It was around Christmas of 1993 when the niece of attorney Roy Miller from Macon, Georgia was given the new edition of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary. But by March the following year when Miller visited his 13-year-old niece, he realized she looked “sad” and “depressed”. She told him that she didn’t want the dictionary anymore.
Knowing how excited she was when she first received the dictionary bought from a grocery store in Macon, Georgia, Miller was shocked by her change of attitude, so he was determined to know why. His niece told him that she wasn’t comfortable with the definition of the N-word.
The Funk & Wagnalls dictionary’s definition of the N-word was: “nigger n. A negro or member of any dark-skinned people; a vulgar and offensive term (See Negro).”
“When I read the definition, I was outraged. I immediately realized that the old definition that applied the N-word to any race had changed,” Miller said, according to Black News. “The change only gave a description, not a definition. It merely suggested to the reader that if you don’t know what a Nigger is, just look at a Negro or dark-skinned person and you’ll find out.”
“This definition could never apply to an innocent Black child,” he continued. “The term ‘nigger’ had belittled and confused my niece, causing her to question her identity. I asked myself how Funk & Wagnalls could justify in its 1993 edition that whatever vulgar and offensive things that niggers are supposedly known to do could only apply to a Negro or dark-skinned person (including an innocent Black child).”
Miller, who was all for justice and racial equality, went on to ask several of his Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian friends what they thought of the definition, and they all agreed that it is “degrading.” The Black attorney subsequently wrote to Funk & Wagnall on March 17, 1994, stating why the word should be removed. He outlined the negative impact of the word, particularly on children – not only Black children but children of all races.
“Why confuse a child of any color with this definition? Children are pure at heart and not responsible for bad relationships of the past. No child should ever have to wonder whether or not he or she is a nigger,” the attorney would later explain his position.
A few weeks after writing to Funk & Wagnall, Leon L. Bram, Vice President & Editorial Director, replied in a letter dated March 31, 1994, stating that the word would be deleted from all forthcoming printings. “Mr. Miller, your niece is fortunate in having an uncle as concerned and caring as you,” he wrote.
That year, Miller, who was also a professional solo R&B and gospel recording artist, made headlines not for his music, but for the fact that he had succeeded in getting rid of the infamous N-word slur from a major dictionary. His feat was reported in the May 1994 edition of Macon, GA.
The N-word to date is seen as the “filthiest” and “dirtiest” word in the English language. It can be traced back in history to slavery. “It’s really tied into the idea that African people aren’t really human beings,” Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, was quoted by the BBC in 2020.
“They were more like an animal than a human being, a beast of burden, could be bought and sold, could be thrown overboard ships and literally had no rights.
“So when the N-word is used that’s essentially what it’s used for.”