In the English language, the word nigger is a racial slur usually directed at black people. The word originated as a variation of the Spanish and Portuguese noun negro, a descendant of the Latin adjective niger ("black"). It was often used derogatorily, and by the mid-twentieth century, particularly in the United States, its usage became unambiguously pejorative, a racist insult. Accordingly, it began to disappear from popular culture, and its continued inclusion in classic works of literature has sparked controversy. Because the term is considered extremely offensive, it is often replaced with the euphemism "the N-word".
Etymology and history
The variants neger and negar derive from the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black), and from the now-pejorative French nègre. Etymologically, negro, noir, nègre, and nigger ultimately derive from nigrum, the stem of the Latin niger (black) (pronounced [ˈniɡer] which, in every other grammatical case, grammatical gender, and grammatical number besides nominative masculine singular, is nigr-, the r is trilled).
In its original English language usage, nigger (then spelled niger) was a word for a dark-skinned individual. The earliest known published use of the term dates from 1574, in a work alluding to "the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnes". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first derogatory usage of the term nigger was recorded two centuries later, in 1775.
In the colonial America of 1619, John Rolfe used negars in describing the African slaves shipped to the Virginia colony. Later American English spellings, neger and neggar, prevailed in a northern colony, New York under the Dutch, and in metropolitan Philadelphia's Moravian and Pennsylvania Dutch communities; the African Burial Ground in New York City originally was known by the Dutch name Begraafplaats van de Neger (Cemetery of the Negro); an early occurrence of neger in Rhode Island dates from 1625. Lexicographer Noah Webster, whose eponymous dictionary did much to solidify the distinctive spelling of American English, suggested the neger spelling in place of negro in 1806. The dialect spoken in the Southern United States changes the pronunciation of negro to nigra.
During the fur trade of the early 1800s to the late 1840s in the Western United States, the word was spelled "niggur", and is often recorded in literature of the time. George Fredrick Ruxton used it in his "mountain man" lexicon, without pejorative connotation. "Niggur" was evidently similar to the modern use of "dude" or "guy". This passage from Ruxton's Life in the Far West illustrates the word in spoken form—the speaker here referring to himself: "Travler, marm, this niggur's no travler; I ar' a trapper, marm, a mountain-man, wagh!" It was not used as a term exclusively for blacks among mountain men during this period, as Indians, Mexicans, and Frenchmen and Anglos alike could be a "niggur". "The noun slipped back and forth from derogatory to endearing."
The term "colored" or "negro" became a respectful alternative. In 1851 the Boston Vigilance Committee, an Abolitionist organization, posted warnings to the Colored People of Boston and vicinity. Writing in 1904, journalist Clifton Johnson documented the "opprobrious" character of the word nigger, emphasizing that it was chosen in the South precisely because it was more offensive than "colored" or "negro". By the turn of the century, "colored" had become sufficiently mainstream that it was chosen as the racial self-identifier for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 2008 Carla Sims, its communications director, said "the term 'colored' is not derogatory, [the NAACP] chose the word 'colored' because it was the most positive description commonly used [in 1909, when the association was founded]. It's outdated and antiquated but not offensive."
Nineteenth-century literature features usages of "nigger" without racist connotation. Mark Twain, in the autobiographic book Life on the Mississippi (1883), used the term within quotes, indicating reported speech, but used the term "negro" when writing in his own narrative persona. Joseph Conrad published a novella in Britain with the title The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), but was advised to release it in the United States as The Children of the Sea, see below.
By the late 1960s, the social change brought about by the Civil Rights Movement had legitimized the racial identity word black as mainstream American English usage to denote black-skinned Americans of African ancestry. President Thomas Jefferson had used this word of his slaves in his Notes on the State of Virginia' (1785), but "black" had not been widely used until the later 20th century. (See Black Pride, and, in the context of worldwide anti-colonialism initiatives, Negritude.)
