"nayger" [WAS: Re: Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and Loose Like" (1917))]

Dennis R. Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Sun Dec 9 17:35:30 UTC 2007


I don't understand the concept of levelling here. If "Niger" was
pronounced /ay/ (LIGHT) (forget the quality of the 'g') and "Neger"
was pronounced /ey/ (FACE) or /e/ (BET), what is the levelling
process that yields /I/ (HIT)?


>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
>Subject:      "nayger" [WAS: Re: Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and
>Loose Like"
>               (1917))]
>"Nayger" is a dial. remnant of 16th C. "Neger."
>   I once did a good deal of research on these forms. Some of the
>results are in HDAS. Some further upshots:
>   1. "Nigger" is not a variant pronunciation  (or
>"mispronunciation") of "Negro."
>   2. a. "Niger" (one "g") was until the early to mid 18th C. a
>mostly neutral term.
>       b. "Nigger" results from a leveling of both "Neger" and "Niger."
>   3. Runaway slave notices, slave auction ads, etc., which would not
>seem to require euphemisms, uniformly employ "Negro," as though
>"nigger" were inappropriate for polite use..
>   4. The earliest printed exx. of "nigger" as a term of
>white-against-black abuse are from the early 19th C.
>   JL
>Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
>   ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender: American Dialect Society
>Poster: Wilson Gray
>Subject: Re: Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and Loose Like" (1917))
>Makes sense to me, Mark, although I'd call it more "unpopular than
>"pejorative," mainly because it's been rare in my experience - I've
>seen it in print; I *may* have heard it very rarely when I was a
>child, but it wouldn't have had any special meaning. Besides, to the
>extent that I remember it at all, it was used about as often for
>cartoon, po'-white, hillbilly types as for blacks in literature of the
>day. I've known "nigger," well, "nigguh," since I was four or five
>years old, when it packed less than the emotional weight of, perhaps,
>"dumbbell." Being called "nigger" by another nigger wouldn't send
>anybody home crying, but being called "dumbbell" by someone else who
>wasn't one might. It was only when it was used against me by white
>people that it became truly hurtful. E.g. I was waiting for the bus in
>Central Square Cambridge to go visit my girlfriend in Boston, so you
>can imagine where my mind was. I vaguely noticed a white man walking
>toward me. As he passed, he sneered at me, "You Goddamned nigger!" and
>continued on his way as though nothing had happened. I was caught
>completely off guard and totally discombobulated, not knowing whether
>to shit or go blind. Had I been a child, I might well have broken into
>Then, when I got over to my girlfriend's house, she was in a foul mood
>and, with the down-so-low-that-I- had-to-look-up-at-my-feet mood that
>I was in, it killed the relationship.
>But, speaking from the point of view of dialect, I'd read somewhere or
>other that, back in the day, the Irish referred to blacks using a
>pronunciation that sounded to the authors like "naygurs." The white
>man of whom I speak said what sounded to me like "naygah" [ne:ga].
>(Unforunately, this wasn't the first time that I had heard this
>pronunciation. I've merely supplied a sample anecdote.) Supposedly,
>Boston is the most Irish of American cities. So, WAG, perhaps this
>pronunciation is a cross between the old-time Irish pronunciation and
>the ah-less New England pronunciation.
>On Dec 5, 2007 1:42 PM, Mark Mandel wrote:
>>  ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>  Sender: American Dialect Society
>>  Poster: Mark Mandel
>>  Subject: Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and Loose Like" (1917))
>  >
>>  (thread in ADS-L; cc to ANS-L)
>>  On Dec 3, 2007 2:38 PM, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:
>>  > check out the wikipedia on Rastus, which suggests that the name Rastus
>>  > was from Erastus and was given by slave-owners to their slaves -- and
>>  > quickly became generalized as a pejorative term used by whites for
>>  > blacks. (the Cream of Wheat guy is named Rastus, by the way, though i
>>  > suspect that the company no longer uses the name.)
>>  On Dec 4, 2007 12:39 AM, Wilson Gray replied:
>>  > I pretty much agree with "Rastus" as being derived from "Erastus." But
>>  > "Erastus" is a Latinization of Greek "Erastos." This is derived from
>>  > _era-_, love (in the sexual sense). Would a slave, especially a male
>>  > one, have been given such a name? It seems unlikely, from the
>>  > contemporary impression of what that period was like. But, who really
>>  > knows, nowadays?
>>  That argument is based on the assumption that the namer (owner, blech!) kne=
>>  w
>>  the Greek etymology. ISTM just as likely that many knew it only as a Latin
>>  name, and some may have known that it came from Greek, but very few would
>>  have known the origin within Greek.
>>  And for that matter (I continue with WAGgery), all it would have taken was
>>  one or a few masters applying the name, and others picking it up with littl=
>>  e
>>  or no knowledge of its antecedents. Does the historical documentation allow
>>  any inference on diachronic spread?
>>  The article has been modified since Arnold's post, including deletion of th=
>>  e
>>  sentence "During the period of [[American slavery]], it was common practice
>>  for owners to give their slaves historical, and particularly Biblical,
>>  names."
>>  The article now reads in part (latest
>>  revision: 00:01, 5 December 2007; lists of examples snipped; emphasis
>>  added):
>>  Rastus is a pejorative term traditionally associated with African Americans
>>  > in the United States. It is considered highly offensive
>>  >
>>  > The name is sometimes given as 'Rastus, and it is likely a shortening of
>>  > Erastus, a disciple of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 19:22, Romans 16:23, an=
>>  d 2
>>  > Timothy 4:20. "Rastus" has been used as a generic, often derogatory, name
>>  > for Black men at least since 1880, when Joel Chandler Harris included a
>>  > Black deacon named "Brer Rastus" in the first Uncle Remus book. **Contrar=
>>  y
>>  > to popular belief, however, "Rastus" has never been particularly popular =
>>  as
>>  > a Black name.** For example, the 1870 census reported only 42 individuals
>>  > named "Rastus" in the United States, of whom only four were Black or
>>  > mulatto. Rastus=97as any happy black man, not as a particular person=97be=
>>  came a
>>  > familiar character in minstrel shows (...), in books (...), in popular so=
>>  ngs
>>  > (...), on radio, and in films, most notably the Rastus series of short fi=
>>  lms
>>  > (...).
>>  > (usage for Cream of Wheat )
>>  >
>>  m a m
>>  ------------------------------------------------------------
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Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
15C Morrill Hall
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
preston at msu.edu

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

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