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How Words Change Meaning

Changes in the meaning of words often empower or oppress others. We might look to NaylorÆs depiction of the word ôniggerö to see how words can serve to empower or impress. Racial slurs are often used to wound or shame. The word ôniggerö was often used by whites toward African Americans in such a manner. However, despite the word ôniggerö having this negative impact on others that is oppressive, subcultures that experience such oppression often become empowered by such words by co-opting them for their own use. As Naylor (p. 1) maintains, ôThe spoken word, like the written word, amounts to a nonsensical arrangement of sounds or letters without a consensus that assigns æmeaning.Æö This analysis will show that more often than not subcultures are able to become empowered by changing the ômeaningö of words originally intended to oppress them.

The use of the word ôniggerö is considered racist when people other than African Americans use the word. The word is often used as a way of shaming or humiliating African Americans when used in this manner, something that serves to oppress them as a subculture. However, Naylor (p. 2) explains that in her childhood environment the word ôniggerö was use ôbut it was set within contexts and inflections that caused it to register in my mind as something else.ö For example, in the context of her classroom, the word was insulting and considered ôbad.ö Saying that ônigger,ö a real slacker, is not positive in any respect. Within her own culture, though, the word had been appropriated and used within specific contexts with meaning reapplied by African American culture. By changing context and perception of the word in this manner, African Americans were empowering the word ôniggerö in ways that undermined its strength at oppression as and when used by whites. For example, it is ôapproval foràstrength, intelligence, or driveö Naylo


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How Words Change Meaning. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 16:32, February 26, 2017, from