In the 1990s, "Black" was displaced in favor of "African American", an example of what linguist Steven Pinker calls the "euphemism treadmill". Moreover, as a compound word, African American resembles the vogue word Afro-American, an early-1970s popular usage. Some black Americans continue to use the word nigger, often spelled as nigga and niggah, without irony, either to neutralize the word's impact or as a sign of solidarity.
In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), H. W. Fowler states that applying the word nigger to "others than full or partial negroes" is "felt as an insult by the person described, & betrays in the speaker, if not deliberate insolence, at least a very arrogant inhumanity"; but the second edition (1965) states: "N. has been described as 'the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks.'"
In explaining his refusal to be conscripted to fight the Vietnam War (1965–75), professional boxer Muhammad Ali said, "No Vietcong [Vietnamese soldier] ever called me nigger"; later, his modified answer was the title No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger (1968) of a documentary about the front-line lot of the U.S. Army Black soldier in combat in Vietnam. An Ali biographer reports that, when interviewed by Robert Lipsyte in 1966, the boxer actually said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong".
On February 28, 2007, the New York City Council symbolically banned the use of the word nigger; however, there is no penalty for using it. This formal resolution also requests excluding from Grammy Award consideration every song whose lyrics contain the word; however, Ron Roecker, vice president of communication for the Recording Academy, doubted that it will have any effect on actual nominations.
The word can be invoked politically for effect. When Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick came under intense scrutiny for his personal conduct in 2008, he deviated from an address to city council, saying, "In the past 30 days, I've been called a nigger more than any time in my entire life." Opponents accused him of "playing the race card" to save his political life.
Historian Eugene Genovese, noted for bringing a Marxist perspective to the study of power, class and relations between planters and slaves in the South, uses the word pointedly in The World the Slaveholders Made (1988).
For reasons common to the slave condition all slave classes displayed a lack of industrial initiative and produced the famous Lazy Nigger, who under Russian serfdom and elsewhere was white. Just as not all blacks, even under the most degrading forms of slavery, consented to become niggers, so by no means all or even most of the niggers in history have been black.
In his memoir, All Souls (published September 1999), Irish-American Michael Patrick MacDonald describes how many white residents of the Old Colony Housing Project in South Boston used this meaning to degrade the people considered to be of lower status, whether white or black.
Of course, no one considered himself a nigger. It was always something you called someone who could be considered anything less than you. I soon found out there were a few black families living in Old Colony. They'd lived there for years and everyone said that they were okay, that they weren't niggers but just black. It felt good to all of us to not be as bad as the hopeless people in D Street or, God forbid, the ones in Columbia Point, who were both black and niggers. But now I was jealous of the kids in Old Harbor Project down the road, which seemed like a step up from Old Colony...
Addressing the use of nigger by black people, philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West said in 2007, "There's a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence, and you have to say cat, companion, or friend, as opposed to nigger, then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people... When Richard Pryor came back from Africa, and decided to stop using the word onstage, he would sometimes start to slip up, because he was so used to speaking that way. It was the right word at the moment to keep the rhythm together in his sentence making."
The implied racism of the word nigger has rendered its usages social taboo. Magazines and newspapers often do not use it but instead print "family-friendly", censored versions, usually "n*gg*r", "n**ger", "n——", and "the N-word"; see below.
In the US, the word nigger featured in branding and packaging consumer products, e.g., "Nigger Hair Tobacco" and "Niggerhead Oysters". As the term became less acceptable in mainstream culture, the tobacco brand became "Bigger Hair" and the canned goods brand became "Negro Head". An Australian company produced various sorts of licorice candy under the "Nigger Boy" label. These included candy cigarettes and one box with an image of an Indian snake charmer. Compare these with the various national varieties and names for chocolate-coated marshmallow treats, and with Darlie, formerly Darkie, toothpaste.
Plants and animals
Some colloquial or local names for plants and animals used to include the word "nigger" or "niggerhead".
