Unlike some people, I’m not outraged by a scholar’s plan to omit the word nigger in new editions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I do think it’s futile at best and counterproductive at worst, since people who buy the new version will presumably know it’s been altered and will subconsciously substitute the word nigger every time they see the word slave — which is sort of the opposite of what Alan Gribben intends.
But if there’s a demand for that sort of thing, fine. Twain isn’t around to object and I have a feeling the original versions will remain the more popular. Also, the story gives me the chance to use the word bowdlerize, which may also be offensive to some just by virtue of its unfamiliarity. And so I will: As a general rule, we should not bowdlerize works of art and literature. But if we do, we should employ the word bowdlerize without fear of censorship. Or uncomprehending stares.
About this word nigger: You’d think that its overuse by a whole generation of rap stars and Dr. Laura Schlesinger would have rendered it meaningless by now. But somehow it remains the jagged axe of epithets, to the extent that discussions of the word itself still carefully avoid using it. It’s always the N-word. People who don’t mind dropping the F-bomb as noun, verb, abverb and adjective suddenly grow quite squeamish when it comes to nigger. Well, except for Mel Gibson.
My feeling about it is this: If a word is going to hurt somebody, or worse, get me stabbed, then I prefer to err on the side of caution. If people want to read Mark Twain but can’t countenance the time in which he wrote, then Alan Gribben is there to help.