"Negro with two g's"

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sat Mar 9 19:46:15 UTC 2013

A use before the Civil War:

Cleveland Plain Dealer 06-06-1959 p.2 {America's Historical Newspapers]
Appropos of Douglas having spoken in his Illinois speech of "niggers," Senator Seward is reported to have said that "no man can be elected President of the United States who spells negro with two g's." Wendell Phillips says this is the wittiest thing Seward ever got off.--Saturday Press.

Stephen Goranson
From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of Geoffrey Nunberg [nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU]
Sent: Saturday, March 09, 2013 2:13 PM
Subject: [ADS-L] "Negro with two g's"

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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