In the English language, the word nigger typically is an ethnic slur used against black people, especially African Americans. Because it is considered extremely offensive, even if only mentioned and not used as a slur, it is often referred to by the euphemism “the N-word“. It also may be used with a more neutral meaning among African Americans, primarily as nigga.
The word originated in the 18th century as an adaptation of the Spanish word negro, a descendant of the Latin adjective niger, which means “black”. Over time it took on a derogatory connotation and became a racist insult by the 20th century. Accordingly, it began to disappear from general popular culture. Its inclusion in classic works of literature has sparked controversy and ongoing debate.
The variants neger and negar derive from various Romance words for ‘black’, including the Spanish and Portuguese word negro (black) and the now-pejorative French nègre. Etymologically, negro, noir, nègre, and nigger ultimately derive from nigrum, the stem of the Latin niger (‘black’).
In its original English-language usage, nigger (also spelled niger) was a word for a dark-skinned individual. The earliest known published use of the term dates from 1574, in a work alluding to “the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnes”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first derogatory usage of the term nigger was recorded two centuries later, in 1775.
In the colonial America of 1619, John Rolfe used negars in describing the African slaves shipped to the Virginia colony. Later American English spellings, neger and neggar, prevailed in New York under the Dutch and in metropolitan Philadelphia’s Moravian and Pennsylvania Dutch communities; the African Burial Ground in New York City originally was known by the Dutch name Begraafplaats van de Neger (Cemetery of the Negro). An early occurrence of neger in American English dates from 1625 in Rhode Island. Lexicographer Noah Webster suggested the neger spelling in place of negro in his 1806 dictionary.
18th and 19th century United States
During the late 18th and early 19th century, the word “nigger” also described an actual labor category, which African American laborers adopted for themselves as a social identity, and thus white people used the descriptor word as a distancing or derogatory epithet, as if “quoting black people” and their non-standard language. During the early 1800s to the late 1840s fur trade in the Western United States, the word was spelled “niggur”, and is often recorded in the literature of the time. George Fredrick Ruxton used it in his “mountain man” lexicon, without pejorative connotation. “Niggur” was evidently similar to the modern use of “dude” or “guy”. This passage from Ruxton’s Life in the Far West illustrates the word in spoken form—the speaker here referring to himself: “Travler, marm, this niggur’s no travler; I ar’ a trapper, marm, a mountain-man, wagh!” It was not used as a term exclusively for blacks among mountain men during this period, as Indians, Mexicans, and Frenchmen and Anglos alike could be a “niggur”. “The noun slipped back and forth from derogatory to endearing.”
The term “colored” or “negro” became a respectful alternative. In 1851, the Boston Vigilance Committee, an abolitionist organization, posted warnings to the Colored People of Boston and vicinity. Writing in 1904, journalist Clifton Johnson documented the “opprobrious” character of the word nigger, emphasizing that it was chosen in the South precisely because it was more offensive than “colored” or “negro”. By the turn of the century, “colored” had become sufficiently mainstream that it was chosen as the racial self-identifier for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 2008 Carla Sims, its communications director, said “the term ‘colored’ is not derogatory, [the NAACP] chose the word ‘colored’ because it was the most positive description commonly used [in 1909, when the association was founded]. It’s outdated and antiquated but not offensive.”
The US edition of Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” was called The Children of the Sea.
Mark Twain, in the autobiographic book Life on the Mississippi (1883), used the term within quotes, indicating reported speech, but used the term “negro” when writing in his own narrative persona. Joseph Conrad published a novella in Britain with the title The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897); in the United States, it was released as The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle; the original had been called “the ugliest conceivable title” in a British review and American reviewers understood the change as reflecting American “refinement” and “prudery.”
20th century United States
A style guide to British English usage, H. W. Fowler‘s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, states in the first edition (1926) that applying the word nigger to “others than full or partial negroes” is “felt as an insult by the person described, & betrays in the speaker, if not deliberate insolence, at least a very arrogant inhumanity”; but the second edition (1965) states “N. has been described as ‘the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks’”. The quoted formula goes back to the writings of the American journalist Harold R. Isaacs, who used it in several writings between 1963 and 1975. Black characters in Nella Larsen‘s 1929 novel Passing view its use as offensive; one says “I’m really not such an idiot that I don’t realize that if a man calls me a nigger, it’s his fault the first time, but mine if he has the opportunity to do it again.”
