Nigger is a noun in the English language. The word originated as a neutral term referring to black people, as a variation of the Spanish/Portuguese noun negro, a descendant of the Latin adjective niger ("color black"). Often used disparagingly, by the mid 20th century, particularly in the United States, it suggested that its target is extremely unsophisticated. Its usage had become unambiguously pejorative, a common ethnic slur usually directed at blacks of Sub-Saharan African descent.
- 1 Etymology and history
- 2 Usages
- 2.1 British
- 2.2 North American
- 2.3 Denotational extension
- 2.4 Other languages
- 2.5 Literary
- 2.6 Popular culture
- 2.7 Derivations
- 3 Derivatives
- 4 See also
- 5 Footnotes
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Etymology and history
The variants neger and negar, derive from the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black), and from the now-pejorative French nègre (negro). 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 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 US occurrence of neger in Rhode Island, dates from 1625. An alternative word for African Americans was the English word, "Black", used by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Among Anglophones, the word nigger was not always considered derogatory, because it then denoted "black-skinned", a common Anglophone usage. Nineteenth-century English (language) literature features usages of nigger without racist connotation, e.g. the Joseph Conrad novella The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897). Moreover, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain created characters who used the word as contemporary usage. Twain, in the autobiographic book Life on the Mississippi (1883), used the term within quotes, indicating reported usage, but used the term "negro" when speaking in his own narrative persona.
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 often included the word as part of the "mountain man" lexicon, and did not indicate that the word was pejorative at the time. "Niggur" was evidently similar to the modern use of dude, or guy. This passage from Ruxton's Life in the Far West illustrates a common use of 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".
By the 1900s, nigger had become a pejorative word. In its stead, the term colored became the mainstream alternative to negro and its derived terms. Abolitionists in Boston, Massachusetts, 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." Established as mainstream American English usage, the word colored features in the organizational title of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reflecting the members' racial identity preference at the 1909 foundation. In the Southern United States, the local American English dialect changes the pronunciation of negro to nigra. Linguistically, in developing American English, in the early editions of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), lexicographer Noah Webster suggested the neger new spelling in place of negro.
By the late 1960s, the social progress achieved by groups in the United States such as the Black Civil Rights Movement (1955–68), had legitimized the racial identity word black as mainstream American English usage to denote black-skinned Americans of African ancestry. In the 1990s, "Black" was displaced in favor of the compound blanket term African American. Moreover, as a compound word, African American resembles the vogue word Afro-American, an early-1970s popular usage. Currently, 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 the United Kingdom and the Anglophone world, nigger denoted the dark-skinned (non-white) African and Asian (i.e., from India or nearby) peoples colonized into the British Empire, and "dark-skinned foreigners" — in general.
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.'".
Victorian writer Rudyard Kipling used it in 'How the Leopard Got His Spots' and 'A Counting-Out Song' to illustrate the usage of the day. Likewise, P. G. Wodehouse used the phrase "Nigger minstrels" in Thank You, Jeeves (1934), the first Jeeves–Bertie novel, in admiration of their artistry and musical tradition. See also below under "Literary".
As recently as the 1950s, it may have been acceptable British usage to say niggers when referring to black people, notable in mainstream usages such as Nigger Boy–brand candy cigarettes, and the color nigger brown or simply nigger (dark brown); however, by the 1970s the term was generally recognized as racist, offensive and potentially illegal along with the unambiguously offensive "nig-nog", and "golliwog". As recently as 2007, the term nigger brown reappeared in the model label of a Chinese-made sofa, presumably from an outdated translation source. Agatha Christie's book Ten Little Niggers was first published in London in 1939 and continued to appear under that title until the early 1980s, when it became And Then There Were None.
Addressing the use of nigger by black people, Cornel West said, "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." Contemporarily, the implied racism of the word nigger has rendered its usages social taboo. In the US, magazines and newspapers often do not use it, instead printing "family-friendly" censored versions, usually "n*gg*r", "n**ger", "n——", and "the N-word"; however, historians and social activists, such as Dick Gregory, criticize the euphemisms and their usage as intellectually dishonest, because using the euphemism "the N-word" instead of nigger robs younger generations of Americans of the full history of black people in America.
In explaining his refusal to be conscripted to fight the Vietnam War (1965–75), professional boxer Muhammed Ali said, "No Vietcong 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". 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.
On February 28, 2007, the New York City Council symbolically banned, with a formal resolution, the use of the word nigger; however, there is no penalty for using it. The New York City resolution also requests excluding from Grammy Award consideration every song whose lyrics contain the word nigger, however Ron Roecker, vice president of communication for the Recording Academy doubts that it will have any effect on actual nominations.
In the first half of the twentieth century, before Major League Baseball was racially integrated, dark-skinned and dark-complexion 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 NYC sports-bar named "Nigger Joe's".
