N-word - def. not covered

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Dec 1 15:18:57 UTC 2011

I have just finished reading "The Anatomy of
Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of
Enlightenment", by Andrew S. Curran, which has
suggested to me some additional factors in the retort of the bicyclist:

>"I am not a nigger. I am from Somalia, I go to
>school and I work. Do not call me a nigger!"

First, the reference to Somalia might not mean "I
am a recent African immigrant and therefore
cannot have become a nigger (yet)".  Rather, the
speaker might have been denying he was a Negro
(nègre) because he was from North Africa (a
"Moor", maure).  According to Curran, who treats
almost entirely with the French Enlightenment,
this was a distinction that arose during the
period.  (See also the etymology of "Moor" and
senses A.I.1 of "nigger" and A.1.a of "Negro" --
"sub-Saharan" --- in the OED.)  Perhaps it
persists today among North Africans (especially
Muslims) who want to be distinguished from "black" sub-Saharan Africans.

Second, alleged characteristics of behavior, such
as laziness or lack of understanding
(intelligence), became indivisibly associated
with asserted physical (genetic) characteristics
of the "black race", such as a "dark" or "black"
brain: a Negro was inherently unintelligent and
unindustrious.  The North African from Somalia
might have been employing this racial stereotype
to demonstrate that he could not be a nigger --
he was intelligent (going to school) and industrious (working).

Third, it's not just laziness that was associated
with the Negro, but lack of understanding,
criminality, immoral sexuality, etc.    I wonder
whether the OED definition of "nigger" really
needs to be extended to specifically refer to
laziness.  "2b. Any person whose behaviour is
regarded as reprehensible. derogatory" may be sufficient.


At 11/30/2011 10:35 PM, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>Caveat lector: If not apparent from the subject
>line, this has a lot of offensive language.
>About a year ago, a Michigander white female
>friend of mine who is a transplant to Hawai'i
>shocked the other three of us in the room when
>she went off on a rant about niggers. To
>paraphrase, she said that a nigger was someone
>who didn't work, who lived on the government.
>She explicitly said that the word had nothing to do with race.
>I definitely can recall the word being used with
>the connotation of being lazy as a child. The
>OED provides a couple of definitions of the
>n-word where race does not matter. Nothing hits
>this exactly, however. I think the closest is:
>2b. Any person whose behaviour is regarded as reprehensible. derogatory.
>The AHD is similarly close:
>2. Slang: Extremely Disparaging and Offensive .
>a person of anyrace or origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant,etc.
>Wiktionary has nothing even close.
>Not being productive is also made explicit, with
>a twist, in the HBO series _Sopranos_, sixth
>season "Kennedy and Heidi"
>  It is scene five, "Wrong Neighborhood." Tony's
>son AJ is hanging with his friends when one of
>them doors a bicyclist (played by Bambadjan
>Bamba). The bicyclist is black and the dooring
>friend calls the bicyclist the n-word.
>The bicyclist says, "I am not a nigger. I am
>from Somalia, I go to school and I work. Do not call me a nigger!"
>Here, not only is being productive the issue,
>but apparently being a _recent_ African
>immigrant evidently disqualifies him from fitting the definition.
>Benjamin Barrett
>Seattle, WA
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list