By the late 1960s, the social change brought about by the civil rights movement had legitimized the racial identity word black as mainstream American English usage to denote black-skinned Americans of African ancestry. President Thomas Jefferson had used this word of his slaves in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), but “black” had not been widely used until the later 20th century. (See Black Pride, and, in the context of worldwide anti-colonialism initiatives, Négritude.)
In the 1980s, the term “African American” was advanced analogously to the terms “German American” and “Irish American“, and was adopted by major media outlets. Moreover, as a compound word, African American resembles the vogue word Afro-American, an early-1970s popular usage. Some black Americans continue to use the word nigger, often spelled as nigga and niggah, without irony, either to neutralize the word’s impact or as a sign of solidarity.
The history of the word varies in other British, or formerly British, territories in the Americas. In Bermuda, which was settled by England through misadventure (the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture) as an extension of Virginia, and which maintained close links with Virginia and the other continental colonies thereafter (though remaining part of British North America after independence of the colonies that formed the United States), the word remains purely offensive, despite the influence locally of United States media. Although initially the economy focused on growing tobacco for export (by the end of the 17th Century Bermuda would be wholly devoted to maritime activities), a steady supply of indentured servants from England under the administration of the Somers Isles Company meant there was little reliance on slavery. Nonetheless, enslaved Afro-Hispanics and Native Americans trickled into Bermuda during the first half of the 17th Century from shipwrecks and prizes of Bermuda-based privateers. By the mid-17th Century, free Afro-Hispanics were immigrating in larger numbers as indentured servants from Spanish West Indian colonies that were annexed into the English Empire (larger numbers of Native Americans, and also of Native Irish, ethnically cleansed from their homelands after conquest by England, also began arriving at mid century.
Further importation of the Irish was soon banned, and immigration by, or importation of, blacks was discouraged until the 1834 abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Meanwhile, free blacks were coerced to emigrate and those holding enslaved persons were encouraged to export them. Despite this, the coloured population (in Bermuda, the population was divided into “white” and “coloured”, with anyone not entirely of European heritage defined as coloured. From the 1840s, a third demographic, “Portuguese”, was added with immigration of agricultural labourers from Azores and other Portuguese Atlantic islands) continued to grow, primarily through the merging together of the various 17th Century demographic groups, including the Irish and part of the English. White and coloured Bermudians lived close together, worked together, and inevitably intermarried or otherwise interbred.
Since the start of the 19th Century, coloured Bermudians have been in the majority. Given the small size of the community and the close quarters, and despite the general prejudice among whites against coloured people, Bermudians have always placed a great emphasis on politeness and social cohesion compared to their continental cousins, and Bermudian language is characterised by euphemisms (Bermudians, by example, generally avoid describing outsiders as foreigners, preferring non-Bermudians. Residents is generally used when referring to the population of the archipelago, unless it is required to distinguish between Bermudians and ex-pats. Tourist is perceived as slightly rude, and the preferred alternative is visitors).
Susette Harriet Lloyd, who travelled to Bermuda as part of a party with the Church of England’s Archdeacon of Bermuda Aubrey Spencer and remained for two years, detailed Bermudians in ‘’Sketches of Bermuda’’, published in 1835, immediately following the abolition of slavery in Bermuda and the remainder of the British Empire in 1834 (Bermuda elected to end slavery immediately, becoming the first colony to do so, though all other British colonies except for Antigua availed themselves of an allowance made by the Imperial government enabling them to phase slavery out gradually). Lloyd’s book gives a rare contemporary account of Bermudian society immediately prior to the abolition of slavery. Among her observations of coloured Bermudians, she wrote:
But notwithstanding all this good humour, the passions of the negro are violent, and his anger easily roused. A few evenings ago a fine and generous hearted youth, whose complexion may vie with the raven’s wing, felt his honour mortally offended on being called a black nigger by a negro a few shades lighter than himself; he instantly seized a knife that was lying before him, and would have plunged it into the man’s breast, had not some one providentially held back his arm. To be called a Black Nigger seems to be considered the very acme of insult, and, like the ‘Dummer Junge’ of the German students must be avenged.
