Mighty Red Pen

January 7, 2011

Sticks and stones: Epitaph vs. epithet

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 6:58 pm
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The New York Times has an excellent series of opinion pieces responding to the NewSouth Books edition of Huckleberry Finn. This is the edition edited by Alan Gribben which will redact the n-word and the word “Injun.” If you’re interested in this topic, it’s worth taking the time to read them. I was especially interested in “Why Is ‘Slave’ Less Offensive?” by Francine Prose.

One essay, “Why Read That Book?” by Paul Butler turned up this excellent typo (which has since been fixed):

Oddly enough, it took me a minute to figure out that a. epitaph was not the right word and b. that the word that was wanted here was epithet. It must be because neither of these are words I use particularly often. But here’s the deal: When you want to talk about the words written on a tomb or gravestone, that’s an epitaph. When you want to talk about “a disparaging or abusive word or phrase,” the word you want is epithet.


January 5, 2011

Editing Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 8:17 pm
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Well, the InterWebs have been lighting up with the news that NewSouth Books plans to put out an edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn without the n-word or the word “Injun.” The n-word will apparently be replaced with the word “slave.”

Huck Finn has been the target of many a banned book campaign, but this approach seems altogether new to me, and altogether more sinister. If we start putting out sanitized versions of one book, why stop there? Why not create an entire library of Great Books Made More Palatable?

Of all the things I read today about this issue, here are a few of the notables:

“What he suggested,” said La Rosa, “was that there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial. We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful.”

My question is: There are gazillions of books out there. Teachers and schools choose all the time to omit books from their curriculum because it contains content they consider objectionable. Why isn’t it simply an option for schools that object to the content of Huck Finn to just not teach it?

  • Censoring Mark Twain’s ‘N-words’ is Unacceptable,” which points out in Twain’s own words, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
  • Three Ways Removing the N-Word Will Screw Up ‘Huck Finn,’” by Cord Jefferson, which I especially appreciate because it attempts to answer one of my biggest question out of this whole thing: Is it true that there is a useful and accurate correlation between the word slave and the n-word, such that no meaning is lost or misconstrued by this substitution? Are we certain that in every case where Twain used the n-word, the word slave could be equally applied?

Gribben asserts in his introduction, “The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language.” I don’t know if I agree with that, and I’d be interested to hear if people out there think that this is true. I’d also be interested to know if anyone has come across any defense of Gribben’s decision as an editor to tinker with Twain’s works in this way.

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