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The word "Negro" is used in the English-speaking world to refer to a person of black ancestry or appearance. Negro denotes "black" in Spanish and Portuguese, derived from the ancient Latin word, niger, "black", which itself is probably from a Proto-Indo-European root *nekw-, "to be dark", akin to *nokw-, "night".
"Negro" superseded "colored" as the most polite word for African Americans at a time when "black" was considered more offensive. This word was accepted as normal, including by people classified as Negroes, until the later Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s. One well-known example is the identification by Martin Luther King, Jr. of his own race as "Negro" in his famous speech of 1963, I Have a Dream.
During the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some black American leaders in the United States, notably Malcolm X, objected to the word "Negro" because they associated it with the long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that treated African Americans as second class citizens, or worse. (Malcolm X preferred "Black" to "Negro", but also started using the term "Afro-American" after leaving the Nation of Islam.)
Since the late 1960s, various other terms have been more widespread in popular usage. These include "black", "Black African", "Afro-American" (in use from the late 1960s to 1990) and "African American" (used in the United States to refer to black Americans, people often referred to in the past as American Negroes).
The United States Census Bureau announced that "Negro" would be included on the 2010 United States Census, alongside "Black" and "African-American", because some older black Americans still self-identify with the term.
Around 1442 the Portuguese first arrived in sub-Saharan Africa while trying to find a sea route to India. The term negro, literally meaning "black", was used by the Spanish and Portuguese as a simple description to refer to people. From the 18th century to the late 1960s, "negro" (later capitalized) was considered to be the proper English-language term for certain people of sub-Saharan African origin.
The word "Negro" fell out of favor by the early 1970s in the United States after the Civil Rights movement. However, older African Americans from the earlier period of American life (when "Negro" was widely considered to be acceptable) initially found the term "black" more offensive than "Negro." Evidence for the acceptability of "Negro" is in the continued use the word by historical African-American organizations and institutions such as the United Negro College Fund. In current English language usage, "Negro" is generally considered to be acceptable in a historical context, such as baseball's Negro Leagues of the early and mid-20th century, or in the name of older organizations, as in Negro spirituals, the United Negro College Fund or the Journal of Negro Education. The U.S. Census now uses the grouping "Black, African-American, or Negro." The term "Negro" is used in efforts to include older African Americans who more closely associate with the term.
A specifically female form of the word—negress (sometimes capitalized)—was sometimes used; but, like "Jewess", it has all but completely fallen from use. (An exception is its unusual use in the titles of paintings, drawings and sculptures, largely as an allusion to the formerly common occurrence of the word in such titles, but such usage has dropped off dramatically.) Both terms are considered to be racist and sexist although, as with other racial, ethnic, and sexual words that are seen as pejorative, some people have tried to reclaim the words, for example, the artist Kara Walker.
The related word Negroid was used by 19th- and 20th-century racial anthropologists. The suffix -oid means "similar to". "Negroid" as a noun was used to designate a wider or more generalized category than "Negro"; as an adjective it qualified a noun as in, for example, "negroid features".
In other languages
In Portuguese, negro is an adjective for the color black, although preto is the most common antonym of branco (white). In Brazil and Portugal, negro is the most respectful way to address people of Black African descent, with preto sometimes being considered politically incorrect or a racial slur.
While negro is most commonly used to describe the color in general in Spanish, it can also be used to describe people with dark-colored skin. In Spain, Mexico and almost all of Latin-America, negro (note that no ethnonyms, names of nationalities, etc. at all are generally capitalized in Romance languages) means "black person" in colloquial situations, but it can be considered to be derogatory in other situations (as in English, "black" is often used to mean irregular or undesirable, as in "black market/mercado negro"). However, in Spanish-speaking countries such as Argentina and Uruguay where there are few people of African origin and appearance, negro (negra for females) is commonly used to refer to partners, close friends or people in general independent of skin color. In Venezuela the word negro is similarly used, despite its large African descent population.
Its usage can be similar to the use of the word "nigga" in urban communities in the United States. For example, one might say to a friend, "Negro ¿Como andas? (literally "Hey, black one, how are you doing?"). In this case, the diminutive negrito can be used, as a term of endearment meaning "pal", "buddy" or "friend". Negrito has come to be used to refer to a person of any ethnicity or color, and also can have a sentimental or romantic connotation similar to "sweetheart", or "dear" in English (in the Philippines, negrito was used for a local dark-skinned short person, living in the Negros islands among other places).
In other Spanish-speaking South American countries, the word negro can also be employed in a roughly equivalent form, though it is not usually considered to be as widespread as in Argentina or Uruguay (except perhaps in a limited regional and/or social context). In Brazil, it heavily depends on the region. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, where the main racial slur against black people is crioulo (literally creole i.e. American-born African), preto/preta and pretinho/pretinha can along extremely informal situations be used the same ways as negro/negra and negrito/negrita in Spanish-speaking South American, but it heavily changes in the nearby state of São Paulo, where crioulo is considered an archaism and preto is the most used racial slur against black people, thus all kind of use of the preto word can be deemed as offensive.