Those who plume themselves on their culture, and who regard all places except those in which they have resided as very benighted quarters, would, of course, look upon Bermuda as almost outside the limits of civilization. Closer acquaintance would dispel many of these delusions. A stranger would be impressed at once with the marked courtesy of the people. From the lowest to the highest one will receive the most polite attention. A simplicity almost Arcadian characterizes their manners, especially those of the women. Many who have led very circumscribed lives, who have never been away from Bermuda, possess an ease and grace which would do credit to habitues of society, arising apparently from perfect faith in others, and an earnest desire to add to their pleasure in every possible way. In matters of etiquette they are generally much more exact than Americans. The kindliness and formality aside — and they are not to be underrated — one would hardly derive much inspiration from the Bermudian, whose outlook is not a broad one. His life has not fostered extended views, and he is, perhaps, as little to be blamed for not possessing them as for being born in mid-ocean. They are a comfortable, well-to-do set of people, with here and there a family possessing ample means. As in England, property, especially real estate, remains in the same family for a long period. There is very little real suffering from poverty, though there are many poor people, who had rather be poor than make the necessary exertion to improve their condition. In this connection the colored people deserve some notice, forming, as they do, a large majority of the population. The importation of negroes from Africa ceased long before the abolition of slavery, which may account for the improved type of physiognomy one encounters here. The faces of some are fine, and many of the women are really pretty. They are polite, about as well dressed as anybody, attend all the churches, and are members thereof, are more interested in schools than the poor whites, and a very large proportion of them can both read and write.
Given this history, the use of the word “nigger” in Bermuda has not followed the same path as in the United States, despite most of Bermuda’s media and most of its visitors being from the United States. The word is generally unutterable, not just for whites. Bermuda sustained considerable immigration during the course of the 20th Century, including from the British West Indies, and there may be cultural differences between the older Bermudian families and those resulting from more recent immigration depending on the degree to which they have integrated into the larger community.
The Progressive Labour Party, the first party formed in 1963 before party politics was legalised, quickly came to be dominated by West Indians and West Indian Bermudians such as Lois Browne-Evans and Rolfe Commissiong (son of Trinidadian musician Rudolph Patrick Commissiong), and is still derided by many white and blacks Bermudians as promoting racially divisive, black nationalist “plantation politics” (a term with double meaning in traditionally sea-faring Bermuda where there remains a strong stigma against agricultural work), which contributed to its not winning an election for more than three decades despite its claim to be the party of the black majority. There was considerable animosity between many coloured Bermudians and West Indians throughout the 20th Century, with the former disparaging the latter as jump-ups. This partly resulted from cultural differences, but also partly from the perception that West Indian immigrants competed for jobs and lowered the cost of labour. Many coloured West Indians were perceived as troublesome and fractious, and also rude (although Bermudians tend to find most non-Bermudians rude). Although the perception of the PLP as West Indian dominated has diminished over the decades, and it has won a few elections, it has never succeeded in becoming the party of black voters (it has attracted a handful of white politicians and voters despite its black nationalist agenda), and its politicians have lashed out at blacks who do not support it with phrases imported from the former plantation colonies that had often been used by black West Indians to refer to black Bermudians, including “Uncle Tom” and, most shockingly to Bermudian ears, “house nigger”, attracting wide condemnation.
Surveys from 2006 showed that the American public widely perceived usage of the term to be wrong or unacceptable, but that nearly half of whites and two-thirds of blacks knew someone personally who referred to blacks by the term. Nearly one-third of whites and two-thirds of blacks said they had personally used the term within the last five years.
In names of people, places and things
Main article: Use of nigger in proper names
Historical American cartoon titled “Why the nigger is not fit to vote”, by Thomas Nast, arguing the reason Democrats objected to African-Americans having the vote was that, in the 1868 US presidential election, African-Americans voted for the Republican candidates Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. “Seymour friends meet here” in the background is a reference to the Democratic Party candidate: Horatio Seymour.
“Niggers in the White House“ was written in reaction to an October 1901 White House dinner hosted by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who had invited Booker T. Washington—an African-American presidential adviser—as a guest. The poem reappeared in 1929 after First Lady Lou Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover, invited Jessie De Priest, the wife of African-American congressman Oscar De Priest, to a tea for congressmen’s wives at the White House. The identity of the author—who used the byline “unchained poet”—remains unknown.
In explaining his refusal to be conscripted to fight the Vietnam War (1955–75), professional boxer Muhammad Ali said, “No Vietcong [Communist North Vietnamese] ever called me nigger;” later, his modified answer was the title of a documentary, No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger (1968), about the front-line lot of the U.S. Army Black soldier in combat in Vietnam. An Ali biographer reports that, when interviewed by Robert Lipsyte in 1966, the boxer actually said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
On February 28, 2007, the New York City Council symbolically banned the use of the word nigger; however, there is no penalty for using it. This formal resolution also requests excluding from Grammy Award consideration every song whose lyrics contain the word; however, Ron Roecker, vice president of communication for the Recording Academy, doubted it will have any effect on actual nominations.
The word can be invoked politically for effect. When Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick came under intense scrutiny for his conduct in 2008, he deviated from an address to the city council, saying, “In the past 30 days, I’ve been called a nigger more than any time in my entire life.” Opponents accused him of “playing the race card” to save his political life.
Main article: Use of nigger in the arts
The implicit racism of the word nigger has generally rendered its use taboo. Magazines and newspapers typically do not use this word but instead print censored versions such as “n*gg*r”, “n**ger”, “n——” or “the N-word”; see below.
The use of nigger in older literature has become controversial because of the word’s modern meaning as a racist insult. One of the most enduring controversies has been the word’s use in Mark Twain‘s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most challenged book during the 1990s, according to the American Library Association. The novel is written from the point of view, and largely in the language, of an uneducated white boy, who is drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft with an adult escaped slave, Jim. The word “nigger” is used (mostly about Jim) over 200 times. Twain’s advocates note that the novel is composed in then-contemporary vernacular usage, not racist stereotype, because Jim, the black man, is a sympathetic character.
In 2011, a new edition published by NewSouth Books replaced the word “nigger” with “slave” and also removed the word “injun”. The change was spearheaded by Twain scholar Alan Gribben in the hope of “countering the ‘pre-emptive censorship’” that results from the book’s being removed from school curricula over language concerns. The changes sparked outrage from critics Elon James, Alexandra Petrie and Chris Meadows.
In his 1999 memoir All Souls, Irish-American Michael Patrick MacDonald describes how many white residents of the Old Colony Housing Project in South Boston used this meaning to degrade the people considered to be of lower status, whether white or black.
Of course, no one considered himself a nigger. It was always something you called someone who could be considered anything less than you. I soon found out there were a few black families living in Old Colony. They’d lived there for years and everyone said that they were okay, that they weren’t niggers but just black. It felt good to all of us to not be as bad as the hopeless people in D Street or, God forbid, the ones in Columbia Point, who were both black and niggers. But now I was jealous of the kids in Old Harbor Project down the road, which seemed like a step up from Old Colony …
In an academic setting
The word’s usage in literature has led to it being a point of discussion in university lectures as well. In 2008, Arizona State University English professor Neal A. Lester created what has been called “the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word ‘nigger’”. Starting in the following decade, colleges struggled with attempts to teach material about the slur in a sensitive manner. In 2012, a sixth grade Chicago teacher Lincoln Brown was suspended after repeating the contents of a racially charged note being passed around in class. Brown later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the headmaster and the Chicago public schools. A New Orleans high school also experienced controversy in 2017. Such increased attention prompted Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, the daughter of Richard Pryor and a professor at Smith College, to give a talk opining that the word was leading to a “social crisis” in higher education.
In addition to Smith College, Emory University, Augsburg University, Southern Connecticut State University, and Simpson College all suspended professors in 2019 over referring to the word “nigger” by name in classroom settings. In two other cases, a professor at Princeton decided to stop teaching a course on hate speech after students protested his utterance of “nigger” and a professor at DePaul had his law course cancelled after 80% of the enrolled students transferred out. Instead of pursuing disciplinary action, a student at the College of the Desert challenged his professor in a viral class presentation which argued that her use of the word in a lecture was not justified.
In the workplace
In 2018, the head of the media company Netflix, Reed Hastings, fired his chief communications officer, Jonathan Friedland, for using the word twice during internal discussions about sensitive words. In explaining why, Hastings wrote:
[The word’s use] in popular media like music and film have created some confusion as to whether or not there is ever a time when the use of the N-word is acceptable. For non-Black people, the word should not be spoken as there is almost no context in which it is appropriate or constructive (even when singing a song or reading a script). There is not a way to neutralize the emotion and history behind the word in any context. The use of the phrase ‘N-word’ was created as a euphemism, and the norm, with the intention of providing an acceptable replacement and moving people away from using the specific word. When a person violates this norm, it creates resentment, intense frustration, and great offense for many.
