"Nigga" untrademarkable?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Mar 17 04:06:59 UTC 2006

At 12:25 AM -0500 3/16/06, Wilson Gray wrote:
>FWIW, I've heard "nigger" pronounced as [nIgr] by only one black person in
>my entire life. It gave me the same creeps that hearing it pronounced by a
>white person would have. So, I'm not sure what the OED means by "deliberate
>adoption by some speakers." Oh, I see. The reference is only to the
>development and adoption of the hip-hop spelling, as in "Niggaz Wit
>Attitude." Never mind.
>However, hip-hop hasn't "redefined" the word in any sense of the term. About
>45 years ago, while reading a grammar of Yiddish, I was startled to discover
>that "yid," a word that I had theretofore known only as a term of opprobium
>for a Jew used by white Christians, was defined by this grammmar as "a Jew,
>a man, a person, a human being," with no hint of there being anything
>insulting about the term. I thought, "Hey, that's almost the same way that
>[nIg@] works! It's an insult only when used by outsiders." I say "almost,"
>because it is possible, under certain circumstances, for one black person to
>insult another black person by calling him a [nIg@]. The so-called
>"redefinition" has always been part of the definition of [nIg@].
This reminded me of a discussion we had on "yid" a while back that I
recalled as even more specifically parallel to "nigga".  Sure enough,
this was the posting I had in mind, retrieved from my hard disk:

Date:         Wed, 29 Oct 1997 12:54:28 -0800
From:         "A[llen] Maberry" <maberry at U.WASHINGTON.EDU>
Subject:      Re: ADS-L Digest - 27 Oct 1997 to 28 Oct 1997

On Wed, 29 Oct 1997, Larry Horn wrote:
>  One candidate for this status that I think doesn't really fit is the Yiddish
>  "yid", referring to a (Jewish) person.  This word was around in
>Yiddish before
>  becoming a pejorative in German and English, I believe.  Someone
>who knows the
>  history can correct me.

Turning to our trusty "Joys of Yiddish" by Leo Rosten, whether the term
"yid" (m.sing.)is offensive or not depends upon its pronunciation. If it
is pronounced so as to rhyme with "deed", it is neutral; if it is
pronounced to rhyme "did" it is offensive, since that is the way it would
be pronounced by non-Jews. The f.sing. form "yidene" is always offensive.
"Yid" itself is cognate with the German "Jude" and means literally "a
Jew". So far Rosten, however it would be interesting, to me at least, how
current Yiddish speakers perceive the word.

but it turns out that matters are not quite so simple, in particular
with respect to the trustiness (or dare we say truthiness) of
Rosten's _Joys_.  Here are a couple of the follow-up posts:

Date:         Wed, 29 Oct 1997 17:18:15 -0500
From:         Larry Rosenwald <LROSENWALD at WELLESLEY.EDU>
Subject:      yid

         I'm not sure I agree - and have reservations in any case about
using Rosten's book by itself.  "Yid" - in the Yiddish-speaking circles
I'm familiar with, at any rate - is often pronounced to rhyme with "did,"
and not for any pejorative purpose.  "Yidene" is sometimes pejorative in
purpose, but is also used by Yiddish writers, and not always pejoratively.

         Best, Larry Rosenwald
Date:         Thu, 30 Oct 1997 07:03:29 -0500
Subject: The word Yid
From:  "Ron Rabin" <rabinrl at buffalostate.edu>

 From my experience, the word Yid remains totally uncontaminated for
Jews by its use elsewhere as a epithet.  The word Yid in Yiddish means
Jew, and in general discussion means "man" (generic) or "one," e.g.,
a man's lot in life, one does not cross the road so quickly.  The word
has always meant Jew, just as Yiddish means Jewish (and is also the
name of the language).
Leo Roston's _The Joy of Yiddish_ is no great linguistic source.  There
are so many pronunciation variations among Yiddish speakers that it just
cannot be said that a particular difference (Yid rhymes with "deed" or
"did" having different connotations) is generally meaningful.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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