the n word: on its way out?

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Fri Mar 9 22:24:00 UTC 2007

Sorry, Wilson, bad choice of words... I certainly wouldn't give
Thurmond "the benefit of the doubt" when it comes to his odious
political views and would never make apologies for him or his kind.
When that 1948 speech became news again in 2002 thanks to the Trent
Lott controversy,  commentators claimed that Thurmond, despite his
segregationist stance, was not known for saying "nigger" in public
address (though we can probably guess he wasn't so demure in private
contexts). But, as I said, when I listen to the sound clip, I also
hear him say [nIg@] rather than [nIgr@]. So if Thurmond was really
averse to using "nigger" in public, then was this a semi-intentional
"slip"? Or could his pronunciation of [nIg@ reIs] be explicable as
"Nigra race" with the first [r] lost or reduced due to dissimilation?

Again, this may be something of a moot point, since even if he
intended to use "Nigra", Thurmond could have exploited the phonetic
similarity between [nIgr@] and [nIg@] for cynical political purposes
-- using the "acceptable" public form while giving a wink and a nod to
the stigmatized form. I trust Wilson will enlighten me if I'm I
off-base with this whole "plausible deniability" theory.


On 3/9/07, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: the n word: on its way out?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Thurmond  said "nigger," straight up. I wasn't there, but I saw the
> original MovieTone News (or whatever it was called) version that the
> TV clip was excerpted from, not just the TV clip. Of course, what I
> remember hearing back then is irrelevant, since he quite clearly says,
> _on that clip shown on TV_, "nigger," as any random white Southerner
> would have said, in those days. I found it to be truly astounding that
> TV commentators and newspaper transcripts of what he said replaced
> that obvious "nigger" with the pswaydo-euphemism, "nigra."
> I find it truly astounding now that anyone here can speak of giving
> one of the greatest racists in United States history "the benefit of
> the doubt." Doubt?! What doubt?! How can anyone who knows anything at
> all about the history of American racism even *dream* of giving Strom
> Thurmond and his ilk any kind of benefiit? Is it really the case that
> people here are devoid of any understanding of what Thurmond and the
> Dixiecrats stood for?
> Fitzpatrick, the late, great editorial cartoonist of the St. Louis
> Post-Dispatch, compared Thurmond, Bilbo, Talmadge, Eastland, Tillman,
> etc., to no less a light than Hitler himself.
> Well, maybe you had to have been there.
> -Wilson
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> > Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> > Subject:      Re: the n word: on its way out?
> > -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > 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
> > public).
> >
> > 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
> >
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> >
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