While defending Laurie Sheck, a professor who was cleared of ethical violations for quoting I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin, John McWhorter wrote that efforts to condemn racist language by white Americans had undergone mission creep. Similar controversies outside the United States have occurred at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and the Madrid campus of Syracuse University. In June 2020, Canadian news host Wendy Mesley was suspended and replaced with a guest host after she attended a meeting on racial justice and, in the process of quoting a journalist, used “a word that no-one like me should ever use”. In August 2020, BBC news, with the agreement of victim and family, mentioned the slur when reporting on a physical and verbal assault on the black NHS worker and musician K-Dogg. Within the week the BBC received over 18,600 complaints, the black radio host David Whitely resigned in protest, and the BBC apologized.
In 2021, in Tampa, Florida, a 27-year-old black employee at a Dunkin’ Donuts punched a 77-year-old white customer after the customer had repeatedly called the employee the word. The customer fell to the floor and hit his head. Three days later, he died. An autopsy report said he suffered a skull fracture and brain contusions. The employee was arrested, and charged with manslaughter. In a plea bargain, the employee pled guilty to felony battery, and was sentenced to two years of house arrest. In 2022, in explaining why the employee did not receive any jail time, the Washington Post quoted Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, as saying, “Two of the primary factors were the aggressive approach the victim took toward the defendant and everyone working with the defendant, and that the victim repeatedly used possibly the most aggressive and offensive term in the English language.”[dead link]
Intra-group versus intergroup usage
Main article: Nigga
See also: Ingroups and outgroups
Black listeners often react to the term differently, depending on whether it is used by white speakers or by black speakers. In the former case, it is regularly understood as insensitive or insulting; in the latter, it may carry notes of in-group disparagement, and is often understood as neutral or affectionate, a possible instance of reappropriation.
In the black community, nigger is often rendered as nigga. This usage has been popularized by the rap and hip-hop music cultures and is used as part of an in-group lexicon and speech. It is not necessarily derogatory and is often used to mean homie or friend.
Acceptance of intra-group usage of the word nigga is still debated, although it has established a foothold amongst younger generations. The NAACP denounces the use of both nigga and nigger. Usage of nigga by mixed-race individuals is still largely considered taboo[a], albeit not as inflammatory as nigger. As of 2001, trends indicated that usage of the term in intragroup settings is increasing even amongst white youth, due to the popularity of rap and hip hop culture. Linguist Keith Allan rejects the view that nigger is always a slur, arguing that it is also used as a marker of camaraderie and friendship, comparable to the British and Australian term “mate” or the American “buddy”.
According to Arthur K. Spears in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 2006:
In many African-American neighborhoods, nigga is simply the most common term used to refer to any male, of any race or ethnicity. Increasingly, the term has been applied to any person, male or female. “Where y’all niggas goin?” is said with no self-consciousness or animosity to a group of women, for the routine purpose of obtaining information. The point: nigga is evaluatively neutral in terms of its inherent meaning; it may express positive, neutral, or negative attitudes;
Kevin Cato, meanwhile, observes:
For instance, a show on Black Entertainment Television, a cable network aimed at a black audience, described the word nigger as a “term of endearment“. “In the African American community, the word nigga. (not nigger) brings out feelings of pride.” (Davis 1). Here the word evokes a sense of community and oneness among black people. Many teens I interviewed felt the word had no power when used amongst friends, but when used among white people the word took on a completely different meaning. In fact, comedian Alex Thomas on BET stated, “I still better not hear no white boy say that to me … I hear a white boy say that to me, it means ‘White boy, you gonna get your ass beat.’”
There’s a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence, and you have to say cat, companion, or friend, as opposed to nigger, then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people … When Richard Pryor came back from Africa, and decided to stop using the word onstage, he would sometimes start to slip up, because he was so used to speaking that way. It was the right word at the moment to keep the rhythm together in his sentence making.
