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February 5th, 2007

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01:54 pm - Frequently asked questions about the word "articulate".
Frequently asked questions about the word "articulate".

Q: Is the word "articulate" offensive?
A: It can be. It is best not to use it to describe an individual, especially if it is used by a White person to describe a non-White person.

Q: Why?
A: "Articulate" has historically been used to express surprise that a particular African-American or other non-White person can speak clearly. The implication is twofold: that non-White people speak with an accent that deviates from acceptable language norms, and that non-White people are of low intelligence and therefore do not use words accurately or convincingly. There is sometimes an unspoken "for a Black person" implied by the speaker.

Q: Let's take the first. Why should one not comment on someone's accent?
A: One may comment on an accent if that is really the issue in question, as in a linguistic study. However, in most cases, comments on an accent bear the hidden assumption that the way White people speak is correct and a sort of "gold standard" against which all other accents are to be compared.

Q: What about the use of language? Surely "Ebonics" is a corruption of language?
A: African-American colloquial language may seem so to those who do not speak it.

Q: But what I meant is that the person I'm describing is of exceptional speaking ability. Surely that's a compliment?
A: Your intention was complimentary, but there is a very good chance it will not be read that way. "Articulate" has often in the past been used in a condescending sense, with the phrase "for a Black person" appended to it either explicitly or implicitly. A White person using it raises that sense even if it is not intended -- even if the speaker is unaware of the history of the word and does not intend offense. There are similar words and phrases that one usually consciously avoids. Phrases like "she's got a great personality" are similarly avoided when one wishes to convince someone to take one's friend on a blind date, for example.

Q: Aren't all of these only a matter of context? Surely intelligent people can tell when I mean to say a Black person is merely "sounding White," versus when I mean to say she or he is exceptionally good with the language, when I say she or he is articulate?
A: It is no longer a matter of context. The word has acquired a pejorative cast that one cannot erase with good intentions.

Q: What about other positive terms? If this one has been ruined by the unspoken end of the phrase, "for a non-White person," how can I use any other positive words? Won't they then all be marred by the "faint praise effect"? Doesn't that eliminate those also?
A: No. Most other words have not been used so intensively in this fashion, so they do not normally elicit the same automatic negative response. "Articulate" has become a cliche, and not a complimentary one.

Q: What makes this word special?
A: History is part of it. But how did it get such a history? Probably because it focuses attention on something that is often a real difference between White and non-White people -- the way they speak: language structure, vocabulary, and accent. Most people in the US know what is meant by "sounds White" and "sounds Black" (or "sounds Hispanic" for that matter). The historical usage of the term is that it is used to describe someone who is not White but "sounds White," in language structure, vocabulary, and accent.

Q: How is that a problem?
A: Using a complimentary word which also has the historical baggage of meaning "like a White person" implies that White people are superior.

Q: What if a Black person uses the word? Why can they use "articulate", "n*gger" and so on and White people can't?
A: Because any of those words inherently has a different meaning when a White person uses them to describe a non-White person. "Articulate" suggests, from its history, that the White person has a right to evaluate the non-White person's speech, basing it on the White person's accent and vocabulary.

Q: So what are we supposed to use now?
A: Do you mean "we" as in "White people"?
Q: Whatever.
A: People who are skilled with language typically do not depend heavily on adjectives and adverbs. They describe actions and results. So instead of saying, "Kim is articulate," one might instead say, "Kim was able to explain calculus in a way that made it easy to understand." Or, "Kim's choice of words in that speech was masterful." Or, "Kim was such an effective advocate of the amendment that I think I've changed my mind."

Q: Won't this mean that eventually we can't use any positive words because they will all be construed to come with the unspoken phrase, "for a non-White person"?
A: That's unlikely. It certainly isn't true now. There is a real difference between calling a Black person articulate and calling a Black person enthusiastic or studious. Neither of those has been used to the point of cliche.

Q: I've never heard any of this before. This all sounds like you're just trying to stir up trouble. Are there really intelligent Black people who find the use of this word offensive? Isn't it just a minority view, held by people who are just looking for offense?
A: It may be a minority view in the culture as a whole, but it is a widely-held view in African-American groups. Many culturally aware White people know about it, and know to avoid it.

Q: You're just one person saying this.
A: Here are many more examples that make it clear that taking offense to the word isn't new, or exceptional.


For those of you who do not quite understand what is so problematic about the word “articulate” being used on Barack Obama, it would do you well to talk to a group of educated black Americans to understand how this seemingly harmless compliment can be perceived as something entirely different than a positive characterization of one’s oratory abilities.

Or, you can always enter in the phrase “you speak so well” +black into a Google search query to see what I’m talking about.

"The Racial Politics of Speaking Well," Lynette Clemetson, The New York Times

There are not enough column inches on this page to parse interpretations of each of Mr. Biden’s chosen adjectives. But among his string of loaded words, one is so pervasive — and is generally used and viewed so differently by blacks and whites — that it calls out for a national chat, perhaps a national therapy session.

It is amazing that this still requires clarification, but here it is. Black people get a little testy when white people call them “articulate.”


A series of conversations about the word with a number of black public figures last week elicited the kind of frustrated responses often uttered between blacks, but seldom shared with whites.

