" or "micks." Wetbacks. Koreans or Vietnamese were "gooks". Chinks..Slant eyes...Towel-heads.

Let me read just one paragraph from this book.

"As a linguistic landmark, "nigger" is being renovated. Blacks use the term with novel ease to refer to other blacks...Whites are increasingly referring to other whites as niggers...and indeed, the term both as an insult and as a sign of affection is being affixed to people of all sorts..."Nigger" as a harbinger of hatred, fear, contempt, and violence remains current, to be sure. But more than ever before, "nigger" also signals other meanings and generates other reactions, depending on the circumstances."

This is the way to get rid of words like "nigger" and all the contemptible ideas that go with it.

© MMII, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved