Just what did you mean?

Posted: May 19, 2006 6:05 PM
Sometimes the outcome of a trial will depend on the context in which a single word is spoken. "Go get Arnold," Al Capone instructed a subordinate. What exactly did he mean by that? Meet Arnold's train? Or -- put a bullet in Arnold's brain, as indeed happened. In some judicial circumstances the case hangs on the meaning of a word as intended by the person who uttered it, and that question has tied down a jury in a courtroom in New York, with fascinating implications. What did the defendant mean when he used the N-word about the victim?

The victim is a 22-year old black man whose skull was fractured by the defendant, who avers that his use of the N-word was not invidious. It seems odd that the point is as important as it apparently is. One would think that smashing someone's head with a baseball bat is pretty good evidence of acrimony. The defendant says he was defending himself against a robbery attempt, and that the use of the N-word carried not a trace of ill feeling.

The judge is spending considerable time on the question, with some reason. If the defendant is convicted on all the counts pending and the finding is that he was moved by racial hatred, he could face up to 25 years in jail. If the word was used as pure idiomatic description -- as one might say, "He was driving a Ford" -- the exposure is greatly reduced.

Defendant's mother insists that the use of the word carried no racial or ethnic overtones whatever. Defendant's mother was adamantly defensive on the point. "Every kid in the neighborhood uses it. It doesn't mean the same thing anymore. They all say it all day long no matter what race. They all grow up using it now."

A reporter on the scene generalized that the defense believes that "the N-word" is used "as a matter of course and that the word no longer carries the racially charged overtones it has historically." Evidence put forward is rap music and conversation, especially among young people. It is not irrelevant that although explications of this sort were argued back and forth, no one in the court actually uttered the word.

The matter was quite properly examined directly with prospective members of the jury. One potential juror, asked what he thought about the use of the word, replied, "It depends on who's saying it and how it's been used." That definition qualifies that man for service with Webster's Usage panel. The prosecutor, Michelle Goldstein, would have none of it, the idea that the word had become innocent. It's not like using the word "sweetheart," she said, which means one thing when used by one's fiance, something very different if spoken by a stranger to a woman on the street.

We can't know whether the defendant intended obloquy. If the jurors regularly view the TV series "The Sopranos," they might assume that no word in the English language is inherently offensive, with maybe the exception of "stool pigeon." It is, however, arresting to weigh the consequences, under the law, of a word -- this word -- carelessly used.

Some years ago I was a defendant in a lawsuit brought by a creepy fascistic outfit (they are now out of business), and the question before the jury was whether I and the magazine I edited were racist. The attorney had one weapon to use in making his point, namely that we had published an editorial about Adam Clayton Powell Jr. when he made a terminally wrong move in his defense against federal prosecutors. The editorial we published was titled, "The Jig Is Up for Adam Clayton Powell Jr.?"

On the witness stand I argued that the word "jig" could be used other than as animadversion. The feverish lawyer grabbed a book from his table and slammed it down on the arm of my chair. "Have you ever heard of a dictionary?" he asked scornfully, as if he had put the smoking gun in my lap. I examined the American Heritage College Dictionary and said yes, I was familiar with it. "In fact," I was able to say, opening the book, "I wrote the introduction to this edition." That was the high moment of my forensic life. And, of course, the dictionary establishes that the word "jig" can be used harmlessly.

So can the N-word, though there is a presumed linkage between how the defendant intended the word to be understood, and the fact that he smashed a baseball bat on the head of his interlocutor moments later.

Well, the verdict here, and the judge's ruling on it, will be one sweetheart of an exploration of what one can safely do these days in the language.