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For the impact structure in Western Australia, see Piccaninny crater.

Pickaninny (also picaninny or piccaninny or picinniny) is a term in English which refers to children of black descent or a racial caricature thereof. It is a pidgin word form, which may be derived from the Portuguese pequenino[1] (an affectionate term derived from pequeno, "little"). The term pickaninny has also been used in the past to describe aboriginal Australians.[2] According to Robin Bernstein who describes the meaning in the context of the United States, the pickaninny is characterized by three qualities: "the figure is always juvenile, always of color, and always resistant if not immune to pain".[3] At one time the word may have been used as a term of affection, but may be considered derogatory perhaps in America but many people in other countries still use it in their own language and it is still used as a term of endearment. It is spelt pikinini in Melanesian pijin English[4] [5]


Reproduction of an old tin sign advertising Picaninny Freeze, a frozen treat.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary quotes an example from 1653 of the word "pickaninny" used for a child,[6] it may also have been used in early black vernacular to indicate anything small, not necessarily a child. In a column in The Times of 1788, allegedly reporting a legal case in Philadelphia, a slave is charged with dishonestly handling goods he knows to be stolen and which he describes as insignificant, "only a piccaninny cork-screw and piccaninny knife - one cost six-pence and tudda a shilling..." The anecdote goes on to make an anti-slavery moral however, when the black challenges the whites for dishonestly handling stolen goods too - namely slaves - so it is perhaps more likely to be an invention than factual. The deliberate use of the word in this context however suggests it already had black vernacular associations.[7] In 1826 an Englishman named Thomas Young was tried at the Old Bailey in London on a charge of enslaving and selling four Gabonese women known as "Nura, Piccaninn[8]i, Jumbo Jack and Prince Quarben".[9]

In the Southern United States, 'Cite error: There are <ref> tags on this page without content in them (see the help page). 'pickaninny was long used to refer to the children of African slaves or (later) of black American citizens. While this use of the term was popularized in reference to the character of Topsy in the 1852 book Uncle Tom's Cabin,[citation needed] the term was used as early as 1831 in an anti-slavery tract "The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by herself" published in Edinburgh, Scotland. The term was still in some use in the US as late as the 1960s. In the Patois dialect of Jamaica, the word has been shortened to the form "pickney" which used to describe a child regardless of racial origin. Pikinini is the accepted language to describe children in some forms of Melanesian Pijin English https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pickaninny&action=edit&section=1#.Cite error: There are <ref> tags on this page without content in them (see the help page). It is often used as a term of endearment. There are child care businesses in Australia utilizing the name. Cite error: A <ref> tag is missing the closing </ref> (see the help page). and Piccaninnie Ponds Conservation Park.

Many old lullabies have the word "pickaninny" in them - used as an affectionate term for babies - often interchangeable with a child's name, i.e.: to personalize the song many families have substituted the children's name. "It's time for little Pickaninnies to go to sleep."[citation needed]

Pickaninny was used by Oakland Police officers in a denigrating fashion in the 1995 Mario Van Peebles film Panther to describe an African American child who was killed in a car accident.

The original version of the sentimental 1896 song, "Kentucky Babe", sung from the viewpoint of an adult black man reminiscing about his childhood, contains several stereotyped lines, including "when I was a pickaninny on my Mammy's knee". Modern versions of the song substitute non-racial terms in the lyrics.

In Stephen King's It, one of Richard Tozier's Voices is a black man named Pickaninny Jim, who refers to the character Beverly Marsh as "Miss Scawlett" in a reference to Gone with the Wind.

In Spike Lee's 2000 film, Bamboozled, the representation of African-Americans in popular media is examined and pickaninny representations figure prominently in the film.

In Quentin Tarantino's 2012 film Django Unchained for a black man Mandingo fighter.

The 1960's British Rhythm & Blues group The Small Faces wrote a song called Picaninny (different spelling). It is merely the title of the song which is an instrumental - so it may refer to the track being unfinished - therefore a little track - a ditty if you will.

Controversial usage[edit]

The term was controversially used ("wide-grinning picaninnies") by the British Conservative politician Enoch Powell in his "Rivers of Blood" speech on 20 April 1968. In 1987, Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona defended the use of the word, claiming: "As I was a boy growing up, blacks themselves referred to their children as pickaninnies. That was never intended to be an ethnic slur to anybody."[10] Before becoming the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson apologized for any offence caused by an article in which he sarcastically suggested that "the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies."[11][12]

Chess term[edit]

The term is in current use as a technical term in Chess Problems, for a particular set of moves by a black pawn.

Related terms[edit]

Cognates of the term appear in other languages and cultures, presumably also derived from the Portuguese word, and it is not controversial or derogatory in these contexts. It is in widespread use in Melanesian pidgin and creole languages such as Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea, as the word for "child" (or just young, as in the phrase pikinini pik, meaning piglet). Indeed, even in quite formal events, HRH Prince Charles is referred to using the term in Tok Pisin, and has delighted in describing himself, when using this language in speeches to native speakers, as, "nambawan pikinini blong Kwin" ("number-one pickaninny belong queen", i.e. The First Child of the Queen).[13]

In certain dialects of Caribbean English, the words pickney and pickney-negger are used to refer to children. Also in Nigerian Pidgin, the word pikin is used to mean a child.[14] And in Sierra Leone Krio[15] the term pikin refers to child or children, while in Liberian English the term pekin does likewise. In Chilapalapa, a pidgin language used in Southern Africa, the term used is pikanin. In Surinamese Sranan Tongo the term pikin may refer to children as well as to small or little. Some of these words may be more directly related to the Portuguese pequeno than to pequenino, the source of pickaninny.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary online, draft revision March 2010:'Probably < a form in an(sic) Portuguese-based pidgin < Portuguese pequenino boy, child, use as noun of pequenino very small, tiny (14th cent.; earlier as pequeninno (13th cent.))...'
  2. ^ Last of the tribe, Australian National Museum
  3. ^ Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 35.
  4. ^ https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pikinini
  5. ^ Adrian Room, A dictionary of true etymologies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc., 1986), 130.
  6. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, draft reveision March 2009: "1653 in N. & Q. (1905) 4th Ser. 10 129/1 Some women [in Barbados], whose pickaninnies are three yeares old, will, as they worke at weeding..suffer the hee Pickaninnie, to sit astride upon their backs."
  7. ^ The Times, Friday, Aug 22, 1788; pg. 4; Issue 1148; col B, 'Black and White, A Modern Anecdote'
  8. ^
  9. ^ The Times, Wednesday, Oct 25, 1826; pg. 3; Issue 13100; col A,Admiralty Sessions, Old Bailey, Oct. 24.
  10. ^ Watkins, Ronald J. (1990). High Crimes and Misdemeanors : The Term and Trials of Former Governor Evan Mecham. William Morrow & Co. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-688-09051-7. 
  11. ^ Evening Standard: Boris says sorry over 'blacks have lower IQs' article in the Spectator from 2 April 2008
  12. ^ Telegraph: Original article by Boris Johnson from 10 January 2002
  13. ^ "Prince of Wales, 'nambawan pikinini', visits Papua New Guinea" in The Telegraph, 4 Nov 2012
  14. ^ Faraclas, Nicholas G. Nigerian Pidgin. p. 45. N.p.: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0-415-02291-6, p. 45, via Google Books.
  15. ^ Cassidy, Frederic Gomes and Robert Brock Le Page. Dictionary of Jamaican English. p. 502. 2nd Edition. Barbados, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2002. ISBN 976-640-127-6. via Google Books

External links[edit]