The History of a Word: The N-word

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The history of the word nigger in England or Britain is not very well documented however in America it is a linguistic hand grenade that is being hurled around a bit too much recently and it is in much debate at present.

It is the worst and most offensive word in the English language. It has come a long way from its humble beginnings from Latin “niger” meaning black. In fact it is described as being the worst word used as a racial epithet or even the English language. The word can be used in so many different ways for this reason it has also been described as the most glorious word in the English language. It has been responsible for classic pieces of literature to be removed from schools and condemned as racial trash by some.

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The influence the word has had in the world of Hip-Hop and trying to reclaim it has been massive. Nigger did not start out as a derogatory term it has taken on a derogatory connotation over time and has unfortunately stuck like this for several hundred years thanks to the horrendous time of slavery. Why does nigger cause such powerful reactions? Is it more offensive than paki, chink, wop, kike, gook, spic and so on. “To be ignorant of its meaning and its effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life. (Kennedy, 2002, pp. 3-4) He goes on to say later in the book “nigger is and has long been the most socially consequential racial insult. ” (Kennedy, 2002, pp. 31-32)

Nigger appeared in court opinions in America in 2001 4219 times compared to kike 84 times and honky 268 times, reported court opinions do not really mirror social life but it shows that people are more offended by nigger and want justice from people like the police. (Kennedy, 2002, pp. 3-33)

The origin of the word was first documented in 1619 by John Rolfe when the first slave Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown Virginia with chained Africans. The Dutch would call black people “neyger” meaning person of colour, therefore starting out as a descriptive term and not an insult. The Americans picked this up and it became the official word for slaves in the English speaking world however pronounced slightly differently, “neyger, negro or nigger as it was pronounced came to connote something more than a descriptive colour and took on the meaning of “subhuman beast of burden. In the minds of the enslavers, such a definition helps to justify the violent enforcement of chattel slavery by the white human beings. ” (Counter, 1985, p. 38)

The etymology of the word is from Latin meaning black. The Spanish and Portuguese slavers called their African slaves Negro again meaning black, and with the English speaking slavers using the two words neyger and Negro along came nigger through different pronunciations and in time a different meaning, an insult. Black men were seen as lazy, diseased, immoral and dangerous.

Also in time a rumour was spread around the world that black men had a higher sex drive than whites and that they could satisfy women in the bedroom more than a white man, and to be very well hung. (Black, 1997)(page number not available) (Counter, 1985, p. 38) In modern times some of the American black society is trying to reclaim the word nigger some would say it is reclaimed already but there are a large number of the black community who disagree with this saying it has too much negative history.

The main place we see this attempt is in the world of hip-hop with some song titles as “A Nigga with a gun” ”All My Niggaz” ”The Day the Niggaz took over”, “rat tat tat tat I never hesitate to put a nigga on his back” (Rat tat tat tat, Dr Dre, The Chronic 2000) Or the song “Nigga Nigga Nigga by Gangsta Rap which is possibly the worst Hip-Hop song to grace You Tube, however it is a classic example of reconstructed use of the word nigger, “Nigga why are you scared to go to court?

Shit cuz the judge looks just like that mothafucka that put our ass on the boat…And made me a nigga. ” There is an irony to the song by picking up on all the stereotypes associated with the word and then reminding people the ugly truth and not just stereotypes surrounding it. The white rapper Eminem says it is not in his vocabulary, and this is coming from a white man who dresses like a black man and raps like a black man that statement speaks volumes. Some of the American black community are reclaiming the word, they are using it so much that they want it to be sanitised from over use.

The question is will that ever happen? No one knows this but the main point of using the word nigger is that you need to be the right skin tone to use it and that is black, it is not just a racial slur anymore but also a remembrance of black history and a term of endearment as we see in Rush Hour 2. Chris Rock’s character approaches a black man and calls him my nigger, and all is well it is a friendly greeting however when Jackie Chan’s character copies Rock’s lead a fight erupts showing us it is for black use only.

