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A few years ago I was told not to use that word because, in addition to its negative meaning, it comes from Latin denigratus, past participle of denigrare, which means to blacken. Therefore, "to denigrate someone" would be "to blacken that person". Considering its current definition (see below) and the wish to be politically correct, I wonder whether the word has come to acquire any racist overtone.

The reason why I'm asking is because I was reading "Language Myths" a book by Laurie Bauer recently, and came across this passage which contained that word "...certain educational institutions denigrate the way certain ethnic minorities and lower-working-class children talk." Then I remembered I was once told not to use "denigrate" as it might be misinterpreted by some people.

denigrate - from Merriam-Webster
1. to say very critical and often unfair things about (someone)
2. to attack the reputation of, to deny the importance or validity of, belittle

EDIT (on Dec 17th, 2017) - This article, Dark Words Of Disapproval which Mari-Lou A mentions in one of the comments, shows very clearly the writer's feelings about this word, with very good arguments to bear him out.

marked as duplicate by Andrew Leach Nov 28 '14 at 8:05

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  • 29
    I think it's helpful to remember that the etymology of a word does not necessarily indicate its meaning. To claim that a word somehow mysteriously means X because it derived from a word meaning X is a form of the "genetic fallacy." "To denigrate someone" does not mean "to blacken that person." As shown in the M-W definition, the meaning (in today's English) has nothing to do with dark colors, let alone with dark-skinned races. – LarsH Nov 20 '14 at 2:48
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    @Mari-LouA snopes.com/language/offense/picnic.asp – apsillers Nov 20 '14 at 15:01
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    I'm not a racist ... don't bother. When spuriously accused of racism, just don't acknowledge it, unless you are in a court of law, or at risk of losing your job, as any protest seems to give weight to the accusation. – Eric Wilson Nov 20 '14 at 20:11
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    I think the real answer should be "absolutely anything can be racist in the mind of the reader, should they choose to interpret it that way" (Who you callin' queso blanco?!?! You sayin' white people are 'blanco'? Them's fightin' words!) But no, I would challenge anyone to find an example of "denigrate" actually being used in the context of racism. Or to find a racist who has any idea that "denigrate" exists as a word. – JamieB Nov 21 '14 at 18:52
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    This post should be re-opened, while the "original question" should be closed as its dupe. – Mari-Lou A Dec 15 '14 at 1:14

10 Answers 10

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I don't see why this question has received such negative responses. I think it's a good question.

"Blacken" indeed has a trans-historical meaning associated with vilification or corruption, but this has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of black people, animals, or the vast majority of black things. Would you consider the term "blacklist" racist? If not, then you shouldn't see "denigrate" as racist. Anyone who does is being a little silly.

If you're worried, you could always replace it with "disparage."

EDIT: Another example is use of the term "sinister" to mean "wicked." This word comes from Latin "sinister," meaning "left" or "on the left side." Over time, the mythologized connection of the left hand to the false or unfavorable came to give "sinister" an association with the unsavory. This does not mean that we cannot use "sinister" to mean "wicked," or that doing so would impugn left-handed people.

  • 16
    +1 for not flatly denying any original negative connotations of black in the original meaning. – oerkelens Nov 19 '14 at 7:41
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    I've read something about a prejudice against left-handed persons in certain ancient civilizations. I just don't remember when and where. – Centaurus Nov 19 '14 at 11:24
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    sinister is the latin word for left, or left handed. – Oldcat Nov 19 '14 at 20:57
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    But to "disparage" is to marry someone of unequal (presumably lower) rank, and so it is classist to use it to mean derogate. – Theodore Norvell Nov 20 '14 at 1:18
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    Actually, the word sinister does, or did, disparage left-handed people. Like paddy-wagon or red-headed stepchild (but not picnic), it is a remnant of a largely forgotten bigotry. – Malvolio Nov 20 '14 at 13:43
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That is certainly interesting reasoning, far more erudite than the mindless kerfuffle over niggardly.

Do you consider any negative reference to blackness or darkness ("blacken my name", "darken my doorway", "darkest hour", "a black mark", "throw shade", etc.) as, ahem, denigrating negritude as a ethnicity?

If you don't, there is your answer: denigrate is no worse than black hat.

If you do, well, you have a long road ahead of you.

