- For other uses of the term, see Nigger (disambiguation)
The word "nigger" is a highly controversial term used in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia 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with dark skin, especially those of indigenous African descent who previously were racially classified by the now outdated term Negro.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 black people. Associated with the word traditionally have been an often casual contempt, an assumption of inherent inferiority, even of bestiality, making it extremely pejorative.
Historically, African Americans have appropriated the slur, subverting it to a self-referential term that is often suggestive of familiarity, 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 non-blacks. See the Wiktionary entry for "nigger" for more relating to this.
Table of contents
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 "nègre" 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 German (where it is today considered a pejorative term), as well as Dutch and Scandinavian languages.
The word is thought to have come into its current form via the Southern U.S. pronunciation of "negro," which yielded phonetic mistranscriptions as "nigra." For much of its history, until the early 20th Century in America, "nigger" was used, primarily by whites, as a 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.
The obsolete spelling niger dates to 1574. It comes from the Latin meaning "black". It shares this root with negro.
The offensiveness of the term has grown over time, especially in the 20th century. Two 16th-century quotes that are commonly cited in dictionaries are from scholarly tracts. A 1700 quote by judge Samuel Sewall uses the term in a denunciation of slavery. Gradually, however, polite discourse increasingly used the term negro (which dates to at least 1555), and nigger became relegated to the vulgar tongue, increasing in offensiveness over the centuries. When Mark Twain uses the word in Huckleberry Finn, by the standards of his day, he is not being particularly offensive (although even then it was a term that would not be used in polite society), but is using the term as a marker of class and socio-economic status of the characters who used it. Author Rudyard Kipling used the word "nigger" many times, both in character dialogue and elsewhere, where clearly it was not intended to be derogatory. Sometimes he spelled it phonetically, as "naygur," when spoken by a character with an Irish accent.
"Nigger" is almost always pejorative or suspect when used by nonblacks in America. Several American English dictionaries have labeled it as a vulgarism, and the term may refer also to anyone regarded as inferior or of subordinate status. This use of "nigger" to refer to a person who is considered backward, despised or powerless, regardless of race, is evident in author Jerry Farber's The Student as Nigger and Beatle 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 some African American youth. For example: "What's up, my nigga?" may be acceptable when spoken by one African American to another. The commercialization and subsequent proliferation of hip-hop culture internationally, for better or worse, has returned the term to broader public use across ethnicities, but in much the same way it is used by some African American youth, 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.
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. A striking usage is in televised coverage of a march in Birmingham, Alabama, when protesters, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, were met with attack dogs and fire hoses. A white woman from another Alabama county was interviewed. Visibly upset, she said, "It's not right. We don't treat niggers like that here." In the South at that time, the term "nigger" was less noteworthy than the expression of support for the marchers. For generations of whites, "nigger" was the childhood term for African Americans in America. Most used "Negro" or "colored", but particularly for white southerners in 1960s America, not using the term in casual speech required self-conscious effort.
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 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 Tomming. 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 that 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.
Agatha Christie's novel, Ten Little Indians, originally appeared as Ten Little Niggers.
Nigger in popular culture
At one time, the word "nigger" was used freely in branding and packaging 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 brand 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,'" the implication being that white Americans had, and that, as a black man, he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese people. 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, a founding member of the FLQ terrorist group, 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 Nigga'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. Today, the word is used nearly universally among black rappers in casual contexts.
While today commonly accepted on records by many black rappers, the word "nigga" is generally considered off-limits to nonblack performers. The Beastie Boys were once forced off-stage after using the word in a non-hostile context to refer to their audience. In 2001, Jennifer Lopezprovoked the ire of the African American community when she used the word in a song written by two black songwriters. Eminem, on the other hand, who has not hesitated to use homophobic and sexist slurs, refuses to use the word "nigga" in his songs. However, White Dawg on his album Thug Ride uses the word in many contexts, to refer to himself and others, adopting a post-racial view of the term, accepting it as synonymous with general terms describing those of many ethnicities of a lower socioeconomic background like "thug."
African 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 . 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).
Black comedian Dave Chapelle did two sketches exploring the use of nigger. In his TV show's first season he presented a blind black white supremacist who used the word profusely; in one ocassion white rap fans felt honored by his calling them “niggers.” In the introduction for this sketch, the white narrator at first says “the n-word” to finish with, “Nigger. There. I said it.” In his second season, he parodied 50's-style family sitcoms with the "Niggar Family" sketch featuring a white couple and son with the surname Niggar.
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.
Many varieties of flora and fauna are still commonly referred to by terms which include the word "nigger." The nigger-head cactus, which is native to Arizona is round, the size of a cabbage, and covered with large, crooked thorns. The common name for echinacea, or coneflower, is known variously as "Kansas niggerhead" and "wild niggerhead." The "niggerhead termite" is native to Australia.
