On the N- and F-Words: Quantifying the Taboo

Paul Martin Lester, (E-mail and home page) California State University, Fullerton

Accepted for presentation by the Mass Communication and Society Division for the AEJMC conference in Anaheim, California, August, 1996

NOTE: You will need Acrobat Reader installed in your computer to see the tables in this study.

In this modern, democratic, and free-speech loving society called America there are few words that are so controversial that they are taboo within most social situations-nigger and fuck, however, are two of them.

Conservative opinion leader Robert Novak was the substitute host for Larry King's interview program on CNN with guest Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina when a caller heated up the discussion:

CALLER: I know this might not be politically correct to say these days, but I just think that you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you've done to help keep down the niggers."

NOVAK: Oh, dear.

HELMS: Whoops. Well-

NOVAK: Ha, ha, ha.

HELMS: Ha, ha, ha.

NOVAK: That was the bad word. That was politically incorrect. Can you-we really don't condone that kind of language, do we?

HELMS: No, no, no.

NOVAK: Absolutely.

HELMS: No. My father didn't condone it. When I was a little boy, one of the worst spankings I ever got is when I used that word, and I don't think I've used it ever since.

NOVAK: And you had--

HELMS: Mark Twain used it.

NOVAK: And you had--you had--you had African Americans on your staff a long time ago, didn't you? As I remember.

HELMS: Oh yes. I hired several./1

It wasn't long ago when the word fuck was equally despised and shielded from public hearing. Dictionaries, if they even included the word, would often use "f**k" to indicate its presence-it was too shocking to even write the entire word on paper./2 But over time and through drastically increased use, particularly in entertainment settings, fuck has lost much of its power to shock. George Carlin's seven dirty words that couldn't be said on television in 1973 helped that process along./3 Since then, countless movies, comedians in clubs and on cable, and lyricists in their songs use the word to shock and to simulate meaningful and well-written dialogue. And although children are still protected from the word both visually and audibly, there is no doubt that the society's use of the word has diminished its power-the taboo has been greatly lifted.

Fuck even has an entire book devoted to its history and use. The F Word has 224 pages of its variations, from absofuckinglutely to tit-fuck. In the foreword, Roy Blount, Jr. writes that the word fuck is "our worst word, at least of one syllable, and maybe our strongest." He then tells the story of when Norman Mailer in his novel, The Naked and the Dead, substituted fug for it. This

led Dorothy Parker to tell the young novelist when she met him at a party, "So you're the man who can't spell fuck."/4

But there is no book titled, The N Word. That's because fuck can be used as a noun, expletive, and verb and is not specific to any one cultural group. Nigger almost exclusively indicates a racist attack against African Americans./5 In Jesse Sheidlower's introduction to The F Word he writes that "one prominent professor told U.S. News & World Report in 1994 that if she used fuck in class, no one would bat an eye, but she would never dare to use any racial epithet in any context./6 However, confounding a discussion on the use of the word is the fact that nigger and its more acceptable cultural counterpart, nigga, can be used without offending listeners if used within the proper social context. For example, after Janet Cooke lost her Pultzer when it was learned that her Washington Post series was ficticious, she justified embellishing her resume in a GQ article with, "My goal was to create Supernigger." Moreover, saying the words in a comedy club, can cause audience members to grab their sides in fits of laughter./7

But there was nothing funny about the way the word was used during the past year.

It was called the trial of the decade, the century, and possibly of all time-the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, of course. A young, beautiful woman and a strong, vibrant man were viciously cut out of the rest of their lives. The suspect was none other than one of the most well-liked and admired sports heroes in the history of football. The case inspired tough analysis of how the legal system convenes juries, the way lawyers and judges act during a trial, the way evidence is presented, and the way the news media cover, present, and comment on trial proceedings. The case's conclusion also inspired analysis into the ways different races are treated within this country and how people from different cultural backgrounds can have such differing reactions to the verdict.

But there was no analysis on the media's reporting of one of the most controversial and disturbing words in the English language that repeatedly was used during the trial. When it was learned that former LAPD police detective Mark Fuhrman used the word nigger to describe African Americans (an accusation he had repeatedly denied), the word was often reported within the pages of newspapers and magazines and broadcast on television and through the radio. Suddenly, and with little warning, one of the most taboo words in our society was openly heard on a regular basis.