The colloquial names for echinacea (coneflower) are "Kansas niggerhead" and "Wild niggerhead". The cotton-top cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus) is a round, cabbage-sized plant covered with large, crooked thorns, and used to be known in Arizona as the "niggerhead cactus". In the early 20th century, double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) were known in some areas of Florida as "nigger geese". In some parts of the U.S., Brazil nuts were known as "nigger toes".
The movie Blazing Saddles (1974) used nigger to ridicule US racism. In The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), the sequence titled "Danger Seekers" features a stuntman performing the dangerous act of shouting "Niggers!" at a group of black people, then fleeing when they chase him.
The movie Full Metal Jacket (1987) depicts black and white U.S. Marines enduring boot camp and later fighting together in Vietnam. "Nigger" is used by soldiers of both races in jokes and as expressions of bravado ("put a nigger behind the trigger", says the black Corporal "Eightball"), with racial differences among the men seen as secondary to their shared exposure to the dangers of combat: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) says, "There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless."
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) featured a scene where villain Simon Peter Gruber (Jeremy Irons) required New York City Police Department Lt. John McClane (Bruce Willis) to wear a sandwich board reading "I hate niggers" while standing on a street corner in predominantly-black Harlem, resulting in McClane meeting Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) as Carver rescued McClane from being attacked by neighborhood toughs.
American director Quentin Tarantino has been criticized by some critics[who?] for the heavy usage of the word nigger in his movies, especially in Jackie Brown, where the word is used 38 times and Django Unchained, used 110 times.
The Dam Busters
Nigger was the name given to a black Labrador dog that belonged to British Royal Air Force Wing Commander Guy Gibson during World War II. In 1943, Gibson led the successful Operation Chastise attack on dams in Germany. The dog's name was used as a single codeword whose transmission conveyed that the Möhne dam had been breached. In the 1955 film The Dam Busters about the raid, the dog was portrayed in several scenes; his name and the codeword were mentioned several times. Some of the scenes in which the dog's name is uttered were later shown in the 1982 film Pink Floyd – The Wall.
In 1999, the British television network ITV broadcast a censored version with each of the twelve utterances of Nigger deleted. Replying to complaints against its censorship, ITV blamed the regional broadcaster, London Weekend Television, which, in turn, blamed a junior employee as the unauthorised censor. In June 2001, when ITV re-broadcast the censored version of The Dam Busters, the Index on Censorship criticised it as "unnecessary and ridiculous" censorship breaking the continuity of the film and the story. In January 2012 the film was shown uncensored on ITV4, but with a warning at the start that the film contained racial terms from the historical period which some people could find offensive. Versions of the film edited for US television have the dog's name altered to "Trigger".
In a remake of The Dam Busters by Peter Jackson announced in 2008, Stephen Fry, the writer of the screenplay, said there was "no question in America that you could ever have a dog called the N-word". In the remake the dog's name is "Digger".
The use of nigger in older literature has become controversial because of the word's modern meaning as a racist insult.
In the title
Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black is an autobiographical novel by Harriet E. Wilson, a free Negro herself. It was published in 1859 and rediscovered in 1981 by literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It is considered the first novel published by an African-American woman on the North American continent.
In 1897, Joseph Conrad penned a novella titled The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', whose titular character, James Wait, is a West Indian black sailor on board the merchant ship Narcissus sailing from Bombay to London. In the United States, the novel was first published with the title The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, at the insistence by the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, that no one would buy or read a book with the word "nigger" in its title, not because the word was deemed offensive but that a book about a black man would not sell. In 2009, WordBridge Publishing published a new edition titled The N-Word of the Narcissus, which also excised the word "nigger" from the text. According to the publisher, the point was to get rid of the offensive word, which may have led readers to avoid the book, and make it more accessible. Though praised in some quarters, many others denounced the change as censorship.
The writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten took the opposite view to Conrad's publishers when he advised the British novelist Ronald Firbank to change the title of his 1924 novel Sorrow in Sunlight to Prancing Nigger for the American market, and it became very successful there under that title. Van Vechten, a white supporter of the Harlem Renaissance (1920s–30s), then used the word himself in his 1926 novel Nigger Heaven, which provoked controversy in the black community. Of the controversy, Langston Hughes wrote:
No book could possibly be as bad as Nigger Heaven has been painted. And no book has ever been better advertised by those who wished to damn it. Because it was declared obscene, everybody wanted to read it, and I'll venture to say that more Negroes bought it than ever purchased a book by a Negro author. Then, as now, the use of the word nigger by a white was a flashpoint for debates about the relationship between black culture and its white patrons.
Canadian writer Lawrence Hill changed the title of his 2007 novel The Book of Negroes. The name refers to a real historical document, but he felt compelled to find another name for the American market, retitling the US edition Someone Knows My Name.
Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) has long been the subject of controversy for its racial content. Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most challenged book during the 1990s, according to the American Library Association. The novel is written from the point of view, and largely in the language, of an uneducated white boy, who is drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft with an adult escaped slave, Jim. The word "nigger" is used (mostly about Jim) over 200 times. Twain's advocates[who?] note that the novel is composed in then-contemporary vernacular usage, not racist stereotype, because Jim, the black man, is a sympathetic character.
In 2011, a new edition published by NewSouth Books replaced the word "nigger" with "slave" and also removed the word "injun". The change was spearheaded by Twain scholar Alan Gribben in the hope of "countering the 'pre-emptive censorship'" that results from the book's being removed from school curricula over language concerns. The changes sparked outrage from critics Elon James, Alexandra Petrie and Chris Meadows.
Several late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literary usages suggest neutral usage. The popular Victorian era entertainment, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado (1885), twice uses the word nigger. In the song As some day it may happen, the executioner, Ko-ko, sings of executing the "nigger serenader and the others of his race", referring to white singers with their faces blacked singing minstrel songs. In the song A more humane Mikado, the Mikado sings of the punishment for older women who dye their hair or wear corsets, to be "Blacked like a nigger/With permanent walnut juice." Both lyrics are usually changed for modern performances.
The word "nigger" appears in children's literature. "How the Leopard Got His Spots", in the Just So Stories (1902) by Rudyard Kipling, tells of an Ethiopian man and a leopard, both originally sand-colored, deciding to camouflage themselves with painted spots, for hunting in tropical forest. The story originally included a scene wherein the leopard (now spotted) asks the Ethiopian man why he does not want spots. In contemporary editions of "How the Leopard Got His Spots", the Ethiopian's original reply ("Oh, plain black's best for a nigger") has been edited to, "Oh, plain black's best for me." The counting rhyme known as "Eenie Meenie Mainee, Mo" has been attested from 1820, with many variants; when Kipling included it as "A Counting-Out Song" in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides (1923), he gave as its second line, "Catch a nigger by the toe!" This version became widely used for much of the twentieth century; the rhyme is still in use, but the second line now uses "tiger" instead.
The word "nigger" is used innocently and without malice by the child characters in some of the Swallows and Amazons series, written in the 1930s by Arthur Ransome, e.g. in referring to how the (white) characters appear in photographic negatives ("Look like niggers to me") in The Big Six, and as a synonym for black pearls in Peter Duck. Editions published by Puffin after Ransome's death changed the word to 'negroes'.
The first Jeeves novel, Thank You, Jeeves (1934), features a minstrel show as a significant plot point. Bertie Wooster, who is trying to learn to play the banjo, is in admiration of their artistry and music. Tellingly, P.G. Wodehouse has the repeated phrase "nigger minstrels" only on the lips of Wooster and his peers; the manservant Jeeves uses the more genteel "Negroes".
In short story "The Basement Room" (1935), by Graham Greene, the (sympathetic) servant character, Baines, tells the admiring boy, son of his employer, of his African British colony service, "You wouldn't believe it now, but I've had forty niggers under me, doing what I told them to". Replying to the boy's question: "Did you ever shoot a nigger?" Bains answers: "I never had any call to shoot. Of course I carried a gun. But you didn't need to treat them bad, that just made them stupid. Why, I loved some of those dammed niggers." The cinematic version, The Fallen Idol (1948), directed by Carol Reed, replaced this usage with "natives".
