Re: RARA-AVIS: Back into the definitional whirlpool

Date: 15 May 2004


Re your example:
> According to Randall
> Kennedy's book on the subject, in the 1600s, the "N
> word" was not at all
> pejorative. Derived from the Latin word for the
> color black, it was
> simply the word used to describe the race of natives
> of Africa.
> However, I doubt that arguing that that was the
> word's original meaning
> would excuse the use of that word today. The
> history of racial
> relations in the US has added a whole lot of other
> shadings to that
> word. The denotation has remained constant, but as
> the culture has
> changed, so has the connotation of that word.

Haven't read the book, but when the word was used in the 1600's, it was used to describe a race of people who were enslaved. A word used by one group of people to describe another group that they regard as inherently inferior (as any group of people treated as property must have been) is, peforce, pejorative.

It's use since then, by the same people who once owned them as slaves, was, consciously or unconsciously, part of a larger program intended, to paraphrase Justice Marshall, to keep them as close to a state of slavery, now that they had been raised up (at least legally), as possible. To say that a term born in slavery was not pejorative is just silly.

So, while the "N-word" may have evolved, it really, in 500+ years, hasn't evolved THAT much.

To the point of this discussion, "noir" has only been used as a term to describe a type of crime fiction for about 60 years. It's been commonly used in English for perhaps 30. It's been commonly used in English to describe prose, as opposed to film, for maybe 20. Just how much evolving do you think it's had time to do in two decades?

"Noir" was never about doomed protagonists, downbeat endings, nihilism, or anything like that. Although many of the stories to which the term was first applied had those elements, just as many didn't. So that can't be what it was describing. That's just an inevitable conclusion that you and Mario and others seem intent on avoiding.

What all the stories deemed by the coiner of the term had in common was a dark and sinister atmosphere. So that must be what was being described.


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