Actions, persons, objects, and words have been tabooed by various cultural groups throughout history. In Taboo and the Perils of the Soul by the anthropologist James Frazer, chapters describe such taboos connected with talking to strangers, handling the dead, reserving foods to sacred persons such as kings and priests, and the naming of dangerous animals. A person could be put to death, for example, for saying the name of a king./8 Although the word taboo comes from Polynesian origin, the concept of taboo is probably "the oldest human unwritten code of laws."/9 In commenting on the lateness of any recorded history of the word fuck, for example, Sheidlower writes that "the word carried a taboo so strong that it was never written down in the Middle Ages."/10

Sigmund Freud suggests that taboo restrictions "are distinct from religious or moral prohibitions" because they date to a period before religion existed./11 Consequently, taboos call to mind the archetypal and unspoken fears of all people while identifying the prohibited and disturbing. Frazer cites the connection between taboos and people by studying early humans and their inability to differentiate words and objects:

... the savage generally imagines that the link between a name

and the nominated object or subject is not a mere arbitrary and ideological association but a true and substantial bond ..../12

To utter a taboo word, then, is to immediately link the word with a person or action. In semiotic terms, a symbolic sign becomes iconic./13 The difference between nigger and fuck is that the word nigger is almost always meant to be a derogatory and demeaning description directed at African Americans while the word fuck is never associated with a single cultural group. Without evoking much argument, then, it can be stated that two of the most arresting and noticeable words in the English language are nigger and fuck./14 Regardless of the social situation from a private conversation to a televised comedy performance-and regardless of intent-from an academic discussion of their use to an expression of bitter racial hatred-taboo words often evoke deep, primal emotions. These taboo words draw their power and symbolic meaning largely from the fact that they are not supposed to be said.

During the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial, Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden called nigger the "dirtiest, filthiest, nastiest word in the English language."/15 The word became an issue in July, 1994, when it was learned that Mark Fuhrman, a star witness for the prosecution, made derogatory racial statements in a private personnel document. Fuhrman was key to the trial because he was one of the first officers at Simpson's Brentwood estate and found an important piece of evidence, a bloody glove that matched the one found at the scene of the murders. Soon afterward, witnesses who had met Fuhrman on social occasions remarked of his racially volatile comments. When Fuhrman took the stand in March, 1995, Simpson's defense team was ready for him. However, Fuhrman was direct in his denial under oath of ever using the word in the last ten years. Five months later, however, tape recordings of Fuhrman talking to an aspiring screenwriter were made public. Johnnie Cochran, head of Simpson's defense team, asserted that Fuhrman used the "'n-word' more than 42 times." Suddenly, the gloves were off when it came to this taboo word and all manner of media ran stories about the use of the word by Fuhrman. The outcome of the trial, as it turned out, hinged on Fuhrman's confusing testimony and the perceived racism within the LAPD, the justice system, and American society generally./16

During the Simpson trial the media seemed to be more willing to use the word nigger than its n-word counterpart when it regularly used the f-word phrase to replace the word fuck. If it can be agreed upon that the word nigger is more offensive to read and hear than the word fuck, why was nigger used so often? Is the Simpson trial and the use of the word nigger by the trial participants and by those in the media simply foretelling a time when the word nigger will have the same diluted power as the word fuck?

Based on the previous discussion and observations of the media, this research attempts to address four hypotheses about the use of the words nigger and fuck and the phrases n-word and f-word by the U.S. media:

H1: All media represented in this study will use the word nigger more than the word fuck.

H2: All media represented in this study will use the n-word phrase more than the f-word phrase.

H3: Use of all the keywords analyzed in this study will increase from 1985 figures.

H4: Print publications will use the words nigger and fuck more often than broadcast entities.


The Lexis/Nexis database versions of seven newspapers-Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, The New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA Today, and The Washington Post-two magazines-Newsweek and Time-and four broadcasting news services-ABC News, CNN, the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," and National Public Radio (NPR)-were examined for any story that used the words nigger and fuck and the n-word and f-word phrases for the years 1985, 1994, and 1995. The three time periods were employed to provide base level, pre, and post trial figures. The individual story was the unit of analysis, and a single mention of any of the keywords in a full text search was enough to prompt inclusion of that story in the data set. Variations of the words,/17 more relevant for fuck, were also included in the story count. As much as it was possible, multiple stories were culled from the count.


