“The Meanings of a Word” Discussion

Period 3:

Log in and reply to THREE questions about Gloria Naylor’s “The Meanings of a Word.” Be sure to use text to support your claims, and develop your ideas in a full paragraph each. Also, to ensure your comment falls under the correct question, hit “Reply” in the question comment itself, not on the main post. Responses due by Tuesday 7:00 a.m.


66 thoughts on ““The Meanings of a Word” Discussion

    • Naylor’s thesis is “Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives the true power” (487). Innocuous means harmless, and consensus is an opinion determined by a group of people. As you read the essay, naylor goes on to talk about how the n-word haad multiple meanings decided by the community. She explains how it went from a negative term to an everyday colloquial expression.

    • At the end of her second paragraph, Naylor states her thesis: “words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.” Words are innocuous, or harmless. How could a little bit of warm air hurt anybody? The entire essay connects back to how connotations and how people view a word give it its power, making this quotation the thesis. A large majority of the article is explaining how her family gave the word “nigger” different connotations than English speakers as a whole. By “meeting the word head-on, they proved it had absolutely nothing to do with the way they were determined to live their lives.” The word, just that little bit of warm air, has been built up and up over the past 4 centuries. It makes women gasp and men stumble over their words– it’s a powerful word. But by giving it a different sort of connotation, her family took that power away. The whole essay is concerned with discussing the ideas of a word and its power through connotations, making this the thesis.

    • Naylor’s thesis comes at the end of her second paragraph: “Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.” What she is saying here is words are basically harmless, but once the general public agrees on a negative use, the word gains power that can be used to hurt others. I know this is her thesis because from here on out, her essay is focused on the negative and positive uses of the n-word and how they effect different people in society.
      Freddy Lienhard, Period 3

    • I agree with the other’s that the thesis in Naylor’s essay is “Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.” Naylor is stating here that words, by themselves, are innocent and harmless. Words themselves are not what hurts peoples’ feelings or what gets people into trouble. The second part of this these is saying that the surrounding context is what makes words harmful. Consensus means general agreement or majority of opinion; Naylor is saying that the power of words comes from people agreeing on its connotation or the effect it can cause. We know this is the essay because it is at the end of the paragraph, and it is what the rest of the writing talks about. She goes on to state that the discusses word is harmless, but it becomes dangerous when it is used in certain ways and by certain people.

    • Naylor’s thesis is “words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.” you know this becuase in the following paragraphs, Naylor writes about the connotions that come with the n-word. She gives both the positive and negative connotaions from when she herd it at home to when the little boy in her class called her that. She gives her claim and gives evidence to back it up and thats why the reader knows that it is her thesis.

  1. 2. If you were asked to divide this essay into three sections, where would you divide it? Why? What is Naylor doing in each section? How do these “sections” contribute to her thesis?

    • I would divide this essay into the following 3 sections: the introduction, ending with the sentence “words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power”, the anecdotal explanation, ending with Naylor’s analysis of the word “girl,” and the full circle conclusion, beginning with “so there must have been…”.
      I would divide it like this because Naylor makes a major shift in each spot mentioned above. After the 3rd paragraph, Naylor shifts from a general introduction to a specific, anecdotal example. After the 2nd to last paragraph, Naylor goes back full circle to the first part of her anecdote, which was another major shift. The text in between was her examples of how she had heard the word “nigger” used. All of these sections contribute to her thesis by 1) introducing the general topic, 2) giving multiple, specific examples of the different usages of a word, and 3) bringing the essay back to the beginning to conclude in a clear fashion.

  2. 3. In her first two paragraphs, Naylor discusses language in the abstract. How are these paragraphs connected to her stories about the ‘n-word’? Why do you think she begins the essay this way? Is the introduction effective or not? Explain.

    • First off, I think her introduction is effective. I think that she begins her essay this way because she wants the reader to begin connecting words to their connotations. These two paragraphs are connected to her anecdotes because naylor is explaining how language or words, like the “n-word”, can “amount to a non sensical arrangement of sounds or letters without a consensus that assigns meaning.”