In Chile, where people of African descent are few, "negro" or "negra" is used in colloquial contexts to refer to dark skinned people of any race and, by itself, does not represent an insult.
Moreno can be used as an euphemism both in Spanish and Portuguese but it also means just "tanned" or "dark-haired". People from all ethnic origins and races can be addressed by such word, but the widespread use of the word as a roughly equivalent of the English "swarthy" in Brazil made it a very colloquial term for Pardo and all other non-White people. Generally, nevertheless nowadays it is considered politically incorrect to address an Afro-Brazilian by the term moreno, as if it was a subtle attempt of erasing their blackness by calling them "swarthy one" (the historical stigma of being Black or partially Black in Brazil made many people being "racially promoted" from Black to Pardo and from Pardo to White, and this can be seen as a perpetuation of this process). Still, this use for westernized Amerindians, mixed-race people of Amerindian and European descent, multiracial afrodescendants and Asian people with dark complexions is entirely not offensive. Similar trends in the Hispanic world are not so well-noticed.
In Turkish, the word siyahi is generally used as a neutral term to address a person of dark-skinned or blackish appearance. Siyahi, literally means black-colored, is gradually replaced by a more official word Afrika kökenli (of African origin). Zenci (from the Arabic zanj) is quite a popular colloquial term to refer to a person of African origin and it is commonly used without any negative connotation. Sometimes çikolata renkli (Chocolate colored) can be heard as a sympathetic definition for a black sport player or a celebrity. A rare and old-fashioned word Marsık literally denotes to charcoal can offensively be used to define a skinny and heavily tanned person, not necessarily a person of African descent.
In Haitian Creole, the word nèg, derived from the French "nègre", refers to a dark-skinned man; it can also be used for any man, regardless of skin color, roughly like "guy" or "dude" in American English.
In German, Neger was considered to be a neutral term for black people, but gradually fell out of fashion since the 1970s. Neger is now mostly thought to be derogatory or racist. The terms Schwarzer (black person), Farbiger (colored person) or Afrikaner/Afro-Amerikaner (African/Afro-American) are commonly used, and the obsolete Mohr (from Latin morus, black) survives in advertising. There is also a kind of sweet traditionally referred to as "Negerkuss" (literally "negro kiss").
In Hungarian, néger (possibly originates in its German equivalent) is still considered to be the most neutral term (together with afro-amerikai which is rarely used), while other words such as fekete (black person) or színesbőrű (colored person) are somewhat offensive. However, the term nigger is widely considered to be extremely pejorative.
In Russia, the term "негр" (negr), that in late 19th century replaced the antiquated "арап" (distorted "араб", bisected from "Arabia") or "мавр" (from "Mauritania"), was commonly used in the Soviet period without any negative connotation, and its use continues in this neutral sense. In modern Russian media, the word is used somewhat less frequently—"африканцы" (afrikantsy, "Africans") or "афро-американцы" (afro-amerikantsy, "Afro-Americans") are used instead, depending on the situation), but is still common in oral speech. The word "black" (чёрный) as a noun used as a form of address is pejorative, although it is primarily used with respect to peoples of the Caucasus, natives of Central Asia, and not black people. The word "black" (чёрный) as an adjective is also used in a neutral sense and means the same as "негр" (negr), e.g. "чёрные американцы" (chyornuye amerikantsuy, "black Americans"), "чёрное население" (chyornoe naselenie, "the black population"), etc. Other alternatives to "негр" are темнокожий (temnokozhiy—"dark-skinned"), чернокожий (chernokozhiy—"black-skinned"). These two are used as both nouns and adjectives.
In the Italian, negro was used as a neutral term until the end of the 1960s. Nowadays the word is considered offensive; if used with a clear offensive intention it may be punished by law. Joking, non-offensive words are: moretto, moretta. Neutral words to define a black or dark-skinned person are nero (literally "black") or di colore (coloured—or literally "of colour").
In Swedish, as well as in Norwegian, neger used to be considered a neutral term for black people, but the term has gradually fallen out of favour through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Today the neutral term to define a black person is svart ("black"). There is a Swedish pastry traditionally called negerboll (literally "negro ball"). Due to its possible offensive character, the name has fallen out of favor in for example new cooking books, being replaced by "Chokladboll" (Chocolate Ball), though it is still used colloquially.
In Denmark, "Neger" is up for debate. Researchers (linguist and so on) argue that the word has a historical racist legacy that makes it unsuitable for use today. Mainly older people use the word "negro" with the notion that it is a neutral word for describing a person of African descent, while relatively few young people use the word "negro", other than in provocative purposes.
