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Pickaninny (also picaninny, piccaninny or pickinninie) is a word applied originally by people of the West Indies to their babies and more widely referring to small children, as in Melanesian Pidgin. It is a pidgin word form, derived from the Portuguese pequenino ("very small",[1] a diminutive version of the word pequeno, 'small', also used in Spanish, spelled pequeñito).

In contrast to this neutral meaning, the word has been used in North America as a racial slur referring to a dark-skinned child of African descent. In modern sensibility, the term can refer to an archaic depiction or caricature used in a derogatory and racist sense.[2]


Pidgin usage[edit]

Together with several other Portuguese forms, pequeno and its diminutive pequenino have been widely adopted in many Pidgin or Creole languages, for 'child', 'small' and similar meanings. They are quite common in the creole languages of the Caribbean, especially those which are English-based. The Patois dialect of Jamaica, the word has been shortened to the form pickney, which is used to describe a child regardless of racial origin, while in the English-based national creole language of Suriname, Sranang Tongo, pequeno has been borrowed as pikin for 'small' and 'child'.[3]

In the Pidgin English dialects of Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon in western Africa, pikin, or pekin – also derived from Portuguese – is used to describe a child. It can be heard in songs by African popular musicians such as Fela Kuti's Afrobeat song "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense"[4] and Prince Nico Mbarga's highlife song "Sweet Mother".[5] Both are from Nigeria.

The word pikinini is used in Tok Pisin, Solomon Pijin and Bislama (the Melanesian pidgin dialects of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu respectively) the word for 'child' or 'children'.

North American usage[edit]

Reproduction of a tin sign from 1922 advertising Picaninny Freeze, a frozen treat

Although the Oxford English Dictionary quotes an example from 1653 of the word pickaninny used to describe a child,[6] it may also have been used in early African-American 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 person 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, Piccaninni, Jumbo Jack and Prince Quarben".[8]

In the Southern United States, pickaninny was long used to refer to the children of African slaves or (later) of any dark-skinned African American. 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. According to the scholar 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".[9][dubious ]


The term piccaninny was used in colonial Australia for an Aboriginal child and is still in use in some Indigenous Kriol languages.[10][11] The word piccaninny (sometimes spelled picanninnie) was also used in Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Its use is reflected in historic newspaper articles[citation needed] and numerous place names. Examples of the latter include Piccaninnie Ponds and Piccaninny Lake[12] in South Australia, Piccaninny crater and Picaninny Creek in Western Australia and Picaninny Point in Tasmania.[13]

The term was controversially used ("wide-grinning picaninnies") by the British Conservative politician Enoch Powell when he quoted a letter 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."[14] Before becoming the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson wrote that "the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies." He later apologised for the article.[15][16]

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. See: Pickaninny (chess).

In popular culture[edit]

"Shake Yo' Dusters, or, Piccaninny Rag", sheet music of an 1898 song by William Krell.
Advertisement for the comedy short film The Pickaninny (1921) with Ernie Morrison aka "Sunshine Sammy."


  • 1894Thomas Edison's short Kinetoscope demonstration film "Pickaninnies" showed Black children dancing on a plantation[17]
  • 1931 – In the film The Front Page, one of the reporters, played by Frank McHugh, calls in a story to his newspaper about "a colored woman" giving birth to "a pickaninny" in the back of a cab. The term is used twice in the scene. (See also His Girl Friday below, a remake of the same story.)
  • 1935 – the Shirley Temple film The Little Colonel features the grandfather Colonel barking "piccaninny" at two young children.
  • 1935 – Shirley Temple film The Littlest Rebel the word "pickaninny" is used to describe the young slave children who are friends to Virgie, but excluded from her birthday party at the beginning of the film.
  • 1936 – In the film Poor Little Rich Girl, Shirley Temple sings the song "Oh, My Goodness" to four ethnically stereotyped dolls. The fourth doll, representing a black African woman or girl, is addressed as "pickaninny".
  • 1936 – In the Hal Roach feature film General Spanky starring the Our Gang children, Buckwheat gets his foot tangled in the cord that blows the whistle on the river boat. Buckwheat is untangled by the captain of the river boat who hands him over to his master and tells him to "keep an eye on that little pickaninny".
  • 1940 – In the film The Philadelphia Story, photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) uses the term while inspecting the house of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn).
  • 1940 – In the film His Girl Friday, McCue, one of the press room reporters, jokes that "Mrs. Phoebe DeWolfe" gave birth to a pickaninny in a patrol wagon, concluding, "When the pickaninny was born, the Rifle Squad examined him carefully to see if it was Earl Williams [an escaped death-row convict]. Well, they knew he was hiding somewhere."
  • 1959 – In the opening line of Robert Wise's film Odds Against Tomorrow which tackled issues of racism, Robert Ryan's character picks up a young black girl after she bumps into him and says, "You little pickaninny, you're gonna kill yourself flying like that."
  • 1987 – In the film Burglar, Ray Kirschman (played by G. W. Bailey) confronts ex-con Bernice Rhodenbarr (Whoopi Goldberg) in her bookstore by saying "now listen here, pickaninny!"
  • 1995 – "Pickaninny" was used in the Mario Van Peebles film Panther in a denigrating fashion by Oakland police officer characters to describe an African American child who was killed in a car accident.
  • 2000 – In Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, the representation of African-Americans in popular media is examined and pickaninny representations figure prominently in the film.


