Philip Herbst is a thin man with wire glasses and a graying crew cut whose soft speech and manner make it hard to believe that he knows how to insult every ethnic and racial group in the United States–African-Americans, Irish, Italians, Indians, West Africans, Czechoslovakians, Chinese.

A freelance editor with a PhD in anthropology, Herbst honed his knowledge while working on his first book, the recently published The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States ($24.95), which provides definitions and etymologies of 851 different slurs, epithets, and culturally debated terms. He spent five years on the book, hunting through slang dictionaries and magazines and right-wing Web sites, watching John Singleton movies, eavesdropping on conversations, and inspecting graffiti on bathroom stalls.

Herbst, who lives in Evanston, insists his book isn’t meant to be a tool of the you-can’t-say-that-it’s-insensitive movement. “There is no way whatsoever that I’m trying to tell people here how to speak. I’m a firm believer in the liberties preserved in the First Amendment, and I think that censorship–telling people how they can talk, what they should or should not say–is perhaps a far greater threat to minorities in our country than using biased words.” He does say that one of the book’s main purposes is to make people more aware of the words they use and of their often derogatory roots. He adds, “People might say, What do I know about how ethnic slurs hurt other people? And I probably don’t know, because I grew up in a situation where I acquired this self-confidence to be able to shrug slurs off. If somebody calls me a honky or a whitey, it doesn’t bother me all that much. When I hear the word ‘honky,’ I think that the dominant culture has sort of made it sound almost humorous to use. But white people don’t know how nasty those words can be when they’re used by black people.”

According to Herbst, The Color of Words is a combination of lexicography and “intuition,” and the work suffers when it leans toward the latter. For example, he defines “slob” as “an alteration of Slavic used disparagingly for someone of Slavic descent. The sense of someone who dresses sloppily reinforces the negative connotations.” But there’s no documentation of the word’s origins, making its definition seem like pure conjecture.

The history of other words can be appalling. “Jewish nose” was used as a defining characteristic in the Dictionary of Races or Peoples published in 1910 by the federal Immigration Commission. “Alligator”–defined as a “white person who listens to jazz music but does not play it; also a white jazz musician”–was used to describe white enemies of blacks as early as the 1830s. Herbst quotes Davy Crockett boasting that “he was ‘half horse, half alligator, a little touched with snapping turtle,’ and was therefore capable of ‘swallowing a nigger whole if you butter his head and pin his ears back.'”

Herbst has already started work on a second book, this one dealing with gender and sexual orientation. “The topic’s fascinating,” he says, “but the problem I have with it is that some of the topics are going to be on the racy side. It’s going to be a dictionary with a lot of anatomical allusions to it. And I’m finding that my sensitivities toward sexism are less than what my sensitivities to race were.” –Sridhar Pappu

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Phillip Herbst photo by Nathan Mandell.