THERE ARE CERTAIN words that don't always sit well with people.

Take, for instance, the n-word. No, not that n-word. The other n-word, the one former radio shock jock Don Imus found out can get folks all worked up, depending on the context or who's saying it.

I'm talking about the word "nappy." It's a hot-button word, if ever there was one. Rappers may think nothing of calling women bitches and hos, but even they know better than to use the word "nappy" to dis women.

When Imus called the Rutgers basketball team "nappy-headed hos," he opened the proverbial Pandora's box because of all the negative connotations associated with it.

His feeble attempt at humor exposed the invisible fault line surrounding the use of the word "nappy" in a way that nothing else has in years. The last time I can remember that happening in a big way was back in 1998, when a third-grade teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y., read to her students from a children's book called "Nappy Hair" by Carolivia Herron. Teacher Ruth Sherman became the subject of national attention after she found herself facing down angry parents who accused her of being culturally insensitive. Sherman, who is white, resigned in the aftermath.

It just goes to show you that although as a nation we may have come a long way in terms of race relations, the term "nappy" still is heavily loaded and fraught with racist and oppressive overtones. Nappy's a word that has roots, so to speak. It has long been used to disparage the tightly-coiled hair common to women of African descent.

The sting associated with the word can be traced back to slavery when many Africans arrived in America and discovered that their hair didn't fit European-influenced societal ideas about beauty. Some slaves reportedly attempted to change their hair's texture by using axle grease or dirty dishwater with oil, according to Neal Lester, chairman of the English department at Arizona State University.

Madame C.J. Walker later became the first black female millionaire because of the advances she created in the early 1900s to help black women manage their hair.

Over the years, attitudes toward African hair textures - which used to be routinely referred to as "bad hair" - have shifted. The Black Pride movement of the 1970s ushered in the afro and the "happy I'm nappy" promotions that were popular in the 1980s. In recent years, braided hairstyles, dreadlocks and texturized 'fros have become popular as more black women have begun to shun chemical straighteners.

Despite growing acceptance of natural hair styles, old scars have a way of lingering even after they appear healed on the surface. Even now, the sting associated with the word "nappy" is still so raw for Jena Rogers, owner of Kinki Kreations in East Oak Lane, that she won't even allow the use of it in her shop.

"I never say nappy because I find it offensive," she said. "Growing up, nappy was never a positive. It meant horrible, hurtful, ugly. It meant [your hair] was a terrible texture. 'You're never going to be successful. You're never going to be beautiful or get a husband.' If your hair wasn't straight or wavy, it was considered pretty much cursed.

"When you say nappy, it goes with nappy-headed, which means uncombed, uncouth," Rogers continued. "People say to me, 'Girl, my hair is nappy.' [But] there's a certain kind of language that's not permitted in my shop. You can't be in my space and be disrespectful of black women.

"My daughter is 2 years old. If somebody ever told her, her hair is nappy, I would beat them down," she added.

Given the decades of hurt associated with the word, no wonder there such outrage when Imus joked about it during his morning show.

"When Imus says these 'nappy-headed hos,' his first flaw is he's using an in-group term that's loaded," explained Lanita Jacobs-Huey, associate professor of anthropology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Besides, as Syreeta Scott, owner of Duafe Holistic Hair Care, a natural hair studio at 2947 Girard Ave., pointed out, "it has been out of the vocabulary. When he said it, it was filled with a lot of malicious intent."

"It brought us back to the '60s. It brought us back where we had to sit in the back of the bus," said Scott, who wears her hair in long locks. "It let us see that those wounds we thought were healed just opened back up. Any given moment, something can happen to really try to tear us down."

And throughout time, one of the words that does just that is nappy. *

The Associated Press contributed to this report.