"Negro with two g's"

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 8 01:35:47 UTC 2013

(Mark is playing catch-up with his email.)

My best guess for the phrase "to spell nigger with two g's" is something
like this:

1. The reflexes of the Spanish word *negro*, as borrowed into English to
refer to a "race" of persons, included at least the pronunciations
a. /'ni:gro:/
b. /'ni:gr@/
c. /'nIgr@/
d. /'nIg@(r)/

2. Pron. (a) was seen as being used as deliberate avoidance of pejoration.
The others were used and perceived varyingly, but in at least some dialects
they were the only pronunciations used, and were not not always meant
pejoratively, as is true to this day. To avoid pejoration in public speech,
someone whose normal pronunciation was in the (b)-(d) range might
deliberately move up the list, and in public writing might use the -o
spelling (though not yet capitalized).

3. In a time of less widespread literacy, the distinction between "words"
was less dependent on spelling than it is today, certainly less than it is
for the readers of this list.

4. Therefore it would not be unusual to regard all of these pronunciations
as "the same word", as we regard /'læbr@,tori/ and /l@'bor at tri/ as "the
same word", *laboratory*, as pronounced in the US and the UK. (Better
examples escape me at the moment.)

5. Here's the most speculative part: Conversely, the written forms <Negro>
and <nigger> were easily thought of as "the same word", *regardless of how
they were pronounced*. The phrase "to spell nigger with two g's" was used
to denote a pejorative attitude toward Black people, whether the speaker
approved or disapproved of that attitude. It might sometimes have been
written "spell negro with two g's". And given point #1, it might have been
pronounced in almost any way at all.

Note especially that the quotation for second usage is recorded by an
English traveler, to whom the o-less pronunciations might well have been
strange and almost unknown. He is deliberately recording provincial
dialect, as evidenced by "wall" for "well" (probably what now usually
appears in eye dialect as "wa'al").


On Sat, Mar 9, 2013 at 2:13 PM, Geoffrey Nunberg <
nunberg at ischool.berkeley.edu> wrote:

> Somewhat weirdly, to my mind, there was a variant, "to spell nigger with
> two g's," which seems to have been used both disparagingly and approvingly:
> According to an article in  The Living Age, 1867, "During the late civil
> war, 'to spell nigger with two g's' was a phrase applied to a member of the
> Democratic party, or any other politician, who did not believe in the
> natural equality of the black and white races..." http://goo.gl/DTrq6
> Writing in 1867, an English traveler says:
> Strangers are scarce in Norfolk, and it was not long before I found an
> excuse for entering into conversation with the "citizens." My first
> question was not received with much cordiality by my new acquaintances.
> "How do the _negroes_ work? Wall, we spells nigger with two 'g's,' I
> reckon." http://goo.gl/gOFZT
> I get what the second usage is about, but not the first.

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

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