With the history of the word many in the British black community disagree with reclaiming it, nigger just has too many bad memories attached to it. Floella Benjamin was quoted saying “How can you try and reclaim a word that started off as an insult? You could perhaps reclaim the word Negro but not nigger. If black people started using it here, then the racists would have won because it was a word invented by them. ” (Smitherman, 2006, p. 51) “Rappers, when you use the word ‘nigger’, remember that’s one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard. So don’t tell me it’s a reclaimed word, I am nobody’s nigger.

So please, let my ancestors rest in peace…” A scathing blast at the reclamation of the word from British poet Dean Atta, by using the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence as an example of why it should not be reclaimed. (Akbar, 2013) The word nigger incites different feelings every time it is used; it depends on who says it and in what context. Claude Brown described it as “perhaps the most soulful word in the world. ” (Kennedy, 2002, p. 37) And a journalist Jarvis DeBerry described it “beautiful in its multiplicity of functions, I’m not aware of a word capable of expressing so many contradictory emotions. (Kennedy, 2002, p. 37)

The references that accompanied these quotes must have come from the black community because no matter what good will was behind them a white person could not get away with using these, for example in sport if a player is having a good game he will be complimented “he played like a nigger. ” Or in friendship “here’s my main nigger. ” Or out of a term of respect “he’s a straight up nigger. ” (Kennedy, 2002, p. 37) The word does have many meanings and uses but no matter how much it is used currently the first feeling from hearing the word is of negativity.

The word has been responsible for people over reacting to words which sound similar or pieces of literature that have had the word repeated in them like Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain it is his most famous book and the Twain haters revel in the fact nigger is used 215 times and cite the book racist. What most people are missing is the irony behind it, “Twain is not wilfully buttressing racism here; he is seeking ruthlessly to unveil and ridicule it. By putting nigger in white characters’ mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding whites. ” (Kennedy, 2002, p. 38)

However it still led to the removal of its use from the American school system, also the same happening to The Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad which is arguably his greatest earlier work. Another example of over reacting when David Howard a white director of a municipal agency in Washington was talking about cut backs on their budget and said “he would have to be niggardly with the money at his disposal. ” His black subordinates started a whispering campaign which blew up into public outcry which led to him resigning. Even the mayor of Washington Anthony Williams accepted Howard’s resignation said “he had used poor judgement. (Kennedy, 2002, p. 120)

This was and is a miscarry of justice, through ignorance a man’s career and reputation was ruined and the fact niggardly means miserly, stingy or fugal and is not associated with nigger what so ever just goes to prove people are quick to overreact. The word nigger has such a vast history that it cannot be put down in fifteen hundred words however we get an understanding that it is still a very powerful word and will remain to be so for many years to come. Its meaning has not altered since its first derogatory use in the seventeenth century and still now some three hundred years later if anything it is more explosive.

This sensitive word does lead to people overreacting with anything sounding remotely like it causes loss of career and in some cases even the loss of one’s life. So much so Mark Twain has found himself on a hate list because of Huckleberry Finn but Twain has black supporters who blast the haters as ignorant. From its origins as a derogatory term from slavers, to its use in the world of hip hop, the attempt to reclaim nigger has not really done much over the past ten to twenty years of its use to sanitise the word. And the fact Eminem refuses to use it speaks volumes. The reclaiming of the word will take many years of campaigning before the whole black community ever if ever accept it.


  1. Akbar, A. (2013, March 6th). How should we use the ‘n’ word? Retrieved April 13th, 2013, from www. theindependent. co. uk: http://www. independent. co. uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/how-should-we-use-the-n-word-8521510. html
  2. Asim, J. (2007). The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and why? New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  3. Badenhausen, K. (2012, Febuary 18th). ESPN Uses “Chink in the Armor” Line Twice UPDATE- ESPN Fires One Employee Suspends Another. Retrieved April 13th, 2013, from Forbes. com: http://www. forbes. com/sites/gregorymcneal/2012/02/18/espn-uses-chink-in-the-armor-line-twice-did-linsanity-just-go-racist/
  4. Black, D. P. (1997). Dismantling Black Manhood: An Historical and Literary Analysis of the Legacy of slavery. New York: Routledge. Counter, D. A. (1985). Racial Slurs. The Crises, 37-41.

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