The New York Times (February 21) carried an article introducing the travelling exhibition of “The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia” to the U.S. at the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum, Asian Art Museum, Getty Villa and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The Cyrus Cylinder was made soon after Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon in 539 B.C., and was called the first bill of human rights in history. The author and op-ed columnist Roger Cohen concludes the article with the phrase:

My theory, by the way, was this: It may just be possible to write a column about Iran without using the “N” word.

My understanding of “the N” word is associated with racial discrimination. However, thinking of recent turmoil concerned with nuclear development and possible armament of Iran, N can be associated with Nuclear.

What does “N” stand for in the above statement? Can "N" word mean something other than racial discrimination?

For your reference, the ending line is preceded with the following sentence, but it doesn’t seem to give any hint to my question:

“National conventions include the ceremonial form of intention-veiling flattery known as “taarof,” and the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative known as “tagieh” (The Shiites, like the Jews, have been lonely in the Middle East; lying was often a means to survive.) The third “T” of the Iranian psyche is “tazieh,” effectively a synonym for dramatic lament and epic resistance.”


4 Answers 4


Yes, "The 'N'-word" means nuclear in this specific case.

No, it doesn't have a general meaning other than of n----- and variants thereof.

There is a general use of "The '[letter]'-word" to mean "The word beginning with the given letter, that I do not want to mention", most often with expletives like "The F-word" for fuck, "The C-word" for cunt and so on, though the less offensive the word, the less likely one is to use this form (so "The S-word" for shit is less likely, and so on).

In this case the author's reasons for not wanting to use the word nuclear is not that it's offensive in itself, but that it so dominates current discussion of Iran, that "to write a column about Iran without using" it, would be rare. By extension, to have other aspects of Iran even considered is relatively rare (in New York publications, at least).

Use of this form with words that aren't offensive in themselves is normally at least partly tongue-in-cheek. It also stops the claim being self-defeating; if he'd said "It may just be possible to write a column about Iran without using the word nuclear." then he would have used the word nuclear and hence proven himself wrong.

The tongue-in-cheek humour helps make it a piece of satire; he's not just saying that reportage on Iran is dominated by this one topic, but using satire to criticise this way of thinking about the country.

So, it's not a general use of "The 'N'-word", so much as a general use of the pattern it is an example of. That he would have been aware that the expression had a more specific use where it refers to a word considered offensive in itself, would have added to the tongue-in-cheek humour of phrasing it that way.

  • 1
    Kinda like that show "The L-word."
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 13:51
  • 10
    @KitFox or the same ambiguity used in the Scott Pilgrim comic books, where someone says "the L-word" referring to Love, and Scott misunderstands and replies "Lesbians?!"
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 14:11
  • 2
    NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) machines - the big donut body scanners, are now called MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imagers) to avoid the "N" word. I was explaining to an American how we had to avoid the "N" word when talking to the public. He was very confused why a physics dept would use "nigger" but too polite to ask
    – mgb
    Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 23:19
  • @mgb Excellent example of a completely different reason to avoid exactly the same word. It reminds me too of the theory that one reason witches outside of the lines that first used The Wicca to refer to themselves also started using that term is "to avoid the W-word", which is an amusing way to phrase it, since they're both W-words. (Not that I agree with that theory, but that's another matter).
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 23:25
  • @JonHanna - "The W-word" is strangely reminiscent of D-day and H-hour, no? (It would be perfect if the word being elided were actually "word", but that's too much to ask for.)
    – MT_Head
    Commented Feb 23, 2013 at 0:11

I believe you are correct: N is for "nuclear".

There have been many articles written about Iran and its nuclear programme, aspirations and possible intentions. The author is obliquely remarking that it seemed impossible to omit a reference to this work in any article about the country. It appears that every article written must include the word nuclear.

However, he harboured a suspicion that there must be some article he could write where it would be possible not to use the word nuclear, and having written that article, he added a footnote to that effect. Even with the footnote, he still didn't use the actual word itself.


He means "nuclear".

When we want to refer to a word without actually saying it, we often refer to it as "the [first letter]-word". The audience is expected to infer what the word is from context. We usually do this to avoid breaking taboo but, of course, it can be used for humorous effect. For example, an anxious student might ask his friends not to use the "e-word" ("exams"). In the context of the New York Post article, it's clear that the journalist means "nuclear", not "nigger".

As an aside, I first hear the phrase "the n-word" being used by liberal Americans, and it struck me that the usage was a little strained. Their attitude seemed to be,: "if we keep treating the word 'nigger' as if it's too shocking for normal use, then soon it will be". It looks like they succeeded.

  • 2
    If they'd succeeded, then it would be known to those of us with an interest in the history of language, but not to anyone else. This is clearly not the case.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 9:56
  • @JonHanna Good point. I've amended the answer to say, "too shocking for normal use". I'll put it another way in this comment: If George Carlin were performing his "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television" sketch today, there would be an eighth dirty word, and it would begin with "n". :-) (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_dirty_words)
    – Pitarou
    Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 10:09
  • 4
    Nah, Carlin would have known the work of Lenny Bruce and his "Are There Any Niggers Here Tonight?" piece far too well, and the degree to which both pieces overlap, to move directly into its territory. If you aren't familiar with it, Bruce's bit is an early stab at the idea of reclamation (he goes on to mention several other racial epithets, before ending with anti-Semitic terms that could be used of himself). The difference between theory and practice, are another matter though.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 10:18

This is just an example of the evolution of terms, and concerns.

Twenty or thirty years ago, the term "n-word" would have been a reference to racial discrimination. Nowadays, that concern is somewhat less, and other "n-word" concerns have risen. Such as the potential possession of nuclear weapons by countries like Iran, North Korea, etc.

As a child growing up in the 1960s, I understood the initials "LBJ" to be a reference to "Lyndon Baines Johnson" (the President who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act).

Today, the initials "LBJ" were used in reference to the (African-American) athlete, LeBron James, and his re-signing with his team.

Both examples of how "times have changed."

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