The Reverend W. V. Awdry's The Railway Series (1945–72) story Henry's Sneeze, originally described soot-covered boys with the phrase "as black as niggers". In 1972, after complaints, the description was edited to "as black as soot", in the subsequent editions. Rev. Awdry is known for Thomas the Tank Engine (1946).
The 1932 British song "The Sun Has Got His Hat On" originally included the line "He's been tanning niggers out in Timbuktu" (where "He" is the sun). Modern recordings substitute other lines.
The Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák wrote the String Quartet No. 12 in 1893 during his time in the United States. For its presumed association with African-American music, the quartet was referred to until the 1950s with nicknames such as "Negro Quartet" and "Nigger Quartet" before being called the "American Quartet".
In the 1960s, record producer J. D. "Jay" Miller published pro-racial segregation music, with the "Reb Rebel" label featuring racist songs by Johnny Rebel and others, demeaning black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. The country music artist David Allan Coe used the racial terms "redneck", "white trash", and "nigger" in the songs "If That Ain't Country, I'll Kiss Your Ass" and "Nigger Fucker".
The punk band the Dead Kennedys used the word in their 1980 song "Holiday in Cambodia" in the line, Bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold and the slum's got so much soul. The context is a section mocking champagne socialists. Rap groups such as N.W.A (Niggaz with Attitudes) re-popularized the usage in their songs. One of the earliest uses of the word in hip hop was in the song "New York New York" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1983. Responding to accusations of racism after referring to "niggers" in the lyrics of the 1988 Guns N' Roses song, "One in a Million", Axl Rose stated "I was pissed off about some black people that were trying to rob me. I wanted to insult those particular black people. I didn't want to support racism."
The musical Show Boat, which subverts anti-miscegenation laws, from 1927 until 1946 features the word "nigger" as originally integral to the lyrics of "Ol' Man River" and "Cotton Blossom"; although deleted from the cinema versions, it is included in the 1988 EMI recording of the original score. Musical theatre historian Miles Kreuger and conductor John McGlinn propose that the word was not an insult, but a blunt illustration of how white people then perceived black people.
Some comedians have broached the subject, almost invariably in the form of social commentary. This was perhaps most famously done by stand-up comedian Chris Rock in his "Niggas vs. Black People" routine. Richard Pryor used to use "nigger" extensively, but later in life decided to restrict himself to "motherfucker".
A shade of dark brown used to be known as "nigger brown" or simply "nigger"; other colors were also prefixed with the word. Usage as a color word continued for some time after it was no longer acceptable about people.
During the Spanish–American War US Army General John J. Pershing's original nickname, Nigger Jack, given to him as an instructor at West Point because of his service with "Buffalo Soldier" units, was euphemized to Black Jack by reporters.
In the first half of the twentieth century, before Major League Baseball was racially integrated, dark-skinned and dark-complexioned players were nicknamed Nig; examples are: Johnny Beazley (1941–49), Joe Berry (1921–22), Bobby Bragan (1940–48), Nig Clarke (1905–20), Nig Cuppy (1892–1901), Nig Fuller (1902), Johnny Grabowski (1923–31), Nig Lipscomb (1937), Charlie Niebergall (1921–24), Nig Perrine (1907), and Frank Smith (1904–15). The 1930s movie The Bowery with George Raft and Wallace Beery includes a sports-bar in New York City named "Nigger Joe's".
