the n word: on its way out?

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Mar 8 15:54:34 UTC 2007

On 3/8/07, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
> IIRC, George Wallace was a notable utterer of "Nigra."  He may have
> switched to something else after he mellowed late in life.

Don't know about Wallace, but Strom Thurmond used "Nigra" [nIgr@]
during his 1948 presidential campaign. In his notorious speech to the
"Dixiecrat" convention (resurrected during the Trent Lott brouhaha in
2002), Thurmond spoke of "the Nigra race" (some claim he said "the
nigger race", though Thurmond wasn't known to use the word "nigger" in

>From the sound clip of Thurmond's speech, he's clearly not saying
[nigroU]/[nIgroU], but it's difficult to tell whether he's saying
[nIgr@] or [nIg@] because of the following [r] in "race":

If we were to give Thurmond the benefit of the doubt, we might say
that "Nigra race" came out as something close to [nIg@ reIs] because
of dissimilation (cf. the loss of the first [r] for both rhotic and
non-rhotic speakers in such words as "prerogative" or "surprise").
But as Wilson and Jon suggest, this phonetic similarity was useful for
speakers like Thurmond, since it allowed "Nigra" to be heard however
the audience wanted to hear it, all the while giving the speaker
plausible deniability.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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