  • 1755Samuel Foote's nonsense prose includes: "there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself ..."
  • 1911 – In the novel Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie, the Indians of Neverland are members of the Piccaninny tribe. Sarah Laskow described them as "a blanket stand-in for "others" of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States" who generally communicate in pidgin with lines such as "Ugh, ugh, wah!".[18]
  • 1920F. Scott Fitzgerald used the word "pickaninnies" to describe young black children playing in the street, in his short story "The Ice Palace".
  • 1935 – Throughout his travel book Journey Without Maps, British author Graham Greene uses "piccaninny" as a general term for African children.
  • 1936 – In Margaret Mitchell's best-selling epic Gone with the Wind, Melanie Wilkes objects to her husband's intended move to New York City because it would mean that their son Beau would be educated alongside Yankees and pickaninnies.[19]
  • 1938 – Early editions of the longest-running British children's comic book The Beano, launched in 1938, featured a pickaninny character, Little Peanut, on its masthead.
  • 1953 – In his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin writes, "... shooing the pickannies away from the great porch ...” and “... making much of the pickaninnies and bearing gifts."
  • 1953 – In Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", the grandmother uses the term: "'In my time,' said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, 'children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh, look at the little pickaninny!' she said and pointed to a negro child standing in the door of a shack. 'Wouldn't that make a picture.'"
  • 1986 – In Stephen King's novel 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.
  • 1987–2003Orson Scott Card's historical fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker uses the term, such as in Seventh Son: "Papooses learnt to hunt, pickaninnies learnt to tote ..."


  • 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 child's name. "It's time for little Pickaninnies to go to sleep." Wyoming Lullaby by Gene Williams, Published Lawrence Wright Music Co. Ltd, London WC2
  • 1887 – The word "pickaninnies" appears in the lyrics of Newfoundland folk song Kelligrew's Soiree: "There was boiled guineas, cold guineas, bullock's heads and piccaninnies."
  • 1902Scott Joplin wrote the music for a 1902 song with lyrics by Henry Jackson called "I Am Thinking of My Pickanniny Days".
  • 1898 – "Shake Yo' Dusters, or, Piccaninny Rag" is a ragtime song by William Krell.
  • 1914 – The original version of the lullaby "Hush-A-Bye, Ma Baby" ("The Missouri Waltz") contains the line "when I was a Pickaninny on ma Mammy's knee". When it became the state song of Missouri in 1949, the word "pickaninny" was replaced with "little child".[20]
  • 1924 – In the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, the song "Pickaninny Shoes" was composed by singer and songwriter Noble Sissle and pianist Eubie Blake.
  • 1968 – The Country Joe and the Fish album Together includes the fiercely ironic "Harlem Song", with the lyric "Every little picaninny wears a great big grin."
  • 1978 – The Australian folk-rock band Redgum used the word in their song "Carrington Cabaret" dealing with white indifference to the problems of aboriginal Australia on their album If You Don't Fight You Lose.
  • 1978 – The word appears in the song "Warriors Bold" by Rhodesian folk artist John Edmond , as part of this 1978 album Troopiesongs - Phase III . It is used to describe a native African child prior to his joining of the Rhodesian African Rifles.
  • 1987 – The word was used by Australian country music performer Slim Dusty in the lyrics of his "nursery-rhyme-style" song "Boomerang": "Every picaninny knows, that's where the roly-poly goes."


