"Negro with two g's"

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Sat Mar 9 19:13:09 UTC 2013

This formula was used during the Civil War and after to denote what is now euphemized* as "the N-word." It was often attributed to William Seward, is said to have remarked that that the American people would never elect to the presidency “[a] man who spells negro with two g’s,” since “the people always mean to elect a gentleman for president.” (A variant has Seward making the remark about  Douglas. http://goo.gl/YXWKX) Later in the century, it was also attributed to Lincoln:

...right-minded people will not spell the name [Negro] with "two g's" as they will not pronounce the word "Indian" "injun." There was somewhat of a prophecy in the remark attributed to that unique and typical American whom you all revere...—Abraham Lincoln: "No man will ever again be elected president of the United States who spells the word 'Negro' with two g's."  Atticus Greene Haygoo, 1889. http://goo.gl/UTsZP

Somewhat weirdly, to my mind, there was a variant, "to spell nigger with two g's," which seems to have been used both disparagingly and approvingly:

According to an article in  The Living Age, 1867, "During the late civil war, 'to spell nigger with two g's' was a phrase applied to a member of the Democratic party, or any other politician, who did not believe in the natural equality of the black and white races..." http://goo.gl/DTrq6

Writing in 1867, an English traveler says:

Strangers are scarce in Norfolk, and it was not long before I found an excuse for entering into conversation with the "citizens." My first question was not received with much cordiality by my new acquaintances. "How do the _negroes_ work? Wall, we spells nigger with two 'g's,' I reckon." http://goo.gl/gOFZT

I get what the second usage is about, but not the first.

The phrase is still used occasionally (http://goo.gl/zWT15) though most modern occurrences seem to be from people quoting Seward.

*PS It doesn't seem quite right to describe phrases like "the N-word" as euphemisms, though that usage seems to be pervasive (see, e.g., the Wikipedia entry for "nigger"). To say that "A" is a euphemism for "B" is to say that A denotes politely what B denotes rudely, but in this case the words are not co-extensive: "A" denotes "B" not B's.  Is there a name for this type of expression?


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