In 1960, a stand at the stadium in Toowoomba, Australia, was named the "E. S. 'Nigger' Brown Stand" honoring 1920s rugby league player Edwin Brown, so ironically nicknamed since early life because of his pale white skin; so known all his life, his tombstone is engraved Nigger. Stephen Hagan, a lecturer at the Kumbari/Ngurpai Lag Higher Education Center of the University of Southern Queensland, sued the Toowoomba council over the use of nigger in the stand's name; the district and state courts dismissed his lawsuit. He appealed to the High Court of Australia, who ruled the naming matter beyond federal jurisdiction. At first some local Aborigines did not share Mr Hagan's opposition to nigger. Hagan appealed to the United Nations, winning a committee recommendation to the Australian federal government, that it force the Queensland state government to remove the word nigger from the "E. S. 'Nigger' Brown Stand" name. The Australian federal government followed the High Court's jurisdiction ruling. In September 2008, the stand was demolished. The Queensland Sports Minister, Judy Spence, said that using nigger would be unacceptable, for the stand or on any commemorative plaque. The 2005 book The N Word: One Man's Stand by Hagan includes this episode.
Many places in the United States, and some in Canada, were given names that included the word "nigger", usually named after a person, or for a perceived resemblance of a geographic feature to a human being (see Niggerhead). Most of these place names have long been changed. In 1967, the United States Board on Geographic Names changed the word nigger to Negro in 143 place names.
In West Texas, "Dead Nigger Creek" was renamed "Dead Negro Draw"; both names probably commemorate the Buffalo Soldier tragedy of 1877. Curtis Island in Maine used to be known as either Negro or Nigger Island. The island was renamed in 1934 after Cyrus H. K. Curtis, publisher of the Saturday Evening Post and who lived locally. It had a baseball team who wore uniforms emblazoned with "Nigger Island" (or in one case, "Nigger Ilsand"). Negro Head Road, or Nigger Head Road, referred to many places in the Old South where black body parts were displayed in warning (see Lynching in the United States).
Some renamings honor a real person. As early as 1936, "Nigger Hollow" in Pennsylvania, named after Daniel Hughes, a free black man who saved others on the Underground Railroad, was renamed Freedom Road. "Nigger Nate Grade Road", near Temecula, California, named for Nate Harrison, an ex-slave and settler, was renamed "Nathan Harrison Grade Road" in 1955, at the request of the NAACP.
Sometimes other substitutes for "nigger" were used. "Nigger Head Mountain", at Burnet, Texas, was named because the forest atop it resembled a black man's hair. In 1966, the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, denounced the racist name, asking the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and the U.S. Forest Service to rename it, becoming "Colored Mountain" in 1968. Other renamings were more creative. "Nigger Head Rock", protruding from a cliff above Highway 421, north of Pennington Gap, Virginia, was renamed "Great Stone Face" in the 1970s.
Some names have been metaphorically or literally wiped off the map. In the 1990s, the public authorities stripped the names of "Niggertown Marsh" and the neighbouring Niggertown Knoll in Florida from public record and maps, which was the site of an early settlement of freed black people. A watercourse in the Sacramento Valley was known as Big Nigger Sam's Slough.
Sometimes a name changes more than once: a peak above Santa Monica, California was first renamed "Negrohead Mountain", and in February 2010 was renamed again to Ballard Mountain, in honor of John Ballard, a black pioneer who settled the area in the nineteenth century. A point on the Lower Mississippi River, in West Baton Rouge Parish, that was named "Free Nigger Point" until the late twentieth century, first was renamed "Free Negro Point", but currently is named "Wilkinson Point". "Nigger Bill Canyon" in southeast Utah was named after William Grandstaff, a mixed-race cowboy who lived there in the late 1870s. In the 1960s, it was renamed Negro Bill Canyon. Within the past few years, there has been a campaign to rename it again, as Granstaff Canyon, but this is opposed by the local NAACP chapter, whose president said "Negro is an acceptable word". However the trailhead for the hiking trail up the canyon was renamed in September, 2016 to "Grandstaff Trailhead" The new sign for the trailhead was stolen within five days of installation.
A few places in Canada also used the word. At Penticton, British Columbia, "Niggertoe Mountain" was renamed Mount Nkwala. The place-name derived from a 1908 Christmas story about three black men who died in a blizzard; the next day, the bodies of two were found at the foot of the mountain. John Ware, an influential cowboy in early Alberta, has several features named after him, including "Nigger John Ridge", which is now John Ware Ridge.
