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Nigger (word)

The word nigger is a highly controversial term still used in many countries to refer to people with dark skin, particularly those of African origin. It was once used freely in standard English but is now considered highly pejorative and most people would no longer use it, particularly in public. One theory of its origin (or etymology) is that it came into English via French from the Spanish negro (meaning "black"), and it is therefore related to, but not derived from, the English word Negro (ultimately from Latin niger, also meaning "black").

Table of contents
1 Modern Meanings
2 Literary Uses
3 'Nigger' in modern use
4 Avoiding offense
5 Wikipedia Links
6 External Links
7 Further Reading

Related terms

Nigra was once considered a more polite form of nigger. Coon was also once used in the United States as a word for black people, but it and other offensive slang terms, such as dinge, smoke, spade, and darky, are no longer in general use.

Use of the word

In the United States, "nigger" was freely used as an insult until the civil rights era of the 1960s, when it became unacceptable to most people. Today, unless it is used very cautiously, its implications of racism are so strong that use of it is a social taboo in English-speaking countries. Many American magazines and newspapers will not even print nigger in full, instead using "N*gg*r", "N——", or simply "the N-word". A Washington Post article on Strom Thurmond's 1948 candidacy for President of the United States went so far as to replace "nigger" with the periphrasis "the less-refined word for black people".

In Australia, the word is very rarely used in any context. There is an intellectual awareness of its pejorative use elsewhere, but locally it has no particular offensive character due to the lack of a racial group to level it at. This has been known to get Australians into trouble with the rest of the world: see below under "place names". It does have negative connotations towards Aboriginal Australians[?], however as this word was sometimes directed this group.

Modern Meanings

"Nigger" is considered almost always pejorative when used by non-Africans or those without dark skin, particularly white Europeans. However, some African Americans regularly use it almost as a term of endearment[?], as in "What's up my nigger?" (or nigga). It is worth noting that while the word has been partly "reclaimed" by some young African Americans, others consider the term offensive in all contexts and do not agree that it is ever appropriate to use it.

Literary Uses

"Nigger" has a long history of causing controversy in literature. Carl Van Vechten[?], a white photographer and writer famous as a promoter of the Harlem Renaissancee, caused a great controversy by publishing his novel, Nigger Heaven[?], in 1926. The controversy largely centered on the use of the word "nigger" in the title.

The famous controversy over the novel Huckleberry Finn (1885), a classic frequently taught in American schools, revolves largely around the novel's 215 uses of the word "nigger."

One interesting example of its historical use in American English and of the prejudiced attitudes that surrounded it occurs in Edgar Alan Poe's short story "The Gold Bug[?]" (1843). Poe himself and a white character in the story use "negro" to refer to a black servant Jupiter, while Jupiter uses "nigger":

"De bug, Massa Will! --de goole bug!" cried the negro, drawing back in dismay --"what for mus tote de bug way up de tree? --d--n if I do!"

"If you are afraid, Jup, a great big negro like you, to take hold of a harmless little dead beetle, why you can carry it up by this string --but, if you do not take it up with you in some way, I shall be under the necessity of breaking your head with this shovel."

"What de matter now, massa?" said Jup, evidently shamed into compliance; "always want for to raise fuss wid old nigger. Was only funnin' anyhow. Me feered de bug! what I keer for de bug?" Here he took cautiously hold of the extreme end of the string, and, maintaining the insect as far from his person as circumstances would permit, prepared to ascend the tree.

'Nigger' in modern use

The comedian and activist Dick Gregory used the word as the title of his best-selling autobiography in 1964. In 1967, Muhammad Ali explained his refusal to be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War by saying, "I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger", demonstrating that he was offended by the racist use of the word. In 1988, the album Straight Outta Compton was released by the rap group Niggaz With Attitude, or "N.W.A.". Although they abbreviated it, their positive self-referential use of the word caused a great deal of controversy in America over the language and lyrics of rap. Many rappers now use the word with a positive meaning.


Because the word was freely used for many years, the United States has many official place-names containing the word Nigger. Examples include "Nigger Bill Canyon", "Nigger Hollow", and "Niggertown Marsh". In 1967, the United States Board on Geographic Names changed the word Nigger to Negro in 143 specific place-names, but use of the word has not been completely eliminated.

In April 2003 there was a stir in Australia over the naming of part of a stadium in Toowoomba[?] "E. S. Nigger Brown Stand". "Nigger Brown" was the nickname of a famous white footballer. E.S. "Nigger" Brown had a particularly fair complexion and hence was given the nickname "Nigger", in a similar way that a tall person might be called "Shorty." As noted above, the word has very little offensive character in Australia. Brown himself was happy with the nickname, in fact it is written on his tombstone. Some local Aboriginal members condoned its use in this context.

That didn't stop civil rights activist Stephen Hagan taking the local council responsible to court over the issue. Hagan lost the court case at the district and state level, and the High Court ruled that the matter was not of federal jurisdiction. Unfazed, Hagan took the case to the United Nations, where he found a more sympathetic forum. The UN ordered that Toowoomba Council change the name. Toowoomba Council chose to ignore this demand, as did the Federal Government. The Federal Government cited the High Court ruling on a lack of federal jurisdiction as its legal justification for continued inaction.

Avoiding offense

Even the sound of the word is offensive to some. Cautious speakers often refuse to use niggardly or snigger, even though these terms do not refer either to black people or to characteristics or behavior attributed to black people. Nor do they have any etymological connection with the word nigger. David Howard, a mayoral aide in the city government of Washington, D.C., was briefly driven from his job in January 1999 when he was overheard using niggardly, (an unrelated word which means miserly), in reference to a fund he was administering.

Many people outside the US are aware of the offensiveness of the word in the US, but they are often more concerned about pejorative words for minorities used in their own countries. For example, in Australia the words boong and coon are derogatory terms for Aborigines and are widely regarded as offensive. In South Africa, kaffir[?] is similarly pejorative when it is used to refer to local blacks. In the United Kingdom "Jock" is used for the Scots, "Taffy" for the Welsh, and "Paddy" and "mick" for the Irish, and these terms are considered offensive by many. However, in the United Kingdom the connotations of "nigger" were probably never as strong as they were in the United States. For example, it was once also used as an affectionate name for animals with black fur and "Nigger" was famously the name of a Black Labrador belonging to the RAF war-hero[?] Wing Commander[?] Guy Gibson[?]. However it can be construed as racist to equate a dog with a human being. The dog died before the 617 Squadron[?]'s 1943 raid on the Ruhr dams (the "Dam Busters raid[?]"), and "Nigger" was adopted as the radio code word signalling the destruction of the Möhne dam. Because of the modern connotations of the name, the British television broadcaster ITV now tries to reduce offence by cutting some scenes including the dog when it broadcasts the film Dam Busters. This has been condemned by some as "revisionist", although the edited version apparently produced fewer complaints than a previous un-censored broadcast.

Wikipedia Links

  • Racism
  • Taboo
  • Profanity -- with a discussion of how words can differ in meaning and offensiveness depending on who is using them.

External Links

Further Reading

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