The word originated in the 18th century as an adaptation of the Spanish negro, a descendant of the Latin adjective niger, which means black. It was used derogatorily, and by the mid-20th century, particularly in the United States, its usage by non-African Americans became unambiguously pejorative, a racist insult. Accordingly, it began to disappear from general popular culture. Its continued inclusion in classic works of literature has sparked controversy.
Because the term is considered extremely offensive, it is often referred to by the euphemism "the N-word". But it remains in use, particularly as the variant nigga, by African Americans among themselves. In dialects of English (including standard British English) that have non-rhotic speech, "nigger" and "nigga" are pronounced the same.
- 1 Etymology and history
- 2 Usage
- 3 Related words
- 4 See also
- 5 Footnotes
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
Etymology and history
The variants neger and negar derive from various European languages' words for 'black', including the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black) and the now-pejorative French nègre. Etymologically, negro, noir, nègre, and nigger ultimately derive from nigrum, the stem of the Latin niger ('black'), pronounced [ˈniɡer], with a trilled r. In every grammatical case, grammatical gender, and grammatical number besides nominative masculine singular, is nigr- followed by a case ending.
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." 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.
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. A style guide to British English usage, H. W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage states in the first edition (1926) 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'."
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 1980s, the term "African American" was advanced analogously to the terms "German American" and "Irish American", and was adopted by major media outlets. 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.
Surveys from 2006 showed that the American public widely perceived usage of the term to be wrong or unacceptable, but that nearly half of whites and two-thirds of blacks knew someone personally who referred to blacks by the term. Nearly one-third of whites and two-thirds of blacks said they had personally used the term within the last five years.
In explaining his refusal to be conscripted to fight the Vietnam War (1965–75), professional boxer Muhammad Ali said, "No Vietcong [Communist Vietnamese] 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 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 1999 memoir, All Souls, 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 ...
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 use taboo. Magazines and newspapers generally do not use the word but instead print censored versions such as "n*gg*r", "n**ger", "n——" or "the N-word"; see below. In 2018, the head of the media company Netflix, Reed Hastings, fired his chief communications officer for using the word twice during internal discussions about sensitive words. In explaining why, Hastings wrote:
- "[The word's use] in popular media like music and film have created some confusion as to whether or not there is ever a time when the use of the N-word is acceptable. For non-Black people, the word should not be spoken as there is almost no context in which it is appropriate or constructive (even when singing a song or reading a script). There is not a way to neutralize the emotion and history behind the word in any context. The use of the phrase 'N-word' was created as a euphemism, and the norm, with the intention of providing an acceptable replacement and moving people away from using the specific word. When a person violates this norm, it creates resentment, intense frustration, and great offense for many."
The use of nigger in older literature has become controversial because of the word's modern meaning as a racist insult. One of the most enduring controversies has been the word's use in
Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). 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.
In an academic setting
The word's usage in literature has led to it being a point of discussion in university lectures as well. In 2008, Arizona State University English professor Neal A. Lester created what has been called "the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word 'nigger'". Starting in the following decade, colleges struggled with attempts to teach material about the slur in a sensitive manner. In 2012, a sixth grade Chicago teacher filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit resulting from an incident in which he repeated the contents of a racially charged note being passed in class. A New Orleans high school also experienced controversy in 2017. Such increased attention prompted Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, the daughter of Richard Pryor and a professor at Smith College, to give a talk opining that the word was leading to a "social crisis" in higher education.
In addition to Smith College, Emory University, Augsburg University, Southern Connecticut State University and Simpson College all suspended professors in 2019 over referring to the word "nigger" by name in an educational context. In two other cases, a professor at Princeton decided to stop teaching a course on hate speech after students protested his utterance of "nigger" and a professor at DePaul had his law course cancelled after 80% of the enrolled students transferred out. Instead of pursuing disciplinary action, a student at the College of the Desert challenged his professor in a viral class presentation which argued that her use of the word in a lecture was not justified.
While defending Laurie Sheck, a professor who was cleared of ethical violations for quoting I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin, John McWhorter wrote that efforts to condemn racist language by white Americans had undergone mission creep. Similar controversies outside the United States have occurred at The University of Western Ontario in Canada and the Madrid campus of the University of Syracuse.
Intra-group 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 arhotic 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.'"
2010s: increase in use and controversy
In the 2010s, "nigger" in its various forms saw use with increasing frequency by African Americans amongst themselves or in self-expression, the most common swear word in hip hop music lyrics. Coates suggested that it continues to be unacceptable for non-blacks to utter while singing or rapping along to hip-hop, and that by being so restrained it gives white Americans (specifically) a taste of what it is like to not be entitled to "do anything they please, anywhere". A concern often raised is whether frequent exposure will inevitably lead to a dilution of the extremely negative perception of the word among the majority of non-black Americans who currently consider its use unacceptable and shocking.
In names of people, places and things
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 the similar-sounding word "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. Media personnel who reported on 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 in fact not 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.
Jerry Farber's 1967 essay, The Student as Nigger, used the word as a metaphor for what he saw as the role forced on students. Farber had been, at the time, frequently arrested as a civil rights activist while beginning his career as a literature professor.
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" (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 homophones), but do not mean the same. Just because the words are cognate, i.e. from the same Latin stem as explained above, does not mean they have the same denotation (dictionary meaning) or connotation (emotional association). 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 disparage "other" people, i.e. words that serve a similar function to "nigger", but these usually 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 ("Negro") used to be neutral, but many now consider it to be avoided in favor of zwarte ("black"). Zwartje (little black one) can be amicably or offensively used. Nikker is always pejorative.
- French: Nègre (see the French Wikipedia) is now derogatory. Some white Frenchmen have the inherited surname "Nègre": see Nègre (homonymie) (a disambiguation page). The word can still be used as a synonym of "sweetheart" in some traditional Louisiana French creole songs
- German: Neger is dated and now considered offensive. Schwarze/-r ("black [person]") or Farbige/-r ("colored [person]") is more neutral but increasingly also dated.
- Haitian Creole: nèg is used for any man in general, regardless of skin color (like "dude" in American English). Haitian Creole derives predominantly from French.
- Italian has three variants : "negro", "nero" and "di colore". The first one is the most historically attested and was the most commonly used until the 1960s as an equivalent of the English word negro. It was gradually felt as offensive during the 1970s and replaced with "nero" and "di colore". "Nero" was considered a better translation of the English word "black", while "di colore" is a loan translation of the English word "coloured"
- Brazilian Portuguese: Negro and preto are neutral; nevertheless preto can be offensive or at least "politically incorrect" and is almost never proudly used by Afro-Brazilians. Crioulo and macaco are always extremely pejorative.
- 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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