The word nigger is a highly controversial term used in many countries, including the US, Britain and Russia, to refer to individuals with dark skin, especially those of indigenous African descent who previously were racially classified by the now outdated term Negro. It was once the standard, casual English term for blacks. Associated with the word traditionally have been an often casual contempt, an assumption of inherent inferiority, even of bestiality, making it extremely pejorative.
Historically, some African-Americans have appropriated the slur, subverting it to a self-referential term that is often suggestive of endearment or kinship. Many, however, always have rejected the term as racist and dehumanizing. Generally, "nigger" is considered a highly offensive racial epithet, especially when used by those who are not of African descent. See the Wiktionary entry Nigger for more relating to this.
The origin of the word "nigger" is in the Latin "niger," meaning "black." The word, as "niger," entered into Spanish and Portuguese. Early Modern French obtained it from Portuguese where it became "negre" and "negro," respectively. English acquired the word from French, which was manifested in earlier English variants, such as "negar," "neegar," "neger," and "niggor." "Neger" is a current word in both Dutch and German, as well as Scandinavian languages.
The word is thought to have come into its current form via the Southern pronunciation of "negro," which yielded phonetic mistranscriptions as "nigra." For much of its history, until the early 20th Century in America, it "nigger" was used, primarily by whites, as vulgar synonym for blacks. The term was a standard one throughout the United States, but particularly commonplace in the slaveholding South. Historically, many whites used the word casually, even dismissively. For most blacks, the term always has been associated with white supremacy, racism, violence and oppression.
"Nigger" is almost always pejorative or suspect when used by nonblacks in America, or those without dark skin. It is considered vulgar as well. Several American English dictionaries have labeled it as a vulgarism, including a 1913 Webster's dictionary, which defined "nigger" as "A negro; — in vulgar derision or depreciation." In its pejorative sense, it is a more loaded word than other North American ethnic epithets such as "spic" (for a Latino/Latina), "wop" (for one of Italian origin), "polack" (for one of Polish origin), and "kike" (for a Jew). The only American English terms that come relatively close to "nigger" in terms of their pejorative punch are far more rudely specific terms such as "greaser" or "beaner" for Latino/Hispanics, or "Christ-killer" for Jews.
The pejorative nature of the word can be seen in the related terms "white nigger" (meaning Irish) or "prairie nigger" (meaning Native Americans). Irish and Native Americans are clearly not black; the "nigger" part of the terms refer to the opinion of the speaker that they are similarly inferior. This use of "nigger" to refer to a person who is considered backwards, who despised or powerless, regardless of race, is evident in John Lennon's song "Woman is the Nigger of the World."
Previously used by blacks in only intra-ethnic settings, "nigger" as a socially acceptable term of kinship or endearment has become increasingly common among African American youth. For example: "What's up, my nigger?" would be acceptable when spoken by one African American to another. The commercialization and subsequent proliferation of hip-hop culture, for better or worse, has returned the term to broader public use across ethnicities in much the same way it is used in the African American community, and as an artifact of hip-hop culture.
Problems with this use of "nigger" are illustrated in the comedy-drama movie Gridlock'd (1997), which features the use of the word in its affectionate sense by a white character (played by Tim Roth). He is close enough to his black friend (played by Tupac Shakur) for it to go unremarked. But later he uses it when there are other blacks around whom he does not know so well, causing a dramatic reaction.
It is worth noting that, while "nigger" has been partially reclaimed by some young African Americans, older African Americans still tend to consider the term offensive and inappropriate in all contexts. A generation gap exists. There is also a class difference in the use of the term. The more educated, the more financially well off blacks tend to be, regardless of age, the less likely they are to use the term self-referentially.
Among whites, some use it casually, as an archaism, to refer to African Americans; but most are rural, from poor areas of cities, and/or born before the 1950s. "Nigger" also persists in use as a racial slur among nonblacks across ethnic and class boundaries.
Uses of word
In the United States, "nigger" was freely, if sometimes fraughtly, used by both Whites and Blacks until the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, when it became unacceptable in public discourse. A striking usage is in a televised report from the Birmingham, Alabama police actions, where Dr. Martin Luther King's protesters were countered with dogs and fire hoses. A white, female citizen from another Alabama county was interviewed. Visibly upset, she said, "It's not right. We don't treat niggers like that here." In such locutions, the term, "nigger," is less noteworthy than the political shift. "Nigger" was, for generations of Whites, the childhood term for African Americans in America, though most used "Negro" or "Colored." Among White Southerners of the generation comprising the 1960s, learning not to use the term was an act of deliberate contrition, or at least etiquette.
Today, the implications of racism are so strong that use of "nigger" in most situations 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 now rarely used in polite speech by urban whites in any context. It has, however, seen common use in rural or semi-frontier districts, although the usage was British colonial, e.g., applying generically to dark-skinned people of any origin (c.v. Rudyard Kipling). This has led to controversy, since Australian Aborigines have started to take the term strongly to heart, in both the pejorative and inclusive senses. See below under Place names.