    • The first two paragraphs are like her stories about said ‘n-word’ in that they are abstract and random. The first two paragraphs seem completely unrelated and random; the stories about times when the ‘n-word’ was used are chosen at random and seem to be arbitrarily chosen from her memory. I think she begins the essay this way because it is an extremely effective technique for her. It draws the reader in. Also, it works as a sort of background for words in general and provides the reader with a brief understanding of language.

    • The introduction establishes what this word is in the real world. She wants you to harvest ideas and images that you establish with the word. It also sets you up to understand that this isn’t how she has always interpreted the word. This is effective because it brings all of your connotations with the n-word to the forefront of your mind before naylor cracks down and telss you how it actually is.

    • The “chicken and egg dispute” is in reference to the old question, “which came first: the chicken or the egg”? She uses this analogy because we all know that the chicken and egg question is virtually unanswerable. Because it is a pointless question, she uses this to put the debate over “whether it is language that shapes reality or vice versa” into perspective. This analogy is used to show how pointless the aforementioned debate really is.

    • Naylor’s “chicken and the egg dispute” is an analogy for whether “language shapes reality, or vise versa.” People are so firm on their answeres and reasons that the debate can go on forever, and even if someone switches their view, the debate is never over. She says that she doesn’t want to get into a debate because her essay isnot a debate and is about her idea

    • The “chicken and egg dispute” is a reference to the ongoing debate of “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” This “debate” is probably both the most well known and pointless argument known to man. That’s why she uses it as a comparison to the argument of whether language shapes reality or visa versa. She’s calling that argument pointless, just like the chicken and the egg dispute.

    • The dispute she is referencing it “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” Naylor uses this analogy as a way of explaining that there is an argument for both sides, and the argument will never end. One could pose a case for language shaping reality as well as a case for reality shaping language, and this is a circular dispute as well. In the end both debates will leave the question unanswered.

    • The “chicken and egg dispute” is an argument that has become famous for not having a correct answer. Both sides have their opinions, but, because there is no way to prove either one correct, the dispute never ends. Naylor uses this analogy to establish that what she is about to discuss is not meant to be like the “chicken and egg” argument; she “will simply take the position of the spoken word.”

      • The “chicken and egg dispute” is a reference to the ongoing question of “what came first, the chicken or the egg?”. Naylor uses this because when she says that language “shapes reality or vice versa” because she is comparing both statements she is insisting that the answer will really depend on the person and no matter the actual answer there will always be multiple opinions.

  3. 5. In paragraph 15, Naylor says that although the ‘N-word’ had been used in her presence many times, she didn’t really “hear” the word until a mean little boy said it. How do you explain this contradiction/paradox?

    • When Naylor said that she never “[heard]” the n-word until that point in her life, she means that she never understood its true meaning. For Naylor, that word held different connotations that were much less harmless than the intended use of the derogatory term. So she had heard it, but she didn’t truly understand what came with the n-word.

    • Gloria had heard this word many times in her life before the little boy, but the little boy used this word so differently that Gloria did not recognize the little boy’s intentions. The way Gloria’s family uses the word relates to how the boy uses the word as being called a “little piggy” by one’s family would relate to a stranger calling someone a “little piggy.” It is the same word. When we grow up around a word, we acknowledge the word as having only meaning: the meaning we know.

    • She means that although she had heard the word before, she had thought nothing of it because when she had heard it at home, it had a positive connotation, but when the mean little boy said it, she finally realized that it can also be used as an insult.

    • She’s saying there is two versions of the word. The version she heard growing up isn’t the n-word our country thinks of. They are so oppositely connotated that they’re not even the same word anymore. She didn’t hear the well known version of the n-word until she was in school.

    • What Naylor means is that she heard the “outer shell” of the word, but not the deeper meaning. The ‘N-word’ was used as a label to alienate the black race. “But I didn’t “hear” it until it was said by a small pair of lips that had already learned it could be a way to humiliate me”(paragraph 15). Growing up, Naylor only heard the n-word in the context that the balck race put it in. And all those contexts were not degrading to the person receiving the tag. Because the context was negative, Naylor heard the deeper meaning of the word.
      – Grace O’Reilly 3rd

    • Naylor is stating not that she never literally heard the word, but rather that she never knew that the word could have negative connotations. Hearing it around her home, she knew it had to be a good thing. So she most likely absorbed the word without worrying about what it meant, and most likely used it herself every so often. Perhaps she even thought it was a word only her family used. But once she heard the tone of the word from a new speaker, everything changed. Naylor is expressing the powers of tone, context, and voice by offering this anecdote.

