The evolving controversy over the Washington NFL team’s name has prompted several local news organizations — the Washington City Paper, Slate, Capital News Service, the New Republic and The Post’s editorial board, among them — to stop using the term “Redskins.”
“While we wait for the National Football League to catch up with thoughtful opinion and common decency, we have decided that, except when it is essential for clarity or effect, we will no longer use the slur ourselves,” the editorial board wrote last August.
The recent revelation from the American Copy Editors Society that experts are considering the term’s place in the 2015 AP Stylebook may precipitate further change in common usage. Meanings evolve, after all. What’s considered acceptable in one era may not be in another. And the Associated Press has the reach to influence English-language readers worldwide.
That evolution in “thoughtful opinion and common decency” runs parallel to an ongoing legal debate — over the trickier question of whether the Redskins trademark was disparaging when it was first registered in 1967 and in subsequent years and thus violated the federal trademark statute known as the Lanham Act.
Last June, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled in the Native Americans’ favor, stripping the team of federal protections for six of its trademarks. The team filed an appeal — hoping to overturn the TTAB ruling just as it succeeded in overturning the board’s 1999 ruling in a similar case, arguing that that the TTAB “ignored both federal case law and the weight of the evidence.”
These days, the language debate is taking place on a new playing field though, according to Geoffrey Nunberg, the pro bono linguistics expert for the Native Americans. Not because public opinion has changed (that shouldn’t affect how linguists assess 1967 usage), but because linguistic science has changed.
In the 1990s, when Nunberg signed up to work on the issue, he used “the kind of evidence that lexicographers rely on when they’re compiling dictionaries” to figure out how people used the term “redskins” back in the late ’60s and what they said about it. Now, with tools such as Google Books and the Google N-gram tool, linguists can bring big data to bear on such questions of historic usage and meaning.
Being able to pull “humungous amounts of data” has given him “a better understanding” of how the word was used, says Nunberg, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and regular contributor to NPR’s Fresh Air.
The old, lexicographic approach involved combing fictional and nonfictional writings from which Nunberg concluded the term was used “in contexts suggesting savagery, violence, and racial inferiority,” as well as documenting many negative references in movies. “The 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica said that ‘redskin,’ was ‘not in good repute’,” Nunberg reports.
Contrast that kind of anecdotal approach to the big data Nunberg says he used when he prepared a 65-page report in response to the NFL team’s appeal of last year’s TTAB decision.
Nunberg drew, for example, on newspaperarchive.com — data from 6,200 U.S. newspapers from 50 states — to show that between 1920 and 1979 the term “redskin” is far more likely than “Indian” to be linked with adjectives that have negative connotations such as “savage” “bloodthirsty” and “marauding” and less likely than Indian to be modified by adjectives such as “loyal” or “friendly.”
He provides a basic quantitative analysis:
“For every ‘friendly redskin,’ there are 289 references to ‘friendly Indian’,” Nunberg writes in the report. “But for every
‘pesky/wily/crafty redskin’ there are only 4.5 references to ‘pesky/wily/crafty Indian’.”
He crosschecked these results using the Google N-grams tool to demonstrate that while the frequency of “friendly Indian” and “hostile Indian” remained close over the last 160 years, “hostile redskin” has been far more frequent than “friendly redskin.”
Nunberg believes his “argument is much stronger now because you have this huge database.” Such a statistical approach also removes an element of emotion from the discussion.
It’s not as if people think, “I want to evoke savagery so I’ll say ‘redskins’ rather than ‘Indians,” says Nunberg, who is something of an expert on insults, having written a book titled “Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years”
“Racist usage isn’t usually a deliberate choice, just an unreflecting habit of mind.”