JF Ptak Science Books Post 1483
The history of the power of words is long and complex, and for the most part is on one side or the other of the political and social mirror, at least in the United States. Controlling the meaning of a word or phrase controls the idea which alters the way people approach it, defining the very heart of what may control the impulse for war or peace, which means that people may die as much for words as they will for ideas.
Sometimes the idea of control is even simpler than the word—it may be a simple letter.
Like the letter “N”.
Since the American Civil War (now in its 150th year as of last month) when the use of the word “Negro” was used to describe African Americans, it appeared in print overwhelmingly with a small “n”. The idea was simple—to use a capital “N” would give a certain amount of respect and social diligence in referring to this race of people with a proper salutation; the small “n” minimized all of that, a symbol that these people were not worthy of having the initial letter of their race capitalized, and that because of their inferiority.
This was also the case with the word “Colored”, which was used in the decades before the Civil War and then lightly after that, giving way to for a short time to “Freedman” and then Negro--”Colored” appeared in print as “colored” in the vast majority of times.
The capital N was a rallying point, a common point of singularity for a large percentage of the Black population in the U.S.--and a very tiny percentage of the White population. We can deduce this because major papers such as the New York Times did not adopt a policy of using the capital “N” until 1930. And as a matter of fact the federal government documents printed “negro” small “n” beyond 1930, even though heavily lobbied to use the more enlightened and respectful “Negro”. The issue was evidently sidestepped throughout the Hoover administration.
There was in the country a racism so entrenched and engrained that African Americans were seen as being wholly unworthy of being dignified with a capital “N”, and it was the natural way of things. As the editor of the Eatonton, Georgia, newspaper Messenger said when asked about the capitalization issue, that he would not be a party to it, because “it would lead to social equality."
And that's just what everyone ws trying to avoid. And like the federal government, the control of the capital “N” extended into historical control as well. When W.E.B. DuBois wrote an article for the venerable American Historical Review, the editor, J. Franklin Jameson, refused to allow the use of DuBois' capitalized “Negro”. As the editor of the Dictionary of American Biography, Jameson refused the capital “N” in the publication until it was terminally embarrassed into doing so, in 1937.
And so it goes, 60 or 70 years of fighting for the minimum respect of capitalization.
And this doesn't even address the use of the reviled “n” word, which is a story unto itself. And in which there was also debate over the years as to whether or not that be capitalized.
The major source of the information in this post comes the fantastic article by Donald L Grant (12/01/1975). "Some Notes on the Capital \"N\"", Phylon (0031-8906), 36 (4), p. 435, who did a splendid job of research. There's also a bit of memory pulled from H.L. Mencken's The American Language (4th edition), which was clear and concise, even though Mr. M. had a small social problem here and there with minorities. It must be said in his defense that the magazine he edited, The American Mercury, "always" used the capital N.