The denotations of nigger also comprehend non-white and racially disadvantaged people; the U.S. politician Ron Dellums said, "... it's time for somebody to lead all of America's niggers". Jerry Farber's 1967 protest, The Student as Nigger invoked the word as a metaphor for the victims of an authoritarian society. In 1969, in the UK, in the course of being interviewed by a Nova magazine reporter, 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" (1972)—about the virtually universal exploitation of woman–which was socially and politically controversial to US sensibilities. In 1978 singer Patti Smith used the word in "Rock N Roll Nigger". In 1979 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". In his autobiography White Niggers of America: The Precocious Autobiography of a Quebec "Terrorist" (1968), Pierre Vallières, a Front de libération du Québec leader refers to the oppression of the Québécois people in North America.
In his memoir, All Souls, 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...
Many other languages have words that sound the same as nigger (are homophonic), but do not necessarily have the same meaning, while on the other hand having ethnic slurs dissimilar to 'nigger' but carrying the same meaning.
Some examples of how other languages refer to a black person in a neutral and in a pejorative way:
- Dutch: neger is neutral, zwartje (little black one) can be amicably or offensively used, nikker is always pejorative
- 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 "guy" in American English) although it is derived from French nègre, which is used pejoratively.
Historically, nigger is controversial in literature because of its usage as both a racist insult and a common noun. The white photographer and writer, Carl Van Vechten, a supporter of the Harlem Renaissance (1920s–30s), provoked controversy in the black community with the title of his novel Nigger Heaven (1926), wherein the usage increased sales; 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.
In the US, the recurrent (reading curricula) controversy about the vocabulary of the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), by Mark Twain — American literature (usually) taught in US schools – about the slave South, risks censorship because of 215 (counted) occurrences of the word nigger, most refer to Jim, Huckleberry's escaped-slave raft-mate. Twain's advocates note that the novel is composed in then-contemporary vernacular usage, not racist stereotype, because Jim, the black man, is a sympathetic character in the nineteenth-century Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book was re-published in 2010 with edits removing "the 'N' word" as reported in Time online. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been the subject of controversy in Arizona, where a parent group's attempt to have it removed from a required reading list was struck down by the court.
Moreover, unlike the literary escaped slave Jim, antebellum slaves used the artifice of self-deprecation (known as "Uncle Toms"), in pandering to societal racist assumptions about the black man's low intelligence, by advantageously using the word nigger to escape the violence inherent to slavery. Implicit to "Uncle Tomming" was the unspoken reminder to white folk that a presumably inferior and sub-human person could not, reasonably, be held responsible for poorly realized work, a kitchen fire, or any such catastrophic offense. The artificial self-deprecation deflected responsibility, in hope of escaping the violent wraths of overseer and master. Using nigger as a self-referential identity term also was a way of avoiding white suspicion, of encountering an intelligent slave, and so put whites at their ease. In context, a slave who referred to himself, or another black man, as a nigger presumed the master's perceiving him as a slave who has accepted his societally sub-ordinate role as private property, thus, not (potentially) subversive of the authority of the master's white supremacy.
Other 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", personified by black-faced singers 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.
In Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897) the main character is a black man from the West Indies; the book was published in America as The Children of the Sea. Ten Little Niggers (1939) was the original British title of Agatha Christie's novel And Then There Were None, which has also been known by the alternative title Ten Little Indians. The word is used in some of the Swallows and Amazons series (1930s) of children's books by Arthur Ransome, e.g. "Look like niggers to me" in The Big Six.
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).
How the Leopard Got His Spots, in 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." Again, Kipling uses the word in A Counting-Out Song (Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, 1923), the rhyme reads: "Eenie Meenie Mainee, Mo! Catch a nigger by the toe!"
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 of The Basement Room short story, The Fallen Idol (1948), directed by Carol Reed, replaced novelist Greene's niggers usage with natives.
In the US and the UK, the word nigger featured in branding and packaging consumer products, e.g. "Nigger Hair Tobacco" and "Niggerhead Oysters", Brazil nuts were called nigger toes, et cetera. As racism became unacceptable in mainstream culture, the tobacco brand became "Bigger Hare" and the canned goods brand became "Negro Head". The Chinese Nanhai De Xing Leather Shoes Habiliment Co., Ltd.'s online store describes the color of a model of man's leather boots as "nigger-brown".
The movie Blazing Saddles (1974) used nigger to ridicule US racism. In Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), the sequence titled "Danger Seekers" features a stuntman effecting the dangerous stunt of shouting "Niggers!" at a group of black people, then fleeing when they chased 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. We do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops or greasers, because here you are all equally worthless."
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) featured a scene where villain Simon Peter Gruber (Jeremy Irons) required NYPD 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.
Nigger was the name given to a black Labrador dog that belonged to British Royal Air Force Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the 1940s. In the Second World War 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's name and codeword were mentioned several times.
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".
American director Quentin Tarantino has been criticized by some critics 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.
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.
Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has long been the subject of controversy for its racial content, including its use of the word "nigger" as applied to the escaped slave character Jim. Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most challenged book during the 1990s, according to the American Library Association. In 2011, a new edition of the book published by NewSouth Books replaced the word "nigger" throughout the book with the word "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 and scholars.
Responding to accusations of racism after referring to "niggers" in the lyrics of the 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 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". 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 Black Civil Rights movement.
Contemporarily, 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.
The musical Show Boat (from 1927 until 1946) features the word and "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 breached 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.
"Nigger" or "nigger brown" were used in Britain as standard colour names, in the same way as "lime green". This may have been included in some language translation sources.
"Nigger-brown" colored furniture
In April 2007, a dark brown leather sofa set, sold by Vanaik Furniture and Mattress Store in Toronto, Canada, was labelled as "Nigger-brown" color. Investigation determined that the Chinese manufacturer used an outdated version of Kingsoft's Chinese-to-English translation software for writing the tags; it translated the Chinese "dark-brown" characters to "Nigger-brown", and neither the Canadian supplier nor the store owner had noticed the incorrectly translated tag; subsequently, Kingsoft corrected its translation software.
"Nigger brown" pants
In 2012, a typosquatting website of the clothing branch Abercrombie & Fitch based in China called abercrombie-and-fitchoutlet.com offered "nigger brown pants" for sale as the result of a faulty Chinese-to-English translator. This went viral on Twitter after people mistakenly believed that Abercrombie & Fitch were selling the product
- 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 American English: nigger lover initially applied to abolitionists, then to white people sympathetic towards black Americans.
- 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 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 well as a colloquial technical term in industry, mining and seafaring.
- In the Victorian era, the 1840s 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.
- Flora and fauna nomenclatures include the word nigger. The Arizonan nigger-head cactus, Echinocactus polycephalus is a round, cabbage-sized plant covered with large, crooked thorns. The colloquial names for echinacea (coneflower) are "Kansas niggerhead" and "Wild niggerhead". In Oceania, the "niggerhead termite" (Nasutitermes graveolus) is a native of Australia.
- 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 1960, a stand at the stadium in Toowoomba, Australia, was named the "E. S. 'Nigger' Brown Stand" honoring 1920s rugby league player Edward Stanley Brown, so 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.
The word nigger features in official place-names, such as "Nigger Bill Canyon", "Nigger Hollow", and "Niggertown Marsh". In 1967, the United States Board on Geographic Names changed the word nigger to Negro in 143 place names. First changed to "Negrohead Mountain", a peak above Santa Monica, California was renamed on (February 2010) to Ballard Mountain in honor of John Ballard, a black pioneer who settled the area in the 19th century. "Nigger Head Mountain", at Burnet, Texas, was so named because the forest atop it resembled a black man's hair. In 1966, the US 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; and in West Texas, "Dead Nigger Creek" was renamed "Dead Negro Draw". "Nigger Nate Grade", 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.
In northwestern North America, particularly in Canada and the US, there are places which feature many uses of the word nigger. At Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, "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. A point on the Lower Mississippi River, in West Baton Rouge Parish, named "Free Nigger Point" until the late twentieth century, first was renamed "Free Negro Point", but currently is named "Wilkinson Point". "Nigger Head Rock", protruding from a cliff above Highway 421, north of Pennington Gap, Virginia, was renamed "Great Stone Face" in the 1970s.
The N-word euphemism
Key prosecution witness Detective Mark Fuhrman, of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) – 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. Linguistically, the popular press reporting and discussing Fuhrman's testimony substituted the N-word in place of nigger.
Niger 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 name Nyjer seed. The classical Latin pronunciation /ˈniɡeɾ/ sounds like the English /ˈnɪɡər/, occurring in biologic and anatomic names, such as Hyoscamus 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.
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 an insult; in the latter, it may carry notes of in-group disparagement, or even be understood as neutral or affectionate, a possible instance of reappropriation.
Among the black community, the slur nigger is almost always rendered as nigga, representing the pronunciation of the word in African American Vernacular 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, when used among black people, the word 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 (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;
While Kevin Cato 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.'"
- Controversies about the word "niggardly"
- Cultural appropriation
- Guilty or Innocent of Using the N Word
- Kaffir (ethnic slur)
- List of ethnic group names used as insults
- List of ethnic slurs
- List of topics related to Black and African people
- "Niggas vs. Black People"
- The Student as Nigger (essay)
- "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson", an episode of the animated comedy series South Park, in which Stan's dad, Randy, becomes a social pariah after saying "niggers" on Wheel of Fortune
- Profanity by language
- Category of English profanity
- Category:African American
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|Look up N-word in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|Look up nigger in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Analysis of the cultural uses of the word Nigga by Alex Alonso of Street Gangs Magazine
- "Nigger and Caricatures," Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University
- "Nigger (the word), a brief history!" from the African American Registry
- Appropriating a Slur in M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture
- "Let's Make a Deal on the N-Word: White folks will stop using it, and black folks will stop pretending that quoting it is saying it," John McWhorter, The Root