The N-word at the time of Huck Finn

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Mar 12 02:04:04 UTC 2009

Barbara, if you don't have quick access to the on-line OED the
following might help---or not!  It seems terribly complex.  [I've
omitted most of the 20th-century quotations.]

Draft revision Mar. 2009.

I.1.b. Used by whites or other non-blacks as a hostile term of abuse
or contempt.
1775 in F. Moore Songs & Ballads Amer. Revol. (1856) 101 The rebel
clowns, oh! what a sight! Too awkward was their figure. 'Twas yonder
stood a pious wight, And here and there a nigger. 1811 BYRON in Mem.
F. Hodgson (1878) I. 195 The rest of the world{em}niggers and what
not. 1818 H. B. FEARON Sketches Amer. 46 The bad conduct and inferior
nature of niggars (negroes). a1849 H. COLERIDGE Ess. & Marginalia
(1851) I. 164 A similar error has turned Othello..into a rank
woolly-pated, thick-lipped nigger. 1861 H. A. JACOBS Incidents in
Life Slave Girl vii. 59 Do you suppose that I will have you tending
my children with the children of that nigger? 1931 D. L. SAYERS Five
Red Herrings i. 11 Waters.., like all Englishmen, was ready enough to
admire and praise all foreigners except dagoes and niggers. 1936 M.
MITCHELL Gone with Wind 401 'You're a fool nigger, and the worst
day's work Pa ever did was to buy you,' said Scarlett slowly...
There, she thought, I've said 'nigger' and Mother wouldn't like that at all.

c. Used by blacks as a neutral or favourable term.  [Note quote from
Mark Twain.]
1831 H. J. FINN Amer. Comic Ann. 88 'You be right dere,' observed
Sambo, '..else what fur he go more 'mong niggers den de white trash?'
1838 R. M. BIRD Peter Pilgrim I. 238 Wanted to run, massa, but no
more run than a barn-door; stuck fast in the mud{em}could'nt
move{em}all over with niggah! 1848 G. LIPPARD Paul Ardenheim II. i.
225 For sixteen{em}seventeen year, dis nigga watch his time. 1884 'M.
TWAIN' Adventures Huckleberry Finn viii. 72 Dey wuz a nigger name'
Bob, dat had ketched a wood-flat. c1937 in N. R. Yetman Voices from
Slavery 257 A nigger by name o' Enoch Golden married us.

d. Used by blacks as a depreciatory term.
1834 F. LIEBER Letters 90 A negro boy under my window calls a lad of
the same race, by way of reproach, 'nigger'. 1866 Atlantic Monthly
July 79 When they call each other 'nigger', the familiar term of
opprobrium is applied with all the malice of a sting. 1926 C. VAN
VECHTEN Nigger Heaven 26 I'm..tired to death of all these Niggers
downstairs. [Note] While this informal epithet is freely used by
Negroes among themselves, not only as a term of opprobrium, but also
actually as a term of endearment, its employment by a white person is
always fiercely resented.

2. a. A person who does menial labour; any person considered to be of
low social status. derogatory. Cf. (and earliest in) white nigger n.
at WHITE adj. Special uses 1e.
1835 R. M. BIRD Hawks of Hawk-Hollow I. xi. 154 Wa' to been married
soon, but faw the white nigga Gilbert, what cut the Colonel's throat!
1871 E. EGGLESTON Hoosier School-master iv. 52 'Ole Miss Meanses'
white nigger', as some of them called her, in allusion to her slavish life.

b. Any person whose behaviour is regarded as reprehensible. derogatory.
1840 W. G. SIMMS Border Beagles xxv, They're [sc. white officers of
justice] afraid of me, the niggers, and you see I ain't afraid of
them. [1861 Let. in H. Holzer Dear Mr. Lincoln 361 Abe
Lincoln..goddam are nothing but a goddam Black nigger.]

These are just the noun uses; there are similar senses for the
adjectival use, as well as favorable senses that I have not copied here.


At 3/11/2009 09:40 PM, Barbara Need wrote:
>I am grading papers about racism in _Huck FInn_ and several students
>have said something implying that _nigger_ was offensive at either the
>time the book is set or the time Twain was writing (or both). I have
>not found anything very useful in the archives. Do we know how
>offensive the word was in the 19th century?
>Barbara Need
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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