2010s: increase in use and controversy
In the 2010s, “nigger” in its various forms saw use with increasing frequency by African Americans amongst themselves or in self-expression, the most common swear word in hip hop music lyrics. Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested that it continues to be unacceptable for non-blacks to utter while singing or rapping along to hip-hop, and that by being so restrained it gives white Americans (specifically) a taste of what it is like to not be entitled to “do anything they please, anywhere”. A concern often raised is whether frequent exposure will inevitably lead to a dilution of the extremely negative perception of the word among the majority of non-black Americans who currently consider its use unacceptable and shocking.
Anti-abolitionist cartoon from the 1860 presidential campaign illustrating colloquial usage of “Nigger in the woodpile“
In several English-speaking countries, “Niggerhead” or “nigger head” was used as a name for many sorts of things, including commercial products, places, plants and animals, as a descriptive term (lit. ‘black person’s head’). It also is or was a colloquial technical term in industry, mining, and seafaring. Nigger as “defect” (a hidden problem), derives from “nigger in the woodpile“, a US slave-era phrase denoting escaped slaves hiding in train-transported woodpiles. In the 1840s, the Morning Chronicle newspaper report series London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew, records the usages of both “nigger” and the similar-sounding word “niggard” denoting a false bottom for a grate.
In American English, “nigger lover” initially applied to abolitionists, then to white people sympathetic towards black Americans. The portmanteau word wigger (‘white’ + ‘nigger’) denotes a white person emulating “street black behavior”, hoping to gain acceptance to the hip hop, thug, and gangsta sub-cultures. Norman Mailer wrote of the antecedents of this phenomenon in 1957 in his essay The White Negro.
The N-word euphemism
The prosecutor [Christopher Darden], his voice trembling, added that the “N-word” was so vile he would not utter it. “It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”
Key prosecution witness Detective Mark Fuhrman, of the Los Angeles Police Department—who denied using racist language on duty—impeached himself with his prolific use of nigger in tape recordings about his police work. The recordings, by screenplay writer Laura McKinney, were from a 1985 research session wherein the detective assisted her with a screenplay about LAPD policewomen. Fuhrman excused his use of the word saying he used nigger in the context of his “bad cop” persona. Media personnel who reported on Fuhrman’s testimony substituted the N-word for nigger.
Niger (Latin for “black”) occurs in Latinate scientific nomenclature and is the root word for some homophones of nigger; sellers of niger seed (used as bird feed), sometimes use the spelling Nyjer seed. The classical Latin pronunciation /ˈniɡeɾ/ sounds similar to the English /ˈnɪɡər/, occurring in biologic and anatomic names, such as Hyoscyamus niger (black henbane), and even for animals that are in fact not black, such as Sciurus niger (fox squirrel).
Nigra is the Latin feminine form of niger (black), used in biologic and anatomic names such as substantia nigra (black substance).
The word niggardly (miserly) is etymologically unrelated to nigger, derived from the Old Norse word nig (stingy) and the Middle English word nigon. In the US, this word has been misinterpreted as related to nigger and taken as offensive. In January 1999, David Howard, a white Washington, D.C., city employee, was compelled to resign after using niggardly—in a financial context—while speaking with black colleagues, who took umbrage. After reviewing the misunderstanding, Mayor Anthony A. Williams offered to reinstate Howard to his former position. Howard refused reinstatement but took a job elsewhere in the mayor’s government.
Graffiti in Palestine referring to Arabs as “sand-niggers”
The denotations of nigger also comprehend non-black/non-white and other disadvantaged people. Some of these terms are self-chosen, to identify with the oppression and resistance of black Americans; others are ethnic slurs used by outsiders.
Jerry Farber‘s 1967 essay collection, The Student as Nigger, used the word as a metaphor for what he saw as the role forced on students. Farber had been, at the time, frequently arrested as a civil rights activist while beginning his career as a literature professor.
In his 1968 autobiography White Niggers of America: The Precocious Autobiography of a Quebec “Terrorist”, Pierre Vallières, a Front de libération du Québec leader, refers to the oppression of the Québécois people in North America.
In 1969, in the course of being interviewed by the British magazine Nova, artist Yoko Ono said “woman is the nigger of the world;” three years later, her husband, John Lennon, published the song of the same name—about the worldwide phenomenon of discrimination against women—which was socially and politically controversial to US sensibilities.
Sand nigger, an ethnic slur against Arabs, and timber nigger and prairie nigger, ethnic slurs against Native Americans, are examples of the racist extension of nigger upon other non-white peoples.