    • Naylor had obviously heard the word many times, but when a little boy used the word with a tone and connotation that naylor did not recognize she knew she didn’t know the other meaning of the word. In paragraph 6 naylor explains who the word could be applied to: “distinguished man, approval for strength, intelligence, or drive.” Naylor knew that the word she was soused to hearing with positivity, could also be used offensively.

    • She hadn’t “heard” the n-word before the boy said it to her because the people who had said it in front of her before then had said it in different connotations and tones. The “small pair of lips” had said it to her in a nasty tone, degrading, and that has a negative connotation. Hearing it in her grandma’s home, the n-word always had a positive connotation, therefore it has a totally different meaning.

      • What Naylor means by saying that she didn’t “hear” the n-word is that that was the moment she can first recall as having heard it. It’s like having a first recollection of a best friend: they’ve been there for years, but your first memory of them may be months after you actually met them. That is simply the first moment where she recognizes having heard the word.

    • Naylor is not saying that she never heard the word, but rather that it never registered in her mind as a word she was hearing over and over. The word never seemed significant in her mind until it was being used in an insult. This moment sort of relates back to question 1 in that words are harmless until the context gives them power. She had heard the word before at home, but it didn’t have much effect to it so it didn’t seem like an important piece of her vocabulary. When she hears it from the boy, it sounds different and has different connotations/meaning so she recognizes it as a ‘new’ word.

    • Naylor only really heard the n-word for the first time when it was used in a negative connotation. She was able to “hear” it becuase it was used out of the contex that she was so used to hearing. She explains that ” the word had always applied to a man who had distinguised himself in some situation that brought their approval of his strength, intelligence, or drive” since she knew (being the smart child that she later claimed herself to be) that the little boy was not
      using the word the way she had always herd it be used. She also really “herd” it becuase she goes on to explain on how the little boy “spit” the word out to her. She paints a picture in the readers head of her being an innocent child that has never really “herd” the word before and that the little boy had an agressive demeanor towords her.

    • Naylor had previously only heard the n-word around her family who use it completely different than those who are trying to degrade her and her ethnicity. They use it in a way that is light, while others use it harshly and with a purpose of hurting someone. When she heard the word come from the boy she saw the other side of the word and the bad connotations that the boy has put with it. Because of the context she was able to see that the boy was trying to hurt her.

    • The word had never had the power when she heard it in the past. Previously it had been another boring noun she’d heard in passing, but suddenly when it is used to insult her she hears the power, the hate, that the word holds. It is not the word that hurts but the connotation, the meaning, the intent behind it.

    • One must know the definitions of these words before she can associate connotations. Once the definitions are learned, one notices that these words, characteristics, are not something they would want to be labeled as; thus, these two words are negatively connoted. Naylor uses these two “n-words” for multiple reasons. One reason being that when someone says “n-word,” it could mean a variety of things. Another reason Naylor employs these words is because they are not words a typical elementary school girl would know–good grief, most high schoolers don’t know these words! She selected these words out of many to emphasize that she did not understand what the little boy was calling her.

    • Nymphomaniac and necrophiliac imply in paragraph three a negative connotation. These words are used to insult someone just as the n-word was used in Naylor’s case. Naylor employs these words to show how completely baffled she is by the n-word, as many people are of nymphomaniac or necrophiliac, “I couldn’t have been more puzzled.” These words build an analogy for the reader to show how foreign the n-word is to her.

    • Nymphomaniac and Necrophiliac both have negative connotations and they are very strong words. She employs these to explain her confusion about the meaning of the n-word, as a third grader. If a third grader saw these words they wouldn’t understand what they meant, but as an adult the meanings are understood.