The 13 media institutions used in this study resulted in 2,419 stories that contained at least one of the search terms. When the search terms Simpson and Fuhrman are removed from the database searches in order to effectively delete all references to the double-murder trial, the total number of stories is 1,109. Regardless of whether the stories contain references to Simpson or Fuhrman or not, two of the four hypotheses are supported:

H1: All media represented in this study will use the word nigger more than the word fuck.

Support for the hypothesis. Table 1 shows that the word nigger was used in 1,539 stories by all media represented in this study while the word fuck was only used eleven times when the Simpson trial references were included. On the print side, The New York Times had the largest difference in the use of the two words than any other print organization with nigger used in 256 stories and fuck in none of its stories. On the broadcast side, CNN had the largest difference in use of the two words than other broadcasters with 297 stories with the word nigger and seven using the word fuck. In Table 2 indicates that when the Simpson trial was excluded from analysis, the word nigger was found in 742 stories and the word fuck three times overall. The New York Times and CNN again top the greatest difference between the use of the two words by any other print or broadcast companies in this study.

H2: All media represented in this study will use the n-word phrase more than the f-word phrase.

Support for the hypothesis. Table 1 indicates that the n-word phrase was used a total of 583 times while the f-word phrase was employed a total of 286 times. However, there are some media differences to note related to the Simpson double-murder trial. The print publication figures for the two phrases indicate an almost equal split between the use of the two terms while the broadcast media are overwhelming more willing to use the n-word phrase rather than the f-word phrase. However, when the Simpson double-murder case is factored out of the analysis (Table 2), all the media dramatically favor the f-word over the n-word phrase. The high n-word figure for the broadcast media largely comes from CNN which sponsored regular analysis of the trial by a great variety of court interpreters. These guests, when discussing matters related to the use of the word nigger during the trial, used the n-word phrase to avoid its controversial effect as a taboo word.

H3: Use of all the keywords analyzed in this study will increase from 1985 figures.

Mixed results for the hypothesis. Although it was assumed that the word fuck would gain in numbers due to its widespread use in other media, Table 3 shows that the use of the word dropped from two to only one story for the seven media organizations in which 1985 data was available. This finding indicates an almost total ban on its use. The print ban is a bit surprising given the First Amendment guarantees afforded the print media while broadcasters must be sensitive to community standards given the 1934 Federal Communications Act authorizing broadcasters to "serve the public interest." However, all the other terms used in this study show dramatic increases in their use and a similar pattern for all seven media entities. Most notably, The New York Times and The Washington Post increased the number of stories with the word nigger from 32 and 38, respectively in 1985 to 90 and 66, respectively for 1995. The table also indicates that the n-word and f-word phrases are relatively new as substitutes for the taboo words. The n-word phrase was never used in 1985 while the f-word phrase was used eight times split among the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and Time magazine.

H4: Print publications will use the words nigger and fuck more often than broadcast entities.

Mixed results for the hypothesis. As Table 1 shows, CNN and NPR used the word fuck eight times in newscasts compared with the print media that combined for a total of three times. Only the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times made use of the word. Such a finding again indicates an almost agreed upon ban of the word by journalists. When Simpson and Fuhrman references are removed (Table 2) however, print publications, by a two-times margin, more often used the word nigger than the broadcasting media. Print publications used the word nigger 1,054 times while the broadcast news services used the term 485 times. Most of the broadcast total comes from CNN which used the word 297 times. Unlike the other broadcast media in this study, CNN broadcast the entire trial which accounts for the high number of search term hits compared with the other media. However, when the Simpson trial is removed from the analysis, the word fuck is used only once by the Los Angeles Times-compared to twice, once each by CNN and NPR-while the word nigger is used 605 times by the print media compared with 137 times by the broadcast media.

Table 4 takes a look at the percentages of stories that contain the four search terms with the findings divided into print and broadcast media. When all references to the Simpson trial are removed from analysis (the figures in parentheses), the print media generally increased their use of all four terms, with the greatest rise in the word nigger and the n-word phrase. The broadcast media, however, decreased the use of all four terms, with marked shifts in the word nigger and the n-word phrase. The findings in Table 4 strongly suggest that it is more acceptable to print the word nigger than fuck, with the print media more willing to do so than the broadcast media.


