The N-word at the time of Huck Finn

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Mar 12 13:40:58 UTC 2009

At 3/11/2009 10:21 PM, Barbara Need wrote:
>I confess I'm not entirely convinced that the I.1.b citations for
>1775, 1811 or even the 1818 uses represent contempt or abuse. In the
>first one it follows "pious wretch";

Actually, "pious wight".

>  I would like to see more context
>for the second; and the third, well, "bad conduct and inferior nature"
>show contempt, but that doesn't mean "nigger" does? Or am I missing

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.

The ballad surely is British or loyalist, about
the revolutionaries.  Contemptuous per se, non?  But to go on:
      "clown" 1.b. Implying ignorance, crassness,
or rude manners: A mere rustic, a boor.  [Not
refined, like the British royal appointees or
commissioned officers.  And certainly without
proper uniforms or military training, disorderly,
firing from behind stone walls, etc.]
1646 F. HAWKINS Youth's Behavior vii. §16 (1663)
32 Put not thy meat in thy mouth, holding thy
knife in thy hands, as do the Countrey Clowns.
1733 CHEYNE Eng. Malady III. Introd. (1734) 262 A
clod-pated Clown. 1848 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 320
Language..such as we should now expect to hear
only from the most ignorant clowns.
      pious wight:  either a dissident
(non-Anglican) Congregationalist/Puritan (who
still didn't believe in celebrating Christmas),
or even worse a contumelious and seditious
minister, one of the "black brigade" (Peter Oliver's phrase).
      "wight"  2. A human being, man or woman,
person. Now arch. or dial. (often implying some contempt or commiseration).
1735 POPE Prol. Sat. 165 The Wight who reads not, and but scans and spells.
      Niggers, of course, were contemptible if
they were yours; ours are loyal and
honourable.  Like the English-allied as compared
to the French-allied Indians earlier in the 18th century.
      Yes, I think in the 1775 quotation "nigger"
is contemptuous (but not abusive).

For the 1811 and 1818 quotations, I agree more
context would be helpful.  (Remember that the OED
does consider the broader context, but will trim
for conciseness.)  Both are available Google full text:

1811, Byron [in a letter to the Rev. Francis
Hodgson, and widely cited in slang dictionaries]:
"If mankind may be saved who never heard or
dreamt, of Galilee and its Prophet, Christianity
is of no avail; if they cannot be saved, why are
not all orthodox? It is a little hard to send a
man preaching to Judea, and leave the rest of the
world---niggers and what not---dark as their
complexions, without  a ray of light for so many
years to lead them on high; and who will believe
that God will damn men for not knowing what they were never taught?"
[The Works of Lord Byron, ed. William Ernest
Henley. Letters, 1804-1813. London: William Heinemann, 1897. Page 142.]

1818, Fearon [writing of New York City]:
"The Presbyterian and Episcopalian, or Church of
England, sects take the precedence in numbers and
respectability. Their ministers receive from two
to eight thousand dollars per annum. All churches
are well filled; they appear the fashionable
places for _display_; and the sermons and talents
of the minister offer never-ending subjects of
interest when social converse has been exhausted
upon the bad conduct and inferior nature of
_niggars_ (negroes); the price of flour at
Liverpool; the capture of the _Gurrièrre_; and the battle of New Orleans."
[Henry Bradshaw Fearon. Sketches of America. A
Narrative of a Journey of Five Thousand Miles
Through the Eastern and Western States ... in
June 1817 ... . 2nd Ed. London: Longman [et a.], 1818. Page 46.]

If it is not Fearon who is expressing contempt,
it is the members of the congregation whom he is paraphrasing who are.

Googling for the Byron quotation, I found an
interesting quotation from Mark Twain.  It's
Twain as author, not as narrator or character,
and might add to the class discussion.
"Thus a problematic instance is Mark Twain’s
comment in a letter of 1853: 'I reckon I had
better black my face, for in these Eastern states
niggers are considerably better than white
people' ( Twain’s Letters , vol. I, 4)."


>On 11 Mar 2009, at 9:04 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>>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.
>>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
>>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
>>>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?
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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