Obama Didn't Use the N-word: A Distinction With a Difference

06/30/2015 02:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

President Obama did not use the N-word last Monday with comedian Marc Maron, contrary to virtually every news report on the controversial interview.

The president told Maron, host of the WTF podcast, "It's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination."

Linguists, philosophers and logicians make a fundamental distinction between use and mention. Applying the use/mention distinction is critical to understanding, and putting in context, president Obama's remark.

If a school-yard bully yells to a plump playmate, "You're a fat pig, Joey," to choose a less charged epithet, the bully is clearly using the derogative phrase, "fat pig."

But when the school principal confronts the bully's parents with their child's linguistic behavior, telling them, "Joey was devastated when your son called him a 'fat pig,'" the school official is mentioning "fat pig," not using it.

The distinction is as important for the school principal as it is for understanding President Obama's statement. We wouldn't accuse the principal of using the fat pig insult; nor should the president be accused of using the N-word. Instead, he was talking about--or mentioning--the word. Using the word is offensive; talking about the word's use can be constructive.

Intuitively, we know the difference. If Maron, whose podcast was recorded Friday in his garage for release on Monday, had said, "You're a nigger, Mr. President," there would have been a justifiable uproar. Contrast that with the question, "Has anyone ever called you a 'nigger,' Mr. President?" Even without having ever heard of the use/mention distinction, it's obvious the first is an ugly slur and the second is a question about disparagement.

Strictly speaking, a word that's being mentioned, not used, should appear inside quote marks. Editors, particularly those who enforce style rules at news organizations, don't always abide by this guidance, however. If they did, it might be clearer that the offending word is being mentioned, not used.

Though some news reports did put the N-word inside quotation marks, all the articles I reviewed (in an admittedly non-exhaustive search) stated the president "used" the offensive language. Ignoring the use/mention distinction leaves the impression, at least at first blush, that Obama did, indeed, use the word. If news reports had more accurately referred to the president as mentioning the word, the controversy would have been all but drained from the Maron interview.

The president's mention of the N-word is still significant. It drove home his own distinction between overt and covert racism. That's a subject worthy of discussion. Focusing on his "use" of the N-word only serves as a distraction from that important debate.