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

Dennis Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Sun Dec 9 18:41:51 UTC 2007

I thought maybe that was the case, but I'm still puzzled by
levelling, especially levelling from "both."


>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
>Subject:      Re: "nayger" [WAS: Re: Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and Loose
>               Like"               (1917))]
>"Niger" was apparently pronounced / i / until, perhaps, it became an
>archaic form learned from print.
>   JL
>"Dennis R. Preston" <preston at MSU.EDU> wrote:
>   ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>Sender: American Dialect Society
>Poster: "Dennis R. Preston"
>Subject: Re: "nayger" [WAS: Re: Rastus (was: "Jazz Means Happy and Loose
>Like" (1917))]
>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
>>Poster: Jonathan Lighter
>>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 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
>  >tears.
>>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.
>>>  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
>>>  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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>  >>
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>>come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
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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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>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
Morrill Hall 15-C
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48864 USA

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

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