In 1979, English singer Elvis Costello used the phrase white nigger in “Oliver’s Army“, a song describing the experiences of working-class soldiers in the British military forces on the “murder mile” (Belfast during The Troubles), where white nigger was a common British pejorative for Irish Catholics. Later,[when?] the producers of the British talent show Stars in Their Eyes forced a contestant to censor one of its lines, changing “all it takes is one itchy trigger – One more widow, one less white nigger” to “one less white figure”.
Historian Eugene Genovese, noted for bringing a Marxist perspective to the study of power, class, and relations between planters and slaves in the South, uses the word pointedly in The World the Slaveholders Made (1988).
For reasons common to the slave condition all slave classes displayed a lack of industrial initiative and produced the famous Lazy Nigger, who under Russian serfdom and elsewhere was white. Just as not all blacks, even under the most degrading forms of slavery, consented to become niggers, so by no means all or even most of the niggers in history have been black.
The editor of Green Egg, a magazine described in The Encyclopedia of American Religions as a significant periodical, published an essay entitled “Niggers of the New Age”. This argued that Neo-Pagans were treated badly by other parts of the New Age movement.
Other languages, particularly Romance languages, have words that sound similar to nigger (are homophones), but do not mean the same. Just because the words are cognate, i.e. from the same Latin stem as explained above, does not mean they have the same denotation (dictionary meaning) or connotation (emotional association). Whether a word is abusive, pejorative, neutral, affectionate, old-fashioned, etc. depends on its cultural context. How a word is used in English does not determine how a similar-sounding word is used in another language. Conversely, many languages have ethnic slurs that disparage “other” people, i.e. words that serve a similar function to nigger, but these usually stem from completely different roots.
Some examples of how other languages refer to a black person in a neutral and in a pejorative way include:
- Dutch: Neger (‘Negro’) used to be neutral, but many now consider it to be avoided in favor of zwarte (‘black’). Zwartje (‘little black one’) can be amicably or offensively used. Nikker is always pejorative.
- Finnish: Neekeri (‘Negro’), as a word loan (‘Neger’) from the Swedish language appeared for the first time in a book published in 1771. The use of the Finnish equivalent (‘neekeri’) began in the late 19th century. Until the 1980s, it was commonly used and generally not yet considered derogatory, although a few instances of it being considered to be so have been documented since the 1950s; by the mid-1990s the word was considered racist, especially in the metropolitan area and among the younger population. It has since then usually been replaced by the metonym ‘musta’ (‘black [person]’). In a survey conducted in 2000, Finnish respondents considered the term ‘Neekeri’ to be among the most offensive of minority designations.
- French: Nègre is now derogatory, although Nègre littéraire is the standard term for a ghostwriter. Some white Frenchmen have the surname Nègre. The word can still be used as a synonym of “sweetheart” in some traditional Louisiana French creole songs.
- German: Neger is dated and now considered offensive. Schwarze/-r (‘black [person]’) or Farbige/-r (“colored [person]”) is more neutral.
- Haitian Creole: nèg is used for any man in general, regardless of skin color (like dude in American English). Haitian Creole derives predominantly from French.
- Italian has three variants: negro, nero and di colore. The first one is the most historically attested and was the most commonly used until the 1960s as an equivalent of the English word “negro”. It was gradually felt as offensive during the 1970s and replaced with nero and di colore. Nero was considered a better translation of the English word black, while di colore is a loan translation of the English word colored.
- Portuguese: Negro and preto are neutral; nevertheless preto can be offensive or at least “politically incorrect” and is almost never proudly used by Afro-Brazilians. Crioulo and macaco are always extremely pejorative.
- Polish: Murzyn is used as a word for a black person. Similarly to the Russian негр, it can also be used for ghostwriters or underpaid workers.
- Russian: the word негр (negr) has been commonly used to describe black people. It can also be used as a synonym for underpaid worker, “литературный негр” (‘literaturny negr’) means ghostwriter. Негритёнок (negrityonok) means a negro child. For example, the mystery novel And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, originally called Ten Little Niggers, is known in Russia as Десять негритят (dyesyt’ negrityat). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the word мавр (‘moor‘) was used to describe people with dark skin. Nowadays, a black person would often be described neutrally as “чернокожий”, literally “black-skinned”. The word чёрный (chornyi, ‘black’) is often used as a derogatory word for peoples of the Caucasus and, less often, black people.