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. Brown himself was happy with the nickname; in fact it is written on his tombstone. A growing black consciousness among Australia's aboriginal population, however, has meant the term increasingly has become an offensive one, particularly when uttered by whites. Even so, 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 also has tried changing other "racial names" such as the Coon brand of cheese.)
The euphemism "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 taperecording 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 began 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 adopted quickly by Americans as a way to avoid uttering 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 B-word" for bitch, and the less common "the S-word" for shit.
The word niger is Latin for "black" and occurs in many Latin scientific terms and names. (See Niger for other meanings such as the river in Africa.) "Niger" is the root for some English words which are near homophones of "nigger."
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. Niggard (= miserly person) and the verb niggle come from the Old Norse verb nigla = "to fuss about small things". 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.
There is a predominantly Muslim minority group in Western China called Uighurs – which, to the untrained ear, sounds very similar to "whiggers" (see "Combinations with other words" below), a situation which conceivably could lead to confusion and discord as contacts between China and the U.S. increase, and the tiny American Uighur community continues to grow.
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 sand-colored, decide to paint themselves for camouflage when hunting in dense tropical forest. 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": the new revisionism
Proponents of this neorevisionist usage of the term believe "nigger," in its the vernacular pronunciation, is harmless. Moreover, many believe it draws a line between blacks as victims of racism and blacks as empowered, street-wise individuals. In an interview in the documentary Tupac: Resurrection Tupac Shakur explains, "Niggers was the ones on the rope, hanging off the thing; Niggas is the ones with gold ropes, hanging out at clubs." [sic]
Opponents of this view argue that nigga is simply "nigger" pronounced with a southern accent, that the revisionist spelling is simply a phonetic representation of the word as it always has been pronounced in African American Vernacular English and nothing more. "Nigger," they point out, is also pronounced "nigga" by many who intend it as a racial slur. While proponents of the neorevisionist use of "nigga" contend they have "reclaimed" the word and robbed it of its racist connotations, critics dispute this. They claim such usage has not changed the word's centuries-old, racist nature. African Americans generally still consider the term offensive and inappropriate in most, if not all, contexts— and never acceptable in any context when used by nonblacks. A passage from the African American Registry echoes this sentiment:
[Neorevisionist] arguments [for the use of "nigga"] may not be true to life. Brother (Brotha) and Sister (Sistha or Sista) are terms of endearment. Nigger was and still is a word of disrespect. ...the artificial dichotomy between Blacks or African Americans (respectable and middle-class) and niggers (disrespectable and lower class) ought to be challenged. Black is a nigger, regardless of behavior, earnings, goals, clothing, skills, ethics, or skin color. Finally, if continued use of the word lessened its damage, then nigger would not hurt or cause pain now. Blacks, from slavery 'til today, have internalized many negative images that white society cultivated and broadcast about black skin and Black people. This is mirrored in cycles of self-and same-race hatred. The use of the word nigger by Blacks reflects this hatred, even when the user is unaware of the psychological forces involved. Nigger is the ultimate expression of white racism and white superiority no matter how it is pronounced.
Sociologists commonly point to black-on-black violence and its association with gangsta rap— the phenomenon most responsible for the rise in the revisionist use of the term among some black youth— as a manifestation of the self-destructive, self-loathing mind-set referred to above.
There is also a marked class difference in African-American use of the term. The more highly educated, the higher one's socioeconomic status, regardless of age, the less likely one is to use the term self-referentially, if at all.
Some social scientists refer to words like nigger, kike, spic, and wetback as ethnophaulisms (ethnic or racial slurs). These terms are the language of prejudice – verbal pictures of negative stereotypes. Howard J. Ehrlich, a social scientist, said that "ethnophaulisms are of three types: disparaging nicknames (chink, dago, nigger, and so forth); explicit group devaluations ("Jew him down," or "niggering the land"); and irrelevant ethnic names used as a mild term of disparagement ("jewbird" for cuckoos having prominent beaks or "Irish confetti" for bricks thrown in a fight). Virtually all racial and ethnic groups have been the subject of racial slurs; but few, if any, racial or ethnic groups have had as many racial slurs associated with them as blacks.
Combinations with other words
Within American culture, following the word "nigger" with a second word connotes an extremely negative conception of that second word, usually playing to racist stereotypes. Thus, to call someone "nigger-rich" is to say that they unwisely spend their entire paycheck upon its receipt. To say someone is playing "nigger hockey" implies that they're cheating. While such phrases are used to describe people of any race, they are nonetheless considered as racist as using the word "nigger" by itself.
The term "wigger," or "whigger," refers to a young, white mimicker of certain affectations of hip-hop and thug culture. It is a portmanteau word of "white" and "nigger". The word is usually 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 whose bites 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".
"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)
- List of ethnic slurs
- Profanity — with a discussion of how words can differ in meaning and offensiveness depending on who is using them.