Intragroup versus intergroup usage
Black listeners often react to the term differently, depending on whether it is used by white speakers or by black speakers. In the former case, it is regularly understood as insensitive or insulting; in the latter, it may carry notes of in-group disparagement, and is often understood as neutral or affectionate, a possible instance of reappropriation.
In the black community, nigger is often rendered as nigga, representing the pronunciation of the word in African-American English. This usage has been popularized by the rap and hip-hop music cultures and is used as part of an in-group lexicon and speech. It is not necessarily derogatory and is often used to mean homie or friend.
Acceptance of intra-group usage of the word nigga is still debated, although it has established a foothold amongst younger generations. The NAACP denounces the use of both "nigga" and "nigger". Mixed-race usage of "nigga" is still considered taboo, particularly if the speaker is white. However, trends indicate that usage of the term in intragroup settings is increasing even amongst white youth, due to the popularity of rap and hip hop culture.
According to Arthur K. Spears in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 2006:
In many African-American neighborhoods, nigga is simply the most common term used to refer to any male, of any race or ethnicity. Increasingly, the term has been applied to any person, male or female. "Where y'all niggas goin?" is said with no self-consciousness or animosity to a group of women, for the routine purpose of obtaining information. The point: Nigga is evaluatively neutral in terms of its inherent meaning; it may express positive, neutral or negative attitudes;
Kevin Cato, meanwhile, observes:
For instance, a show on Black Entertainment Television, a cable network aimed at a black audience, described the word nigger as a "term of endearment." "In the African American community, the word nigga (not nigger) brings out feelings of pride" (Davis 1). Here the word evokes a sense of community and oneness among black people. Many teens I interviewed felt that the word had no power when used amongst friends, but when used among white people the word took on a completely different meaning. In fact, comedian Alex Thomas on BET stated, "I still better not hear no white boy say that to me... I hear a white boy say that to me, it means 'White boy, you gonna get your ass beat.'"
In several English-speaking countries, "Niggerhead" or "nigger head" was used as a name for many sorts of things, including commercial products, places, plants and animals, as described above. It also is or was a colloquial technical term in industry, mining, and seafaring. Nigger as "defect" (a hidden problem), derives from "nigger in the woodpile", a US slave-era phrase denoting escaped slaves hiding in train-transported woodpiles. In the 1840s, the Morning Chronicle newspaper report series London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew, records the usages of both nigger and its false cognate niggard denoting a false bottom for a grate.
In American English, nigger lover initially applied to abolitionists, then to white people sympathetic towards black Americans. The portmanteau word wigger (white + nigger) denotes a white person emulating "street black behavior", hoping to gain acceptance to the hip hop, thug, and gangsta sub-cultures. Norman Mailer wrote of the antecedents of this phenomenon in 1957 in his essay "The White Negro".
The N-word euphemism
Key prosecution witness Detective Mark Fuhrman, of the Los Angeles Police Department – who denied using racist language on duty – impeached himself with his prolific use of nigger in tape recordings about his police work. The recordings, by screenplay writer Laura McKinney, were from a 1985 research session wherein the detective assisted her with a screenplay about LAPD policewomen. Fuhrman excused his use of the word saying he used nigger in the context of his "bad cop" persona. The popular press reporting and discussing Fuhrman's testimony substituted the N-word for nigger.
Niger (Latin for "black") occurs in Latinate scientific nomenclature and is the root word for some homophones of nigger; sellers of niger seed (used as bird feed), sometimes use the spelling Nyjer seed. The classical Latin pronunciation /ˈniɡeɾ/ sounds like the English /ˈnɪɡər/, occurring in biologic and anatomic names, such as Hyoscyamus niger (black henbane), and even for animals that are not in fact black, such as Sciurus niger (fox squirrel).
