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Q From Charles Hendrickson: A recent film, The Great Debaters, suggests that denigrate is an offensive term for African-Americans because it means “to make black”. The Denzel Washington character says that the word has racist undertones because of this. What do you think?

A The story sounds extremely unlikely. Whether it’s just a simple mistake or an underdog’s attempt to find an insult where none was intended, I’ve no way of knowing (I’ve not seen the film, though I understand that it is set in the American South during the Great Depression and conveys the day-to-day insults and slights African-Americans had to endure). The argument would carry more conviction if we could find examples of denigrate being used as a racial insult or with racist implications. So far, I haven’t found any.

There’s enough truth in the etymology to give the story legs. It does come from the Latin niger, meaning “black”, via the verb denigrare, to blacken. At one time it could be used in English with that literal sense, but from when it first appeared, in the sixteenth century, it also had a figurative sense of blackening somebody’s character or staining their reputation. This goes back to ancient ideas in western culture that black is the colour of despair, misery, wickedness or infamy.

So it is easy to see how denigrate could be thought to be a bad word for black Americans. It reminds me of the fuss some years ago over niggardly. In that case, there was evidence that the word was indeed thought to be disparaging and complaints were made about an instance of its use. However, so far as I know, no such belief or perceived insult is present in the African-American community. The way it’s said, with the stress on the first syllable, obscures the supposed origin.

But if popular films argue powerfully enough that it is insulting, then no doubt it will become so and another useful word in our language will become possible to use only with great care.

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Page created 22 Mar 2008