"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 Renaissance, caused a great controversy by titling his novel Nigger Heaven, in 1926. The controversy centered on the use of the word "nigger" in the title and fueled the sales of the hit novel. Of the controversy, Langston Hughes wrote:
No book could possibly be as bad as Nigger Heaven has been painted. And no book has ever been better advertised by those who wished to damn it. Because it was declared obscene, everybody wanted to read it, and I'll venture to say that more Negroes bought it than ever purchased a book by a Negro author. Then, as now, the use of the word "nigger" by a White was a flashpoint for debates about the relationship between African American culture and its White patrons.
The famous controversy over Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a classic frequently taught in American schools, revolves largely around the novel's 215 uses of the word, nigger, referring to Jim, Huck's raft-mate.
Slaves often pandered to racist assumptions about blacks by using "nigger" to their advantage as a typical, self-deprecatory artifice of toming. Implicit in so doing was the unspoken reminder that a presumed inherently morally or intellectually inferior person or subhuman -- in essence, a "nigger" -- could not reasonably be held responsible for work performed incorrectly, an "accidental" fire in the kitchen, or any other similar infraction. It was a means of deflecting responsibility in the hope of escaping the wrath of an overseer or master. The use of "nigger" as a self-referential term was also a way to avoid suspicion and put whites at ease. A slave who referred to himself or another black as a "nigger" presumably accepted the subordinate role which was his unfortunate lot and, therefore, posed no threat to white authority.
An example of this historical use in American English occurs in Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Gold Bug (1843). The narrator and a White character in the story use "negro" to refer to a Black servant, Jupiter, while Jupiter himself 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[am]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.
A popular children's rhyme once contained the word nigger for tiger See: Eenie Meenie.
Agatha Christie's novel, Ten Little Indians, originally appeared as Ten Little Niggers.
Among the classic novels of Joseph Conrad is The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897).
Nigger in popular culture
At one time, the word "nigger" was used freely in branding and packing of consumer commodities in the U.S. and England. There were brands such as Nigger Hair Tobacco, Niggerhead Oysters and other canned goods. Brazil nuts casually were referred to as "nigger toes." As times changed, so did labeling practices. The tobacco band became "Bigger Hare," and the canned goods brand became "Negro Head." Eventually, such names disappeared from the marketplace altogether.
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," implying that white Americans had, and that he was offended by the racist use of the word, as well as by the oppression associated with it. In 1972, John Lennon released a song, "Woman is the Nigger of the World", implying that as Black people were discriminated against in some countries so were women globally. Pierre Vallières wrote a book in 1968 called Les Nègres blancs de l'Amérique, comparing the oppression of French-Canadians to that of blacks in the southern United States. When it was translated into English, it was published under the title White Niggers of America.
Comedian Lenny Bruce used the word repeatedly in a comedy routine, suggesting that the more it was used and heard, the less power it would have.
Comedian Richard Pryor, whose albums included That Nigger's Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger, vowed to never use the word again after a trip to Africa in the 1980s. Commenting that he never saw any niggers while in Africa, Pryor said he realized that niggers were figments of white people's imaginations.
In 1988, the album Straight Outta Compton was released by the hip hop group N.W.A. ("Niggaz With Attitude"). Although they abbreviated it in all official contexts, their self-referential use of the word caused a great deal of controversy in America over the language and lyrics of hip hop.
Black American comedian Chris Rock's 1996 television special Bring the Pain and 1997 album Roll with the New included a segment known as "Niggas vs Black People", which used the former word to describe a self-destructive segment within the black community. Rock cast "niggas" as "low-expectation-havin'" individuals -- proud to be ignorant, violent, and on welfare  (http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1325461). The controversy of this piece, which played upon racist stereotypes of black people, was such that it led Rock to cease performing it.
Conversely, white American comedian George Carlin performs a short routine, part of his repertoire concerning the use and context of words, and the fact that some people's uses of words trouble us because we think they're being racist, wherein he closes with, "We don't mind when Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy uses it. Why? Because we know they're not racists. They're Niggers!"
Since the coining of the phrase "The N-Word" (see below), some television broadcasters have added the word "nigger" retroactively to their lists of taboo words, thereby censoring movies and television programs from the past in which the word is used, no matter its context or the effect on the program. For example, television broadcasts of the movie Die Hard with a Vengeance which originally featured a character being forced to carry a sign saying "I hate niggers" around Harlem, are altered so that the sign now says "I hate everybody" which is not offensive - but, critics argue, renders the scene far less effective. The comedy series All in the Family, perhaps due to its classic status, is rarely censored even though the "N-word" is used frequently. On the other hand, Mel Brooks' anti-racism comedy, Blazing Saddles is rarely shown on American commercial television anymore due to the pervasive use of the word (though, like All in the Family, the movie's serious intent was to call attention to the issues of racism through satire; a fact discussed at length by Brooks when the film's 30th anniversary edition DVD was released in 2004).
