California Screamin'--The W-Word?

by John McWhorter | October 13, 2010

So this month’s flap over someone “using a word” is between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown in their battle for the California governorship. The word this time, given the personnel, is not the N-word, of course--although wouldn’t you know, exactly that word has been brought in as a comparison.

This time it’s whore, on a tape from last month that turned up of a conversation between Brown and an aide. The aide suggests that a useful campaign response to Whitman’s offering a deal to the Los Angeles policeman’s union on pensions would be to frame her as a “whore.”

“The people of California deserve better than slurs,” Whitman objected in a debate with Brown Tuesday. And moderator Tom Brokaw chimed in that calling Whitman a whore was equivalent to lobbing the N-word at a black person, while the media is picking-a-little-talking-a-little about Brown’s “whore comment.”

Okay: Ms. Whitman is in a high-stakes campaign; certainly she will milk what the aide said. But milking is what it will be, as will be the treatment of the aide’s comment as hot news as if “Jerry Brown called Meg Whitman a whore”--and Brokaw’s red-alert interpretation classifies as aiding and abetting.

The simple fact is that whore has two meanings. One is the original and ancient one of a woman who sells her body for money. It could even be argued that this meaning of the word is becoming somewhat old-fashioned. Words evolve. Always. The newer meaning of whore is a secondary and derived one, applied to a person who takes money or some other form of recompense in return for a service deemed substandard in quality or ethics.

Note that I write “person,” as whore is applied readily to men as well as women. A quick internet search reveals the word being applied to Ben Stein, Hugh Jackman, Lil Wayne and Harry Reid (and in Jackman’s case, he even happily applies it to himself). Pointedly, Whitman’s current campaign chairman Pete Wilson, back in 1995, accused Congress of being “such whores to public employees unions” (in reference to the Fair Labor Practices Act during the Depression!!).

This is the meaning that Brown’s aide intended, and an analogy to the N-word does not go through. Nigger implies the generic, definitional inferiority of black people regardless of what they do. The proper analogy would be if the staffer had, with Brown’s tacit approval, referred to her with a word beginning with c and ending with t. That is a word generally applied only to women, and with an implication of total, bone-chilling, ice-cold dismissal of female individuals in general. Another analogy would be Carl Paladino's blanket designation of gay people as "dysfunctional."

It’s hard to fit what Brown’s aide said into that classification. He was using the evolved, secondary meaning of whore that refers to a kind of bargain, and again, one applied to men as readily as to women. Note that the following dialogue is not analogous to one Brown and his aide had:

“Obama is Eugene Debs reincarnated. What are we gonna do to get the word out?”

“You mean like calling him a nigger?”

Nigger doesn’t refer to the specific charge Obama is being accused of, whereas Definition Two of whore does apply to the practice Whitman was being accused of, a practice inherently gender-neutral. Note also: Don Imus’ “nappy-headed ho’” comment was indeed more reprehensible, in that Definition Two of whore in no way applies to playing college basketball. There, Definition One loomed as the only possible meaning. Just as Definition Two looms as the only logical meaning in the Brown exchange--a meaning people like Hugh Jackman are gaily pasting on themselves.

The problem is the resonance between Definition One and Definition Two, in that Whitman is female. This cannot be ignored. The analogy is with hip young whites who just wish they could use the N-word warmly with black men as black men do with one another, only to find that doing so cannot help but recall what whites’ use of the word can mean in other contexts. Whore is not yet so utterly evolved from its original meaning that we can afford not to attend to its usage as applied to women.

What should the attending consist of in this case, then? Clearly, if the conversation revealed Whitman being called the genuinely scurrilous thing I mentioned above, we would have grounds for thunderous condemnation. It would be similarly appalling if Brown lobbed whore at Whitman, even under Definition Two, in a public exchange. We can monitor public, deliberative speech. We can even, with sufficient public pressure, have some effect on how speech is used in private. However, we cannot make private speech squeaky-clean. Human beings will never observe a notion as fabulously contradictory as the notion that insult will be decorous.

And as such, the aide’s utterance of whore under Definition Two was nothing but tacky. It was a rusty little squeak. It was no scandal.

For Whitman, Brokaw, or anyone else to claim that Brown’s aide’s private usage of whore in the sense he intended is equivalent to someone calling Cory Booker a nigger is, well, politics. Just as when some pretend that blacks and whites are using “the same word” when wielding the N-word--or others pretend that someone like Dr. Laura referring to the N-word is the same as using it--we’re all playing a kind of game, unaware of it only in a willing kind of way.

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