  • 8
    Darken my doorway isn't even a color disparaging remark. Its just saying don't come close enough to cast a shadow on the door. – Oldcat Nov 19 '14 at 21:01
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    @Oldcat ...which would be bad because shadows are bad, because they're dark => color-disparaging – AakashM Nov 20 '14 at 9:56
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    Inherently "darken my door" means the shadow is proof of your entrance to the house, as Oldcat says, not that it's bad to have shadows on one's door in general. Of course, the fact that there are so many other dark=bad associations in language/culture makes the idiom more condign than it otherwise might be if we said "never put any wear-and-tear on my gate hinges" or something. One might consider the effect of such association when saying that "dark=bad" has no relevance to racism: the idioms aren't racist, but naturally racism (like anything else) could still play a part in choice of idiom. – Steve Jessop Nov 20 '14 at 17:04
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    The question is not whether you can change hats, but why black hats are bad and white hats are good. The obvious answer is, black represents bad and white represents good. The open question is whether the preference since time immemorial for light over darkness encompasses people whose skin color is light or dark. A black belt, however, is an honor (a white belt is no disgrace, but it's nothing to write home about either). – Malvolio Nov 21 '14 at 22:52
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    @olegst -- By "a long road ahead of you" (which generically means you are, at least in a metaphorical sense, embarking on a long, arduous journey), I meant that the equation of light (and by association lightness and whiteness) with goodness and dark (and blackness) with evil is so embedded in Western culture, going back millennia, anyone who tries to change it faces a difficult, and likely impossible, task. – Malvolio Nov 28 '14 at 15:59
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No. It isn't. It makes no reference to race in any conceivable way.


Main Entry: den.i.grate
Pronunciation: \ˈdenə̇ˌgrāt,-nēˌ- sometimes ˈdēn-; also də̇ˈnīˌg- or dēˈ- sometimes -ˈniˌg-; usu -ād.+V\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form: -ed/-ing/-s
Etymology: Latin denigratus, past participle of denigrare, from de- + nigrare to blacken, from nigr-, niger black
1 : to cast aspersion on the character or reputation of : belittle maliciously: DEFAME, SULLY
denigrating his efforts and subjecting him to scorn— Manfred Nathan
denigrate the values of living— Stephen Spender
2 : to make black: DARKEN
fog denigrated with factory smoke

[plausible]Russian source: Useful English dictionary

  • 7
    +1 - This is the absolute truth. Any other lens through which to see this is absurd. Unless the Ancient Romans thought of Africans in that way. – anongoodnurse Nov 19 '14 at 2:10
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    I'm not saying I disagree, but a bland assertion doesn't move the discussion along much. Certainly, there are people who believe the negative connotations of darkness in the English language has a racist origin. It isn't enough to simply assert they are wrong. – Malvolio Nov 19 '14 at 2:31
  • @Malvolio - see my comment under the OP's post. – anongoodnurse Nov 19 '14 at 2:34
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    @Malvolio - of course it is enough to assert they are wrong. Wild claims have the burden of proof on the accuser. Saying that black=racist is not nearly enough. – Oldcat Nov 19 '14 at 21:00
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    @Oldcat OP has already been told "not to use "denigrate" as it might sound racist" (quoted from his question) by somebody else. This answer simply states the opposite. How would you tell whose claim is "wild" without any other information past the two statements he was given? – DoubleDouble Nov 19 '14 at 21:52
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This is an example of the kind of silly fuss whose only practical consequence is the possibility that it will stir up ill feeling or resentment where none existed before.

If nobody is complaining about the sometimes-derogatory use of 'whitewash', or avoiding its use on the grounds that it could be perceived as being a racial slur, then you should feel free to use 'denigrate'. The same argument applies to both terms.

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    +1 for thinking of a derogatory term including the word "white." The word "yellow" is sometimes used to mean cowardly. As far as I am aware that has nothing to do with the people of eastern Asia. What about "brownfield site"? Insulting to the people of India? – Level River St Nov 19 '14 at 20:31
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    I think the argument does not hold for "whitewash", as it uses "white" in a positive sense: It's about pretending something is white, or making it look white (while, in reality, it's not). – Volker Siegel Nov 21 '14 at 2:59
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    @ErikKowal: well, it implies dishonestly appearing white by covering up the real colour, it implicitly assumes that appearing white is an advantageous thing. If it did refer to race then it would be pro-white and anti-everyone else (whites being white already and by nature, not by artifice). So it's probably just as well that it doesn't, and that fence colour isn't a locus of discrimination in society. – Steve Jessop Nov 21 '14 at 17:42
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    Whitewash is a very inexpensive form of paint based on lime. It is a thin, weak coating which is quick to apply, but wears off easily and must be reapplied regularly. It is often applied over the top of an existing surface, without cleaning or preparation. Thus it's a quick-and-dirty coverup. – barbecue Nov 22 '14 at 18:31
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    @steveverrill: The term "yellow" for cowardly comes from having a yellow (or white) liver. The term "lily-livered" (which also means cowardly) has the same origin. (And I think "he has a yellow streak up his back" -- which has the same meaning -- is part of the same family, but I'm not sure.) So "yellow" cowards and "yellow" East Asians are just a chance collision, like Native Americans and communists, or people who are envious and people who are inexperienced. – Beta Nov 23 '14 at 4:56
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The word "denigrate" is no more racist than the words "niggling" or "niggardly", but there are many semi-literate people who will disagree. The use of the latter terms has led to astoundingly stupid accusations of racism and has caused at least one political aide to actually resign his position. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/daily/jan99/district27.htm - an oldie but a goodie.

