the n word: on its way out?

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Mon Mar 12 04:47:42 UTC 2007

I can provide only my personal experience. I learned "nigger" in Saint
Louis when I was in the first grade. It was used on the playground and
was about as insultiing as "dork" is, among today's first-graders. At
the time, I was a pupil - a word that I learned in the first grade
when the teacher, speaking of a doll, said, "Boys and girls, we have a
new pupil" - at a Catholic grade school that catered to the local
black population of the parish, which, by custom, was excluded from
the parish's parochial school.

The nun who oversaw recesses didn't react in any way to our use of the
word among ourselves. As a consequence, I had no particular reaction
to hearing the word or being called by it till a white neighbor boy
(at that time in Saint Louis, only public schools, not neighborhoods,
were segregated de jure; as a consequence, if the neighborhood school
was "colored," white children were bussed - no, the irony has not
escaped my notice - to the nearest neighborhood with a "white" school)
announced to me, "Youse know what my dad told me we call youse guys?
Niggers! That's what we call youse: niggers!"

(Ironically, when we moved to a new house, we found ourselves in our
new neighborhood living right across the street from the designated
"white" school of our old neighborhood. You never know.)


On 3/11/07, James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "James A. Landau" <JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM>
> Subject:      Re: the n word: on its way out?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Since my conjecture has been universally rejected, I ask my critics to answer the question: How, of two similar-sounding words of the same etymology, did "Negro" become the polite term and "n****r" the despised racist term?
> And, also, is there any evidence as to when this divergence occurred?  In the 18th and 19th century "n****r" did not appear in any formal writing I've seen, with the sole exception of the 1902 Britannica.
>    - Jim Landau
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