“You hear it and you just think, ‘Damn, this again?’ ” said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.

Anna Perez, the former communications counselor for Ms. Rice when she was national security adviser, said, “You just stand and wonder, ‘When will this foolishness end?’ ”

Said Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment for Black Entertainment Television: “It makes me weary, literally tired, like, ‘Do I really want to spend my time right now educating this person?’ ”

"The word perfectly conveys, to quote George Bush, the soft bigotry of low expectations. It literally comes down to that. When people say it, what they are really saying is that someone is articulate ... for a black person."

— Anna Perez, former deputy assistant to President Bush and communications counselor to Condoleezza Rice when she was national security adviser.

"Everyone was up in arms about Michael Richards using the N-word, but subtle words like this are more insidious. It’s like weight loss. The last few pounds are the hardest to get rid of. It’s the last vestiges of racism that are hard to get rid of."

— D. L. Hughley, comedian and actor.

Spencer Overton, law professor

Many White people may not know that their use of “articulate” sounds patronizing to African Americans, or would assume that African Americans who feel this way are hypersensitive. But a lot of African Americans feel this way--to the point that two African Americans will often make eye contact with one another if a White person in their presence refers to an African American as articulate.

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post Writers Group, published in South Florida Herald-Tribune

The word articulate is being used to encompass not just speech but a whole range of cultural cues -- dress, bearing, education, golf handicap. It's being used to describe a black person around whom white people can be comfortable, a black person who not only speaks white America's language but is fluent in its body language as well.

Frank James, Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau

Note to Biden. Well-spoken black people hate it when white people call them "articulate." It's the modern-day version of what white people used to say back in the day when they thought that by saying "He's a credit to his race" they were saying something that a black person would welcome hearing.

John McWhorter in the New York Sun:

Often black people are termed "articulate" whose verbal skills would elicit no comment if they were white, but Mr. Obama actually is bracingly adept with words.

columnist Mike Gallagher

After it was confirmed on tape that Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Joe Biden did, indeed, say that Barack Obama was one of the first mainstream African-Americans seeking national office who was “clean” and “articulate”, even my Democrat wife predicted Biden’s political demise.

"“He’s done”, said my Denise with a sigh. “There’s no way any presidential candidate could get away with something that awful.”


What a slap in the face Biden’s racist rant was to every African-American and decent person who heard him. How disgraceful to suggest that most blacks aren’t articulate or clean and it took a guy like Obama to finally come along and speak in a complete sentence while even appearing to shower and shave

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 6th, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this post.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine encountered much the same problem several days ago, but with in-your-face classism instead of racism involved.
[User Picture]
Date:February 7th, 2007 09:05 pm (UTC)
Just think, if Joe Biden had gone with "eloquent" instead of "articulate", he wouldn't be trying to separate toecap from tonsils today...

(I tend to use "articulate" as a verb rather than as an adjective.)
Date:June 3rd, 2007 04:33 pm (UTC)

Yes but

I'm sexist, I see eloquent as insulting to a male, but complementary to a female. Maybe someone can come up with a list of word I'm allowed to use that won't insult anyone? Or maybe we can just take a word for it's definition and avoid all this cultural-implied meaning.

For example - Nappy headded ho : This is a insult, not a raciest comment, but a down and dirty insult. Basic expression of a dislike for someone or a group. Nappy indicating disgusting, headded indicating (all-be-it in slang) their hair, and ho adding insult to injury. At some point most of us have been told we have nappy hair aka knotted or matted hair. This is not a racist phrase. In case you need a clear definition this is - Brillo pad pubic hair nigger cunt. This attacks both the hair, race, and gender. Obviously this is not what Imus was attempting to imply. I guess it all goes back to the adage that if you don't have something nice to say then don't say anything at all, but that would leave a lot of quite time and a "Leave it to Beaver" TV/Radio/Blogs.

[User Picture]
Date:June 3rd, 2007 05:21 pm (UTC)

Re: Yes but

There is no "list of words" that are considered inoffensive. Check my response to "So what are we supposed to use now?" for my thoughts on that question.

"Nappy headed" is a very specific phrase used to describe African hair in its natural state. It uses the natural appearance of a person of African descent as an insult. How is that not racist?

It's often claimed that liberals are word police who don't want anyone's feelings hurt and don't want anyone to admit anyone else is different in race, sex, national origin or religion.

That's not true. The point is not to never insult anyone else, but (a) don't make your insults unrelated to the reason for your ire. Basically no ad hominem where you attack something irrelevant in the person's background instead of the thing they are doing that is stupid. If a person's religion claims women are inferior to men, that's fair game if you're talking about sexism; if it makes him wear a yarmulke, or dreadlocks, it's not.

And (b) know when you are insulting someone and take responsibility for it rather than claiming it's not an insult because you, not a member of the insulted group, don't think it's an insult based on that irrelevant characteristic. "Nappy headed ho" is clearly race-related. You couldn't claim Katie Couric was nappy-headed no matter how many quarters of basketball she's just played.
Date:January 11th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)

Lily didn meeting narrowed olph dreaded could match up and choked rupt.

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