  • 2020 - Episode 8 (Jig-A-Bobo) of the HBO television series Lovecraft Country features a character chased by Topsy and Bopsy, two ghoulish monsters depicted as "pickaninny" caricatures.[21][22]

Related terms[edit]

In Papua New Guinea, pikinini is not derogatory and is used in its original context as the word for child. Here local children are seen at Buk bilong Pikinini (Books for Children) in Port Moresby, an independent not-for-profit organisation which aims to establish children's libraries and foster a love of reading and learning.

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.

The term pikinini is found in Melanesian pidgin and creole languages such as Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea or Bislama of Vanuatu, as the usual word for 'child' (of a person or animal);[23] it may refer to children of any race. For example, Prince Charles used the term in a speech he gave in Tok Pisin during a formal event: he described himself as nambawan pikinini bilong Misis Kwin (i.e. the first child of the Queen).[24]

In certain dialects of Caribbean English, the words pickney and pickney-negger are used to refer to children. Also, in Nigerian as well as Cameroonian Pidgin English, the word pikin is used to mean a child.[25] And in Sierra Leone Krio[26] 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 Sranan Tongo and Ndyuka of Suriname 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.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "pickaninny". Oxford English Dictionary online (draft revision ed.). 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. ^ Room, Adrian (1986). A dictionary of true etymologies. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc. p. 130. ISBN 9780415030601.
  3. ^ Muysken, Pieter C.; Smith, Norval (2014). Surviving the Middle Passage: The West Africa–Surinam Sprachbund. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. p. 228. ISBN 978-3110343854.
  4. ^ "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" Genius
  5. ^ Mbarga, Prince Nico & Rocafil Jazz (1976) Sweet Mother (lp) Rounder Records #5007 (38194)
  6. ^ "pickaninny". Oxford English Dictionary (draft revision ed.). 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. ^ "Black and White, A Modern Anecdote", The Times, 22 August 1788; Issue 1148; p. 4; col B.
  8. ^ The Times, 25 October 1826; Issue 13100; p. 3; col A, Admiralty Sessions, Old Bailey, 24 October.
  9. ^ Bernstein, Robin (2011). Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9780814787090.
  10. ^ "Last of the Tribe". National Museum of Australia.
  11. ^ Meakens, Felicity (2014). Language contact varieties. p. 367. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  12. ^ "Piccaninny Lagoon, Lake". Location SA Map Viewer. Government of South Australia. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  13. ^ Maiden, Siobhan. "The Picaninny Point Debacle". ABC Australia. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
  14. ^ Watkins, Ronald J. (1990). High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Term and Trials of Former Governor Evan Mecham. William Morrow & Co. pp. 72. ISBN 978-0-688-09051-7.
  15. ^ "Boris says sorry over 'blacks have lower IQs' article in the Spectator". Evening Standard. 2 April 2008. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
  16. ^ Boris Johnson (10 January 2002). "If Blair's so good at running the Congo, let him stay there". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 20 June 2008.
  17. ^ Blacks in Film, Jim Pines ISBN 0 289 70326 3
  18. ^ Laskow, Sarah. "The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe". Smithsonian. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  19. ^ "Gone with the Wind". Project Gutenburg. Retrieved 22 March 2020.
  20. ^ "Missouri History". Retrieved 22 March 2020.
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Crowley, Terry. 2003. A new Bislama dictionary. Fiji: USP. ISBN 9789820203624. See entry "pikinini".
  24. ^ "Prince of Wales, 'nambawan pikinini', visits Papua New Guinea". The Daily Telegraph. 4 November 2012.
  25. ^ Faraclas, Nicholas G. (1996). Nigerian Pidgin. Routledge. p. 45. ISBN 0-415-02291-6 – via Google Books.
  26. ^ Cassidy, Frederic Gomes; Robert Brock le Page (2002). Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed.). Barbados, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press. p. 502. ISBN 976-640-127-6 – via Google Books.

External links[edit]