In the Finnish language the word neekeri (negro) was considered a neutral term for black people. Very few—if literally any—black people lived in Finland before the 1980s. In 2002 neekeri's definition was changed from perceived as derogatory by some to generally derogatory in line with ryssä (Ruskie) and hurri (Swedish-speaking Finn) in Kielitoimiston sanakirja. Also, there was a popular Finnish pastry called Neekerinsuukko (lit. "negro's kiss"). The manufacturer changed the name to Brunbergin suukko ("Brunberg's kiss") in 2001. Today, neutral terms to define a black person include musta ("black"), tumma (lit. "dark-shaded"), tummaihoinen ("dark-skinned") and mustaihoinen ("black-skinned"). A study conducted among native Finns found that 90 % of research subjects considered the terms ”neekeri”, ”ryssä” ja ”manne” (term referring to Finnish Roma) most derogatory names for ethnic minorities.
In the French language, the positive concept of negritude was developed by the Senegalese politician Léopold Sédar Senghor. The word nègre as a racial term fell out of favor around the same time as its English equivalent "Negro", but is still used today in French to refer to a ghostwriter (i.e. one who writes a book on behalf of its nominal author).
The word for a black man in the Irish language is fear gorm, which literally means "blue man". This is because the phrase "fear dubh"—literally, "black man"—was already in use meaning the devil before black people were known in Ireland.
Use in the 21st century
According to Oxford Dictionaries, use of the word "now seems out of date or even offensive in both British and US English".
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2000. p. 2039. ISBN 0-395-82517-2.
- Mann, Stuart E. (1984). An Indo-European Comparative Dictionary. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag. p. 858. ISBN 3-87118-550-7.
- Nguyen, Elizabeth. "Origins of Black History Month," Spartan Daily, Campus News. San Jose State University. 24 February 2004. Accessed 12 April 2008.[dead link]
- Smith, Tom W. (1992) "Changing racial labels: from 'Colored' to 'Negro' to 'Black' to 'African American'." Public Opinion Quarterly 56(4):496–514
- Liz Mazucci, "Going Back to Our Own: Interpreting Malcolm X’s Transition From 'Black Asiatic' to 'Afro-American'", Souls 7(1), 2005, pp. 66–83.
- Christopher H. Foreman, The African-American predicament, Brookings Institution Press, 1999, p.99.
- "UNCF New Brand". Uncf.org. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
- Quenqua, Douglas (17 January 2008). "Revising a Name, but Not a Familiar Slogan". New York Times.
- U.S. Census Bureau interactive form, Question 9. Accessed 7 January 2010.[dead link]
- CBS New York Local News. Accessed 7 January 2010.[dead link]
- "Census Bureau defends 'negro' addition". UPI. 2010-01-06. Retrieved 7 January 2010.
- Mcfadden, Katie; Mcshane, Larry (6 January 2010). "Use of word Negro on 2010 census forms raises memories of Jim Crow". Daily News (New York).
- "The Negress Surveys the Priceless Atomic Diameter Environed by a Three-Quarter Arc of Golden Pearls in Summer by Daniel C. Boyer". Artbreak. 2007-10-24. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
- "Reclining Nude". Umlaufsculpture.org. 2012-12-18. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
- "Kara Walker | Greg Kucera Gallery | Seattle". Gregkucera.com. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
- "Queen Charlotte of Britain". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
- negro in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.
- moreno in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.
- Van Dale, Groot Woordenboek der Nederlandse taal, 2010
- See the relevant Hungarian Wikipedia article
- Rastas, Anna (2007). Neutraalisti rasistinen? Erään sanan politiikkaa (PDF) (in Finnish). Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-951-44-6946-6. Retrieved February 2009.
- Raittila, Pentti (2002). Etnisyys ja rasismi journalismissa (PDF) (in Finnish). Tampere: Tampere University Press,. pp. 25–26. ISBN 951-44-5486-3. Retrieved May 2010.
- Dictionary of Irish Terms (fear gorm). Irish National Terminology Database. Retrieved: 2010-12-28.
- Dictionary of Irish Terms (gorm). Irish National Terminology Database. Retrieved: 2010-12-28.
- "Negro: definition of Negro in Oxford dictionary (British & World English)". Oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 2014-05-11.
- P. A. Bruce, The Plantation Negro as a Freeman, (New York, 1889)
- Edward Ingle, The Negro in the District of Columbia, (Baltimore, 1893)
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- B. T. Washington, The Future of the American Negro, (Boston, 1899)
- Claude Bernard-Aubert, My Baby Is Black!, (Hollywood, 1965)
- Montgomery Conference Proceedings, (Montgomery, 1900)
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- Kate Brousseau, L'Education des nègres aux Etats-Unis, (Paris, 1904)
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- W. E. B. Du Bois, "A Select Bibliography of the American Negro for General Readers," in Atlantic University Publications, (Atlanta, 1901)
- C. B. Davenport Heredity of Skin-Color in Negro-White Crosses, Carnegie Institution Publication Number 188 (1913)
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