    • I agree with what has already been said about the connotation of “nymphomaniac” and “necrophilliac” being strongly negative connotated words that no one would like to be called. She was young when she was first called the n-word negatively, and so she uses the two words to help support and illustrate her confusion that she experienced at the time. At that time, those words would have been just as strange and foreign to her since she grew up always experiencing the positively connotated n-word.

    • In paragraph 3, Naylor uses the single dash to add emphasis to the “inevitable question that every black parent must face.” She does not use any other punctuation within this sentence besides the dash, which created a suspense in the beginning of the sentence. Then the dash causes the question at the end to have a great effect.
      In paragraph 5, Naylor uses the double dash to insert an explanation. She describes the “clamor” that could be heard within her living room on the weekends.
      In paragraph 8, Naylor uses the double dash to add emphasis to a list of negatively connoted experiences some African Americans had to go through. The long pauses the double dash creates gives the sentence within them a much greater effect.

    • In paragraph 7, Naylor explains the uses of the n-word and gives examples. She applies the double dash to set off the quoted phrase, “‘my n-word'” she then goes on to interpret how it can be used as “a term of endearment” for a woman’s husband or boyfriend. The dashes stop the reader in his/her tracks and flash the phrase in a way that cannot be missed. The effect is more dynamic then if the author were to use commas.
      Continuing in paragraph 7, Naylor wields another dash to explain how the n-word is utilized differently. This dash interrupts the flow of the sentence to redirect the reader deeper into the origins of this word, “a disembodied force that channeled their past history of struggle and present survival against the odds into a victorious statement of being.” This dash grabs the readers attention and demands the spotlight. It draws the focus of the reader to the statement following it.

    • In paragraph three, Naylor uses the single dash to push the “inevitable question” into the spotlight. It also acts like a colon in this example. The dash acts like a beacon telling everyone to listen to the question that is asked.
      In paragraph five, the dash is employed to further explain the “deafening proportions” the clamor would reach. Because the explanation is not relevent to her point, the dash is used.

    • When Naylor is recalling her third grade year, she remembers receiving a higher score on a test than the boy behind her. Naylor shows the audience the boys anger through diction such as “snatched” and “spit out.” Naylor knows–from the boys actions, his tone, and quite possibly the look on his face–that this boy was not setting out to compliment her. Naylor then knows that the word the boy used was not meant to flatter her. He was insulting her.

    • She uses “Snatched” and “Spit out” to show that he is obviously angry that he had received a lower test score than herself. He probably had a look of anger and disgust on his face as well which probably helped her get it that he wasn’t complementing her

    • Naylor knows that the boy said a derogatory word to her because of his actions and the scenario. When she “once again” rubs in that she beat him, he “snatched his test” and “spit” out the word. when the word “spit” comes to mind i think of a snake or a mean creature. Thesse loaded words help set the hostile tone.

    • When Naylor uses diction such as “spit out” and “snatched,” it implies that the boy was not being friendly. These actions are negatively thought of, so the word he used is also negatively connotated. Because the boy “snatched” the paper out of her hand, the word that came next was an insult instead of an uplifting word.

    • There are many words Naylor uses to express the wrongfulness of the word coming from the boy’s mouth. She sets up the negativity of the scene by telling the reader the boy “snatched his test” then “spit out that word.” Snatched could be used positively in some cases, but spit is definitely a negatively connoted word. She then goes on to explain how she didn’t know what a “n—er” was, but she knew “it was something he shouldn’t have called [her].” The tone and speaker of the word made young Nacny know the word she was called was not a word the boy should have used.

    • To set up a negative connotation for ‘nigger,’ Naylor uses specialty diction. First off, she establishes that she received a better grade than the boy in her class, which makes us wary of his mood. Then, she uses negative words like “snatched” and “spit out” to finish making it a bad word.

    • The diction choices, that are used to show Naylor that the n-word is a bad word, used are the little boy “snatched” back his test paper and that he “spit” the word out to her. She sets the reader up to image an innocent child being agressivly told a bad word. She later goes on to explain that ” watched the teacher scold him for using a “bad” word.” The diction choices that Naylor used tend to have a negative connotation attached to them and that is why they contribute to Naylor knowing that the way the little boy using the n-word was bad.

