What does Atticus mean when he says, "Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common," in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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anthonda49 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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"Common" was a word used back then to mean ignorant, uneducated, low class, or uncouth. Atticus Finch and his family are certainly not of the lower class, nor will he have his children speaking like the lower class. While "nigger" was a routinely used term for African Americans, the proper term would have been Negro. However, many people during this time period lacked the education to know the proper word. Atticus had manners and expected his children to, as well. He also was sensitive to offensive name-calling of various groups.

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tinicraw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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"'Do you defend niggers, Atticus?' I asked him that evening.

'Of course I do. Don't say nigger, Scout. That's common.'

' 's what everybody at school says.'

'From now on it'll be everybody less one—'" (75).

Scout is at a very impressionable age. What she sees and hears from the environment around her seems to be what is right in her mind. Scout hears the N-word all of the time at school and in town and figures it is the correct way to address black people. If everybody is doing or saying something a certain way, then it seems to be the correct way. Fortunately for Scout, her father is an educated and compassionate man. One of his life's mottos is not to judge other people before climbing into their skins and walking around for awhile.

Atticus sets his daughter straight by saying that the N-word is "common." Another word for "common" is "vulgar." Atticus doesn't want his daughter to be common or vulgar with her language; he wants her to behave more appropriately. "Common" language shows that a person hasn't been taught to speak correctly or respectfully. Atticus wants his daughter to act and speak with respect towards everyone; therefore, he teaches her not to use the N-word. That certainly says something about the rest of the town, doesn't it?

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