  • 1
    Ironically, the only people I've ever seen use the word "niggardly" are actively hostile to racial justice and use the word intentionally as an attempt to provoke a response, which they'll then use as evidence of "political correctness run amok". – R.. Nov 23 '14 at 5:20
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    "semi-literate"? You do realize that for those people who may not know the 'correct' meaning, calling them semi-literate is inflammatory, don't you? That is, for people who take the word 'denigrate' as pejorative, and to then call them stupid for it, is just making it worse. – Mitch Nov 23 '14 at 21:00
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    @Mitch: I would say that "semi-literate" for somebody who calls denigrate racist is an undeserved compliment. – TimLymington Dec 20 '14 at 0:05
  • I've seen the word "niggard" used once in the correct way in a Charles Dickens book and only noticed it because of the discussion about it. Most reasonably educated people wouldn't know it. Unlike "denigrate" it is close enough to n***** that the average person would think it would be some racist term. And if it is used towards a black person, with the full intention that it shouldn't be recognised and be taken as a racist term, with the predictable consequences, that is absolutely racist. In a cowardly way. – gnasher729 May 11 '16 at 20:02
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Are we racist when we say Jesus was the light of the world? If so, the predominant religion of African-Americans is hopelessly racist.

I think there is a real difference between the association of ambient light and darkness with positive and negative emotions found in people throughout the world and the fact that some people have different coloration.

For centuries before the English noticed Africa again after the Romans had left, we had the Black Irish and the occasional Black Swede, both exceptionally light-skinned peoples that the English just happened not to trust. In fact, initially we referred to the Moors not as Black but as "Painted", perhaps to avoid just this knee-jerk aspersion.

Sure it was easier to extend this habit of speech to Black Africans and see them as less humane, more like those despised Irish by accident of vocabulary. But it surely didn't start there. So although some of these commonalities may have assisted the implementation of racism, they do not derive from it or make all of the resulting vocabulary racist.

  • Isn't "black Irish" also a bit of an allusion to the dark-haired Milesians of Gaelic descent who invaded Ireland from the Iberian peninsula around 900 B.C.E.? – Craig Nov 23 '14 at 2:12
  • @Craig yes, however Black Irish literally refers to the tendency to dark hair in that phenotype. It is not directly referencing skin color. As such, all this is offtopic to this question. – smci Nov 23 '14 at 3:42
3

The word "denigrate" is not racist.

Furthermore, you are misusing the word "racist". The word "racist" means "someone who believes that one race is superior to another". The word "denigrate" simply means "to demean" with no implication as to who is being demeaned or why.

People often mean "prejudiced" when they use the word "racist".

Your question would probably better be phrased "Does the word 'denigrate' have racial implications." The answer to this question is also "no".

2

In my humble opinion, questions like this get complex.

As others have pointed out, the historical origins of a word do not necessarily determine how the word is understood in modern English.

Also, people routinely use words like "black" and "white" and "dark" and "light" without any intention to reference race. If I say, "I have a night light because I don't like to walk around in a room that is totally black", I am almost certainly not expressing a racist sentiment. I may be describing the perfectly rational position that if the room is too dark I may bump into thing or trip on things and hurt myself. Or maybe I am afraid of the dark, which is not entirely irrational either, as walking around in the dark you are more vulnerable to dangerous animals, enemies and thieves.

Likewise, if a business owner says, "Hooray! Our budget is finally in the black!" he is probably not expressing a pro-African American sentiment, but is strictly talking about money.

All that said, to some extent, if people say they are offended by a word, I avoid using it whether I think the offense is rational or not. Let's face it, there's no easy formula for what makes some words offensive and others completely acceptable. Like if I am discussing my medical problem with my doctor, I'll say that I "defecated" or "passed solids", rather than saying I "sh*t", because the former is considered polite and the latter vulgar. But what makes the difference? They just are.

Personally, at some point I conclude that people are just trying to find things to be offended about and I cease to listen to their complaints. I'm not going to stop using all words that begin with an "n" because someone complains that it reminds him of a racial slur. But that gets into social issues and politics rather than language, so I'll stop there.

1

I think it would be helpful to ask: what is the primary referent of the word 'black'? That is, what is it that most people are referring to in most contexts when they say the word 'black'? Is it a particular group of people whom we have qualified with that term, or is it the very colour itself, such as the black colour of the night sky?

I would suggest it is the second of these, and that the first is derived from the second. Therefore, most other words which relate to 'blackness' are first and foremost referencing the literal colour 'black', and only secondarily the group of people called 'black'.

0

For starters the Origins of English language culture and borrowed words come from Europe. A place and culture of white people, of different shades.

Therefore there would always be such words. Compare some analogous phrases like to go tot he dark side, its a dark day, or black Friday. All with connotations of something bad displeasing or terrible.

So it ain't racist.

  • I thought Black Friday was supposed to be when the year's accounts went into the black, nothing negative at all – BoldBen Dec 5 '16 at 1:23

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