The impact of the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial on journalism and society cannot be denied with regards to the findings in this study. Because of the trial, the word nigger was used in transcripts, stories, and trial analyses in print and broadcast media a total of 1,539 times. And yet, if the trial had never occurred, the total drops to 742, a substantial increase over the 1985 figure of 150. The word fuck, however, prospered little from the trial of the century-it is almost never used within news-editorial stories, anyway. One is left with the question that if the words nigger and fuck are two of the worst words the English language has to offer, with nigger arguably topping this short list, why are the news media overwhelmingly willing to use nigger over fuck?

Given recent studies and publications indicating that stories and pictures of African Americans in the media will almost always be within the stereotypical content categories of sports, entertainment, and crime, and given the low percentage of African Americans as reporters, editors and in higher management positions in media organizations, one may be tempted to blame, at best cultural insensitivity, and at worst racism, as the reason for the use of the word nigger./18 But such overt racism including the word nigger in stories simply to upset readers would never be tolerated by professional organizations and would not explain the systemic use of the word throughout all the media studied.

The media are not composed of reporters, photographers, and editors who are isolated and aloof. Journalists are members of the communities which they serve. If the media stereotype and if taboo words are used more often than in previous years, it is because society stereotypes and tolerates a relaxation of taboo words.

Much of the reason for the increased use of nigger comes from the journalistic practice of objectivity and the concept of community standards. The professional practice of objectivity, when applied to reporting, writing, and editing, demands that a journalist use direct quotes from sources that are accurate and complete. With more people using the word nigger, there will be more stories that include it. There is no quicker method a journalist can do to discount the opinions of an under-educated racist than by quoting the person accurately and without using the softening n-word phrase that reduces the impact of the socially taboo word.

Furthermore, sensitivity to community (and personal) standards by journalists prevents many editors from using the words for paraphrased, descriptive, or analytical passages. The n-word phrase is then employed when the voice of the reporter-either in print or broadcast-is intended rather than the direct voice of a source.

Although vile and repulsive, taboo words, because of their immediate impact, rivet our attention to important social situations as sure as any dramatic, spot news photograph. In fact, it can be argued that the word nigger is a much more valuable tool toward societal illumination than the word fuck, at least for the stories found in this study. When stories contain the word fuck or the phrase the f-word, there is almost never an examination of the word's larger societal implications. The focus of the story is on the person saying the word and not on the word itself and its societal impact. Stories in print and broadcast chastise such celebrities as Madonna, Sinead O'Connor, and Dr. Dre and movies such as The Usual Suspects and Four Rooms for using the word fuck, but there is little discussion of the word other than its role as an aid to shock audiences.

However, when nigger is a part of a story, more often than not, the word is within a larger context of racial intolerance by societal institutions such as the military, government, sports, entertainment, education, and politics. For example, in the stories found in this study the word provoked wider discussions of racism on army bases, within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, among football referees, as a topic of rap songs, against an African American valedictorian, and as a part of right-wing politics. The word, then, starts a discussion not keyed so much on the one saying the word, but what the word means within our multicultural society.

However, when the word nigger is altered to a more socially acceptable n-word phrase within a direct quotation so as not to offend-not African Americans-but the large majority of Anglo readers and viewers, the word's power to shock and then teach is lost. Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg made this point when he reported that actor Marlon Brando blamed Jewish movie executives for the use of ethnic stereotypes in motion pictures. On CNN's "Larry King Live," Brando said, "We've seen the nigger, we've seen the greaseball, we've seen the chink, we've seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we've seen the wily Filipino, we've seen everything, but we never saw the kike." In his column critical of local news station coverage, Rosenberg comments:

However, in a bit of selective "political correctness"-a gratuitously overused term that happens to apply in this case-Channel 2 [the Los Angeles CBS affiliate] inexplicably bleeped "nigger" from the CNN footage, while letting the other ethnic slurs stand, as if they were somehow less repugnant./19

Within the broader educational mission of journalism, the word should not be automatically avoided and softened with its n-word counterpart. It is no doubt one of the ugliest words one can use, and as such should be used with caution and after discussion in the newsroom. But if its use teaches all members of society to understand the bite of racism and acknowledge the work that needs to be accomplished to overcome systemic discrimination within societal institutions, its use may be defended and justified.


1/"Some of their best friends," Time, September 25, 1995, p. 24.

/2 See A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed. (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Co., 1967), William and Mary Morris (eds.), Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), T.F. Hoad (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), and Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 2nd ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979). In all four works cited, the word nigger and its definition is included and the word fuck is not present.

