During a regular three-hour daily talk show on ABC's Phoenix radio affiliate in the 1990s, I was dwelling on the stinginess of some government program that I called "niggardly," a perfectly suitable word to describe petty frugality.
The station's switchboard instantly lit up. Incensed listeners thought they'd heard the sound-alike N-word that is considered racist when spoken by a white.
But it's acceptable when used by a black. Consider a recent column by Bob Herbert, a New York Times African-American writer, commenting on "a depressing cultural illness, frequently fatal, that has spread unchecked through much of black America (involving) people who are laid low by this illness ... (who) refer to themselves in the vilest terms (such as) niggers, whores, etc. ..."
Comedian and social activist Bill Cosby also has remonstrated black Americans for their self-reference as "niggers."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also has run up against this prohibition of one ethic group using words that another ethnic group might consider insensitive or racist or demeaning.
He referred to a female Hispanic politician as "hot," a word once applied to temperature, a wildly successful product ("hot item") or star quality performer ("hot newcomer"), but now has been recast as an insinuating sexual idiom ("she's hot"). Arnie apologized.
Yet, in the many years I lived and worked in the Latin culture of South Florida and Arizona, Latinos instinctively referred to others as "hot" in varying terms without outraged reaction.
The word "gay" is another that's lost its original meaning. "Gay" was routinely used for centuries to describe the festive air of a party or a person's joyous feeling. Now, it's the homosexual "gay agenda" or "gay pride."
Journalists went through stages of utter cultural chaos and confusion when demands for groups regularly changed designations from "Negro," to "black," to "African-American," and when some women demanded "Ms." instead of the traditional "Miss" or "Mrs." that others preferred.
Among the best of all humor is Jewish humor. My friend Sam Bernstein, who once wrote jokes for Jewish comedians on the Borscht Belt, is a tireless source of e-mailed Jewish jokes.
For years, Jewish humor was dominated on stage and television by comics such as Myron Cohen and Alan King, who mercilessly poked fun at their culture with feigned dialects.
But woe be the non-Jew who mocks.
Maybe the only group that doesn't resent being ridiculed—as perpetual drunks—is the Irish. Being teased is really a sign you're loved, right?