An American radio host has been fired after only 2 weeks in his job, for an alleged racial slur against Condoleezza Rice. In today's Guardian it's reported that the presenter used the word "coon" when he claimed he meant to say "coup". So was this a genuine mistake for which he should be forgiven, or a deliberate dig at an African-American politician?
Looking at the word "coon" itself tells us quite a bit about the origins of racist terms used to label Black people in America. According to etymology online, the word "coon" is derived from a "barracoos", buildings constructed to house slaves. Looking at other terms like "nigger" and "negro" tells us a great deal about the historical roots of racism and the shifts in semantics many words go through over time.
You could do worse than look at this link from Ferris University which offers a history and wide-ranging discussion of the word "nigger".
Given the sordid and shameful origins of many of these offensive words, is it therefore fair to castigate someone who uses them, regardless of their supposed intentions, or should we look at the intent behind a word's use before criticising? The case of the Leeds University lecturer, Frank Ellis who (it is claimed) believes white people are more intelligent than black people, and that the BNP are "too socialist", perhaps underlines this problem. His views are probably much more offensive to most people than what might have been an unintended slip of the tongue from the American radio host, but they are couched in a more academic language and avoid the crass shock value of racist epithets. Perhaps this makes his views more dangerous?
This takes us into more theoretical areas of language and thought, which can be explored by looking at theories such as linguistic relativism and linguistic determinism, as well as the whole PC debate.
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates