The N-word at the time of Huck Finn

David Bowie db.list at PMPKN.NET
Thu Mar 12 18:53:43 UTC 2009

From:    "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>

> 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.

<snip down to>

> 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.]

The first citation seems to fit the definition to me, but the second one
(absent further context) seems possibly neutral, just in an aggressive
context. That is, if the letter-writer was trying to equate Lincoln with
those of African descent (not an unusual thing for those opposed to his
views on slavery and such issues), it may have been a more neutral
reference to race than the definition would have it.

(Sorry about the convoluted syntax there--i'm a bit short on sleep.)


Also, i'm wondering whether it's more important when Huck Finn was set
or when it was written, which would have been a difference of some
decades, and this term may have shifted somewhat in that time. Not sure
if Mark Twain would have had access to earlier usages and intuitions
about words like this, but if anyone could have pulled it off he may
have been one of the few--whatever one feels about his attempts to
represent varieties of English, he certainly went around paying
attention to subtle differences in the use of the language.

David Bowie                               University of Central Florida
     Jeanne's Two Laws of Chocolate: If there is no chocolate in the
     house, there is too little; some must be purchased. If there is
     chocolate in the house, there is too much; it must be consumed.

The American Dialect Society -

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