Names of places and things
Because the word was freely used for many years, there are 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 Toowoomba's first international rugby player. Edward Stanley 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." He also used the shoe polish brand "Nigger Brown." The stand was named in the 1960s. As in the United States some decades ago, the word was used casually by whites, with little thought given to it. Brown himself was happy with the nickname; in fact it is written on his tombstone. A growing black consciousness among Australia's aboriginal population has meant the term increasingly has become an offensive one, particularly when uttered by whites; however, just as in the U.S., some younger blacks have appropriated the term for self-referential use.
Australian civil rights activist Stephen Hagan took the local council responsible to court over the use of the word. Hagan lost the court case at the district and state level, and the High Court ruled that the matter was not of federal jurisdiction. The Federal Government cited the High Court ruling on a lack of federal jurisdiction as its legal justification for continued inaction. (Hagan has also tried changing other "racial names" such as the Coon brand of cheese.)
The euphemistic term "the N-word" became a part of the American lexicon during the racially polarizing trial of O.J. Simpson, a retired African American football player charged with and ultimately acquitted of a widely publicized double murder. One of the prosecution's key witnesses was Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, who initially denied using racial slurs, but whose prolific and derogatory use of the word "nigger" on a tape recording brought his credibility into question. According to Fuhrman he was using the word in a fictional story he was writing.
Members of the media reporting on and discussing his testimony started using the term "the N-word" instead of repeating the actual word, presumably as a way to avoid offending audiences (and advertisers). The euphemism was quickly adopted by Americans as a generally non-offensive way to refer, for whatever reasons, to one of the most generally offensive words in American English.
The euphemism is most often used in constructions like: "He called me the N-word" or "I can't believe she said the N-word." (This form mimics other euphemisms for offensive words such as "the F-word" for fuck, the less common "the S-word" for shit, and other on-the-fly formations for other words generally regarded as offensive.)
"Nigra," which is the way "Negro" is pronounced by some people in the American South, was considered by some to be a more polite way to refer to a black person. Because of its similarity to "nigger," however, it generally is detested by blacks and is no longer acceptable.
The words niggardly ("miserly") and snigger ("to laugh derisively") 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. Many people are ignorant of this, however, and so refuse to use these words and take offense to their usage. David Howard, a white city official in Washington, D.C., was briefly driven from his job in January 1999 when he used niggardly in a fiscal sense while talking with African American colleagues, who protested his use of the word.
In the United Kingdom the word was in common use throughout the first half of the twentieth century to denote a shade of dark brown. "Nigger" was famously the name of a Black Labrador belonging to the RAF Second World War hero Wing Commander Guy Gibson. 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 signaling 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 uncensored broadcast. However, this scene has probably been viewed more times than any other part of the movie. It was worked into the background of the infamous hotel-room sequence in the Pink Floyd movie The Wall, during which the word nigger can be plainly heard coming from the television.
Rudyard Kipling's Just So Story "How the Leopard Got His Spots" tells of how an Ethiopian and a leopard, who are originally white, decide to paint themselves for camouflage. The story originally included a scene in which the leopard, who now has spots, asks the Ethiopian why he doesn't want spots as well. The Ethiopian's original reply, "Oh, plain black's best for a nigger," has been changed in many modern editions to read, "Oh, plain black's best for me."
Nigger Versus Nigga
A common argument among some young African Americans and other youth centers around the pronunciation of "nigger" as nigga. Nigga, they contend, is simply a synonym for accepted slang words such as dude and guy. The vernacular pronunciation of the word, they believe, renders the word harmless. Such use of nigga is heavily dependent on context. It could be an insult to say, "Hey, you niggas" (grammatically analogous to "Hey, you guys"), but saying, "What up, my niggas?" would be perfectly acceptable. In the first example, the use of "you guys," is similar to "you people," a phrase often used by whites to refer to blacks in an off-putting manner. The second example of usage is an expression of camaraderie.
Most African Americans, however, contend that such an argument is naive and without merit. In reality, nigga is simply "nigger" pronounced with a southern accent, the spelling a phonetic representation of the word as it always has been pronounced in African American Vernacular English. There is no difference, they argue, between the two words.
Combinations with other words
The term "wigger," or "whigger," refers to a young, white mimicker of certain affectations of hip-hop and thug culture. It is a portmanteau of "white" and "nigger." The word is considered offensive because of its similarity to "nigger" and because it reflects unflattering, stereotypical notions about blacks.
Similarly, other portmanteaus formed from "nigger", also usually considered offensive, are used to describe other nonblacks who adopt certain, usually hip-hop, African American cultural affectations. These include combining "nigger" with another ethnic slur, "chink," (meaning of Chinese origin), to produce "chigger." (A chigger is also a type of mite and a type of flea -- pests the bites of which cause intense itching); with "Korean", to produce "kigger"; and with "spic, a slur for a nonwhite Latino, to produce "spigger." Also, when combined with "Turk" the two words form "Tigger." Comedian Alex Chasick uses the term "Fjordnigger" to parody the offensive "Sandnigger," used to refer to Arabs, Muslims and people of this ethno-religious ancestry in non-Arab countries.
"Nigger Heaven and the Harlem Renaissance." Robert F. Worth, African American Review. Fall 1995. 29(3):461-473.
- Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, by Randall Kennedy (ISBN 0375421726)