the n word: on its way out?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Mar 8 16:30:30 UTC 2007

Burns actually wrote "niger."

  OED has some catching up to do.


"Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Joel S. Berson"
Subject: Re: the n word: on its way out?

At 3/8/2007 10:21 AM, Jon L. wrote:
>HDAS addresses and explicates all such questions. So I don't have to.

OED2 addresses some of the same questions, but since I can cut and
paste I will address them.

"Niger", "Neger", and "Negro" all arose (at least according to the
citations of OED2) at about the same time, the late 1500s -- close
enough (1555 to 1587) that I would guess one could not call any an
antecedent of the others.

OED2's earliest citation for "nigger" is 1786 Burns Ordination iv,
How graceless Ham leugh at his Dad, Which made Canaan a nigger.

> Except the one about "nigra." I haven't checked GWTW,

The Gutenberg on-line text (caution: one may be committing a
copyright violation in the U.S.!) of GWTW uses "nigger" (as well as
"negro"), but not "nigra[h]", nor "Niger" or "Neger". Of course the
edition Gutenberg transcribed may have been expurgated. Jim Landau,
are you sure GWTW uses "nigra"?

>but I did just watch the 1930 biopic _Abraham Lincoln_, with Walter
>Huston as Abe. (Screenplay by Stephen Vincent Benet.)
> John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) complains pretty clearly that
> Lincoln "freed the Nigras."
> This is/ was a perfectly ordinary Southern pronunciation of "Negro,"

OED2 under "nigra" (not the earliest citation, however): 1960
Wentworth & Flexner Dict. Amer. Slang 354/2 Niggra = nigger. A
pronunciation used by Southerners of Southern breeding and ancestry.
Conjuring up the period of Negro slavery, the pronunciation is even
more derog. than 'nigger'.

>but has become taboo itself for at least two reasons:
> 1. It sounds like somebody's trying to use the other n-word and
> weasling out at the last second so you can't prove nuthin'.
> 2. Racist types didn't cotton to white Southerners who'd go out
> of their way to say "Negro," no matter how they tried to pronounce it.
> IIRC, George Wallace was a notable utterer of "Nigra." He may
> have switched to something else after he mellowed late in life.
> JL
>"Landau, James" wrote:
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>Sender: American Dialect Society
>Poster: "Landau, James"
>Subject: Re: the n word: on its way out?
>I dispute the word "inextricably". Linguistic drift does strange things
>over time. Note in the very next sentence "its popularity among those
>African Americans who put a positive spin on it as a term of solidarity
>or endearment." If it does become the standard term of endearment among
>African Americans (unlikely but possible), it will inevitably lose its
>connotations of "racism and hate".
>Or consider the following scenario, which I concede is VERY unlikely:
>In some state there is a schism in the Democratic Party, a schism
>serious enough that in the next primary the ballot has to have two
>separate columns for what previously were simply "Democratic"
>candidates. One faction will claim to be the "Regular Democrats", of
>course. One of the main reasons for the schism is that a number of
>African American candidates got fed up with the policies of the Party
>leadership in that state, so these schismatics (which include a good
>number of whites and other non-blacks, of course) choose to call
>themselves the "N****r Democrats". Just imagine the bumper stickers and
>billboards and newspaper headlines in that state going into the general
>election. Now to makes things tighter, let's suppose a significant
>number of the "N****r" candidates win in the general election, but the
>Regular Democrats win a court order banning the other faction from using
>the name "Democrat". Stories from Washington DC will have to refer to
>"Senator Smith (Nr, [state abbreviation])", which will be doubly
>interesting because Senator Smith is white. Worse, in this one state
>"N****r" will no longer be an offensive term for an African American but
>rather a purely descriptive term for a member, any race, of a particular
>political party.
>More likely: I imagine a Republican (race unspecified) running in a
>district with a high percentage of African American voters who plasters
>the district with bumper stickers reading "ALL N****RS VOTE THE STRAIGHT
>Now for two non-hypothetical questions.
>1) Why is the term "n****r" so offensive while the similar-sounding but
>now-long-forgotten term "Negro" was the proper choice for those who
>wished to be polite? My guess is that since "Negro" was the original
>term, "n****r" originated as an illiteracy among white trash, and became
>stereotyped as an insult because white trash were more likely to be
>insulting to blacks than higher-class whites were. If this be true,
>then we have the paradox that the n-word became so offensive due to
>black stereotyping of a particular class of whites!
>2) In Gone With The Wind, a book which to the eternal misfortune of the
>United States failed to live up to the promise of its title, the n-word
>does not (if I remember correctly) appear, but instead there are
>frequent uses of the word "nigra". I cannot recall ever having heard or
>seen "nigra" elsewhere, so I ask if it were a one-shot euphemism
>invented by either the author or an editor for this particular book?
>- Jim Landau
>Test Engineer
>Northrop-Grumman Information Technology
>8025 Black Horse Pike, Suite 300
>West Atlantic City NJ 08232 USA
>-----Original Message-----
>From: Dennis Baron [mailto:debaron at UIUC.EDU]
>Sent: Wednesday, March 07, 2007 6:57 PM
>Subject: the n word: on its way out?
>There's a new post on the Web of Language:
>The n-word: on its way out?
>The New York City Council has called for a symbolic moratorium on the
>use of the "N" word, joining a growing movement to ban a word
>inextricably associated with racism and hate. Angry over Michael
>Richards' explosive use of the word, and disturbed by its popularity
>among those African Americans who put a positive spin on it as a term of
>solidarity or endearment
>The American Dialect Society -
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