    • Naylor knows that the ‘n-word’ is so bad because of the words associated around it. When the author used words like “spit out” you can imagine the anger the boy had. As well as the disrespect that was given to Naylor. She realizes this boy was being rude, she was well aware he was not complimenting her despite not knowing the word because of his tone and diction.

    • Naylor uses a book ending effect in the last two sentences. She goes back to her anecdote in the very beginning of the passage. The effect of ending on this idea is that was the first time Naylor started to understand that words have many different connotations and meanings when used in different contexts.

    • Naylor uses the skill of bookending. By using the image, “And since she knew that I had to grow up in America, she took me in her lap and explained,” Naylor takes the reader back to the beginning of the story and reminds us of where the subject of the n-word came up in the first place. The sentences also gives a personal touch–Naylor climbing into her mom’s lap– which helps tie into how naive Naylor was to the n-word.

    • Naylor bookends her essay by returning to her anecdote at the beginning of the essay, “It is the written form with which I’ve managed to keep the wolf away from the door and, in diaries, to keep my sanity,” and ending with another personal account between her mother and herself, “That was the word I went home and asked my mother about.” She ends on the idea that words can have multiple connotations, and be listened to a hundred times. However, under different conditions and how it is manipulated it could be the word that has a eternal effect on you.

    • Naylor bookends these final two sentences with her original anecdote. Bookending her writing causes the reader to look back at the beginning and read–and imagine–the problems that her and her family would face. This is also a conclusive statement that aknowledges that Naylor understands that words can mean different things.

    • Naylor decides to end her essay using a book ending because it is her way of sending imagery to the reader. When Naylor says, “And she knew I had to grow up in America,” the reader gets the image that America is a harsh place for colored people: racism discrimination, and separation being all major factors. Naylor relates back to her first paragraph with the anecdote to let the reader know that words can have different connotations. Sometimes people have to find out the connotations to words in different ways, like Naylor did.

    • Naylor bookends with her original idea, which is important in this text especially because, although it is connected and flows smoothly, there is a lot of information given by the author. Book ending in this text allows the text to connect back and have a sense of completeness. She connects them by setting up in the beginning for her statements about her confusion and what she learned, and in the end by coming to the conclusion that words can mean different things.

    • Both pieces are in first person, explain a word or words that have affected their love of writing, and dig deep into the connotations and meanings of the words they are written about.
      Naylor’s piece of writing is much different from Mairs, because it is based on a circumstance she experienced when she was in third grade, and how she began to understand that words had different meanings/connotations than the ones she had learned at home from her family.
      Mairs’s passage is very personal compared to Naylor’s, for Mair is explaining the words people use to name her imperfections. Also, Mair speaks directly to the reader a few times in her writing, but Naylor does not.

    • Well both pieces are told from a personal stand point, “I remember the first time I heard the word nigger”(The meaning of a Word, paragraph 3), and “I am cripple”(Cripple, paragraph 1). They both come to terms with the words used against them, “Moreover, I use them myself”(Cripple, paragraph 3), and “And since she knew that I had to grow up in America, she took me in her lap and esplained”(The Meaning of a Word, paragraph 15). A difference in the two are, “Cripple” uses many words that describe one thing, and “The Meaning of Words” uses one word that has many different definitions.

    • I agree with what Mariah and Grace have said about the similarities and differences between the two texts. Mairs is more focused on a very specific term that she wants to be called and her reasonings for it, whereas Naylor’s is more focused on a word that she does not want to be referred to as. Both authors include personal accounts to help set the tone of their anger or how upset they are about the issue and to allow the reader to relate in a closer way, as everyone likely encountered rude children in the third grade or being called an unpleasant name. Naylor includes a lot more detail than Mair in her essay, but Mair’s is relatively short in comparison and has a very abrupt tone to it, leaving the reader with the impression that she really couldn’t care less about what people think of her.

      • Both pieces take a word with negative connotation and redefine them to how they see the word. They establish how the word applies to them and how they interrpret it. Naylor has the intent to show that it is not words that hold power, words are flimsy and their meanings change, it is the intent behind the word that is powerful. Cripple is more personal, focused on how she uses the word not how other people use it, she talks about what the word means just to her.

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