Nigra is the Latin feminine form of niger (black), used in biologic and anatomic names such as substantia nigra (black substance).
The word niggardly (miserly) is etymologically unrelated to nigger, derived from the Old Norse word nig (stingy) and the Middle English word nigon. In the US, this word has been misinterpreted as related to nigger and taken as offensive. In January 1999, David Howard, a white Washington, D.C. city employee, was compelled to resign after using niggardly—in a financial context—while speaking with black colleagues, who took umbrage. After reviewing the misunderstanding, Mayor Anthony Williams offered to reinstate Howard to his former position. Howard refused reinstatement but took a job elsewhere in the mayor's government.
The denotations of nigger also comprehend non-black/non-white and other disadvantaged people. Some of these terms are self-chosen, to identify with the oppression and resistance of black Americans; others are ethnic slurs used by outsiders.
In his 1968 autobiography White Niggers of America: The Precocious Autobiography of a Quebec "Terrorist", Pierre Vallières, a Front de libération du Québec leader, refers to the oppression of the Québécois people in North America.
In 1969, in the course of being interviewed by the British magazine Nova, artist Yoko Ono said "woman is the nigger of the world"; three years later, her husband, John Lennon, published the song Woman Is the Nigger of the World —about the worldwide phenomenon of discrimination against women–which was socially and politically controversial to US sensibilities.
Sand nigger, an ethnic slur against Arabs, and timber nigger and prairie nigger, ethnic slurs against Native Americans, are examples of the racist extension of nigger upon other non-white peoples.
In 1979 English singer Elvis Costello used the phrase "white nigger" in "Oliver's Army", a song describing the experiences of working-class soldiers in the British military forces on the "murder mile" (a term used to describe Belfast during The Troubles), where white nigger was a common British pejorative for Irish Catholics. Later, the producers of the British talent show Stars in Their Eyes forced a contestant to censor one of its lines, changing "... all it takes is one itchy trigger – One more widow, one less white nigger" to "... one less white figure".
The editor of Green Egg, a magazine described in The Encyclopedia of American Religions as a significant periodical, published an essay entitled "Niggers of the New Age". This argued that Neo-Pagans were treated badly by other parts of the New Age movement.
Other languages, particularly Romance languages, have words that sound similar to 'nigger' (are homophonic), but do not mean the same. Just because the words are cognate, i.e. they ultimately derive from the same Latin stem explained above, does not mean that they carry equivalent connotations. Whether a word is abusive, pejorative, neutral, affectionate, old-fashioned, etc. depends on its cultural context. How a word is used in English does not determine how a similar-sounding word is used in another language. Conversely, many languages have ethnic slurs that are disparaging of "other" people, i.e. words that serve a similar function to "nigger", but these may stem from completely different roots.
Some examples of how other languages refer to a black person in a neutral and in a pejorative way include:
- Dutch: neger used to be neutral, but many now consider it to be avoided;zwartje (little black one) can be amicably or offensively used, nikker is always pejorative
- In French the word Nègre (and see fr:Nègre) is now derogatory; but some white Frenchmen have the inherited surname "Nègre": see fr:Nègre (homonymie) (a disambiguation page).
- German: Neger, in contrast, as the equivalent of "negro", is dated and now considered offensive, while Schwarze/-r ("black [person]") or Farbige/-r ("colored [person]") is mostly neutral.
- Brazilian Portuguese: negro and preto are neutral; nevertheless preto can be offensively used, is sometimes regarded as "politically incorrect" and almost never proudly used by Afro-Brazilians; crioulo and macaco are always extremely pejorative
- Haitian Creole: nèg is used for any man in general, regardless of skin color (like "dude" in American English) although it is derived from French: nègre, which is used pejoratively.
- Cultural appropriation
- Guilty or Innocent of Using the N Word, a 2006 documentary
- Kaffir (ethnic slur)
- Murzyn, Polish word for a black person
- List of ethnic group names used as insults
- List of ethnic slurs
- List of topics related to Black and African people
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