A story about the 1939 film Gone with the Wind illustrates the recentness of this change in attitudes. There is a familiar anecdote about swearing in the film — that producer David Selznick was fined $5,000 because Rhett Butler walks out on Scarlett O'Hara at the end of the movie with the words "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Actually, the film production code had changed shortly before the movie's release, so Selznick was never fined. As with Eliza Doolittle's "Not bloody likely!," "I don't give a damn" was more of a scandal manque than a real cause of concern.
The real, less well-known scandal involved the word nigger. The producers of the film wanted to preserve the "true southern flavor" of the book and so decided to include dialogue in which various characters use the word — Mammy speaking disapprovingly of "shiftless niggers," for example. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code forbade the use of profanity in films, including "God, Lord, Jesus, Christ — unless used reverently — Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd" (except when a quotation from a literary work, hence the exception for Rhett 's "damn"). It outlawed "obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience)." It stipulated that "the use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful." It even mandated that "the treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy." But it did not forbid or discourage the use of racial epithets such as nigger . Only when the film's African American actors refused to say the word and hundreds of letters poured in objecting to its use did producer Selznick agree to take it out of the script.
The fact that hundreds of people objected to the filmmakers' decision to use the n -word shows that by the 1940s there was a growing sense that it was out of bounds, an offensive word that no one should say. But while the n -word was becoming more and more taboo across a broader swath of society, there were still pockets of resistance. As late as 1992 (and presumably today as well), a genteel elderly white woman could tell her neighbor in North Carolina that she was looking for a "yard nigger." (This particular lady happened to be speaking to a philosopher interested in derogatory speech, and so her words were recorded for posterity.) While such a person would most likely shrink from using sexual obscenities and profane oaths, she had no problem casually dropping America's worst racial slur. For her, having grown up white in the American South, that was simply what one called black people; the term "carried no explicit contempt" (though plenty of condescension) and was not meant to shock or be impolite. She simply wanted someone to do her yard work; the term for such a person in her racially stratified world was "yard nigger."
Despite such holdouts, nigger is an obscene word for most Americans and Brits today. One might say it is our most dangerous word. People have lost their jobs for saying other words that are completely unrelated but sound like it. David Howard, for example, told his staff that they would have to be "niggardly" with the budget of their municipal agency, as money was tight. Niggardly means "parsimonious" or "miserly," and niggard first appears two hundred years before nigger , deriving from an old Scandinavian word, nig , for a miserly person. Nevertheless, several employees took great offense and Howard was forced to resign. A British acquaintance of mine was castigated for using the word niggling, meaning small or petty, in a work email. (Niggling is also unrelated to nigger , though to niggle was slang for sexual intercourse in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries.)
But nigger isn't always a negative word. Especially when used by African Americans among themselves — and pronounced and spelled nigga to differentiate it from the slur — it can be a sign of belonging, an expression of respect and affection, a claim to an identity that is, as Randall Kennedy puts it, "real, authentic, uncut, unassimilated, and unassimilable."
Melissa Mohr has recently been dividing her time between writing a book about swearing and hiding it from her kids. She received a Ph.D. in English Literature from Stanford University, specializing in Medieval and Renaissance literature. This extract is from HOLY SH*T: a Brief History of Swearing (Oxford University Press, 2013), Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013.