The N-word is the word “nigger”, one of the three truly taboo words left in Standard English in 2013 (the other two start with c and f). It means a black person but has behind it hundreds of years of white racist contempt, particularly when it comes out of the mouth of a white person.
Timeline (when words first appeared in writing):
- 1550s: Negro, probably from Spanish or Portuguese, where it simply means “black”.
- 1568: neger
- late 1600s: nigger
- 1800: nigger in the woodpile
- 1840s: nigger-brown (shade of brown)
- 1878: nigger heaven (upper gallery in segregated theatres)
- 1896: nigger toes (Brazil nuts)
- 1925: niggah (in black use)
- 1944: nigra (possibly worse than “nigger” itself)
- 1967: a thousand place names in the US still have he word “nigger” in them.
- 1969: nigga (black use)
By the late 1700s, at the latest, the word had become racist. The word itself is a screwed up way of saying “Negro”, which till the 1960s was the proper, respectable word for dark-skinned Africans.
By the 1800s whites applied the N-word not just to the dark-skinned people from Africa, but to those from India, Australia, Polynesia and the Philippines as well.
In Jim Crow times (1877-1968) the racism that underlies the word was so taken for granted that White Americans could use the word as mere description without any ill-will – like in Mark Twain.
Since the 1960s, with the fall of Jim Crow, the word has changed among Americans:
- among whites:
- its public use has become one of the few signs that one is racist, now considered a grave moral fault.
- Its private use is seen as harmless and meaningless by many if not most whites.
- Its artistic use, like in “Django Unchained” (2012), is debatable.
- among blacks some have tried to reclaim it by using it as a common word, to take the sting out of it. Mostly written as “nigga” or “niggah”, it can have a negative to neutral to positive meaning depending on context. Other blacks, however, avoid the word as wrong to use. Either way the word plays out against a background of internalized racism (black self-hatred).
Use in hip hop music: This can be an act of reclamation, as with Lauryn Hill, or it can come from and strengthen internalized racism, as with gangsta rap. That in turn has to be set against the fact that most listeners of hip hop are white, where the N-word can amount to minstrelsy – blacks degrading themselves for white entertainment.
Chris Rock: Ugh. In the 1990s he informed us that only some blacks are “niggas”. Whites love to quote him, especially those whose idea of “some” is 99.991%.
“If blacks use the word, why can’t whites? So unfair! Waahh!” Given the past and present racism of whites, there is probably no public use of the word by a white person that would not reasonably offend at least a fair number of black people. Whites who still want to use the word anyway want to disrespect blacks. Why would they want to do that? Because they are racist.
Thanks to Sondis for suggesting this post.
– Abagond, 2013.