/3 In a comedy record recording that became controversial when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sued Pacifica Broadcasting for airing the bit and won with a Supreme Court ruling in 1978, George Carlin accurately predicted the seven words one simply cannot say on television which were: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. See George Carlin.

/4 Jesse Sheidlower (ed.), The F Word, (New York: Random House, 1995), p. ix.

/5 In Sheidlower's book, the definitions of fuck as a noun include "an act of copulation," "a despicable person," and "an evil turn of events;" as an expletive, as a substitute for hell; and as a verb, "to copulate with," "as a way to express dismay," "to harm irreparably," "to botch," and "to trifle, toy, meddle, or interfere," pp. 90-115. In Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 2nd ed., nigger is defined as, "a Negro", "a member of any dark-skinned people," and "a vulgar, offensive term of hostility and contempt, as used by Negrophobes," p. 1211.

/6 Ibid., p. xxi.

/7 See "Janet Redux," (May 20, 1996), Newsweek, p. 81 or tune into the HBO cable show, "Comedy Def Jam" for various examples of the words fuck, nigger, and nigga.

/8 James Frazer, The Golden Bough Part II Taboo and the Perils of the Soul, (London: Macmillan and Co, 1938), pp. x-xv.

/9 Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XIII Totem and Taboo, (London: The Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 18.

/10 Sheidlower, The F Word, p. xxv.

/11 Freud, The Standard Edition, p. 18.

/12 Frazer, The Golden Bough, p. 318.

/13 See Paul Martin Lester, Visual Communication Images with Messages, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995), pp. 61-67.

/14 There are, of course, many other words that have taboo status in various languages. Most computer E-mail systems require a password from a user. Here is a list of words from several languages that cannot be used as passwords with the VMS password program from Bad Passwords: shit, fuk, fuck, assh, hell, cunt, bitch, tits, nigger, fuq, lul, pik, snikkel, kloot, zak, trut, hoer, slet, del, tut, neuk, naai, geil, kezen, stront, kut, trut, flikker, poot, pot, miet, homo, kont, gat, bil, reet, aars, kever, verdomme, balle, djevel, drite, dritt, faen, fan, fanden, fitte, forpult, helvete, jukke, knull, kuk, pikk, promp, pul, pult, rass, ronk, runk, svin, tispe, tiss, puta, putas, poya, poyas, polla, pollas, gilipoyas, gilipollas, capullo, capullos, copon, cagar, mear, pis, mierda, cipote, joder, follar, cagar, marica, pedo, caca, culo, teta, maricon, cojones, picha, mamon, cabron, hostia, and hostias. See also Saul Jerushalmy and Rens Zbignieux, The PC Manifesto Socially Intolerable Words, (PC Words). Their list includes such epithets as: Alky, Babe, Beaner, Belgian-Bastard, Betty, Bimbo, Bitch, Blonde, Broad, Bum, Canuck, Chick, Chink, Coolie, Coon, Commie, Crip, Dego, Dike, Dot-head, Druggie, Fag, Fairy, Four-Eyes, Fudgepacker, Greaser, Hebe, Hippie, Honky, Hooknose, Indian, Injun, Jap, JAP, Jesus-Freak, Kike, Kraut, Lez, Lush, Nazi, Nigger, Nudnick, Pinko, Polock, Raghead, Redneck, Redskin, Retard, Ruskie, Sambo, Skirt, Spic, Spook, Tart, Toots, Uncle Tom, Vegetable, Wetback, Whore, White-Trash, and Wop.

/15 Andrea Ford, "Black Leaders to Honor Darden as Role Model Despite Simpson Case," (December 13, 1995), Los Angeles Times, p. A16.

/16 See the Los Angeles Times and about any other publication on the planet from June, 1994 until October, 1995.

/17 Such variations might include fucker, fucking, fucked, and motherfucker.

/18 See Paul Martin Lester (ed.), Images that Injure Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1996), Paul Martin Lester, "African-American Photo Coverage in Four U.S. Newspapers, 1937-1990," Journalism Quarterly 71/2 (Summer 1994): 380-394, Carolyn Martindale, The White Press and Black America, (NY: Greenwood Press, 1986), and Alice Sentman, "Black and White: Disparity in Coverage by Life Magazine from 1937 to 1972," Journalism Quarterly 60 (Autumn 1983): 501-508.

/19 Howard Rosenberg, "Brand-New Lineup, Same Brand of News," (April 10, 1996), Los Angeles Times, pp. F1, F7, F11.