Opinion | How the N-Word Became Unsayable
This article contains obscenities and racial slurs, fully spelled out. Ezekiel Kweku, the Opinion politics editor, and Kathleen Kingsbury, the Opinion editor, wrote about how and why we came to the decision to publish these words in Friday’s edition of the Opinion Today newsletter.
In 1934, Allen Walker Read, an etymologist and lexicographer, laid out the history of the word that, then, had “the deepest stigma of any in the language.” In the entire article, in line with the strength of the taboo he was referring to, he never actually wrote the word itself. The obscenity to which he referred, “fuck,” though not used in polite company (or, typically, in this newspaper), is no longer verboten. These days, there are two other words that an American writer would treat as Mr. Read did. One is “cunt,” and the other is “nigger.” The latter, though, has become more than a slur. It has become taboo.
Just writing the word here, I sense myself as pushing the envelope, even though I am Black — and feel a need to state that for the sake of clarity and concision, I will be writing the word freely, rather than “the N-word.” I will not use the word gratuitously, but that will nevertheless leave a great many times I do spell it out, love it though I shall not.
“Nigger” began as a neutral descriptor, although it was quickly freighted with the casual contempt that Europeans had for African and, later, African-descended people. Its evolution from slur to unspeakable obscenity was part of a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups. It is also part of a larger cultural shift: Time was that it was body parts and what they do that Americans were taught not to mention by name — do you actually do much resting in a restroom?
That kind of concern has been transferred from the sexual and scatological to the sociological, and changes in the use of the word “nigger” tell part of that story. What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people. (I should also note that I am concerned here with “nigger” as a slur rather than its adoption, as “nigga,” as a term of affection by Black people, like “buddy.”)
For all of its potency, in terms of etymology, “nigger” is actually on the dull side, like “damn” and “hell.” It just goes back to Latin’s word for “black,” “niger,” which not surprisingly could refer to Africans, although Latin actually preferred other words like “aethiops” — a singular, not plural, word — which was borrowed from Greek, in which it meant (surprise again) “burn face.”
English got the word more directly from Spaniards’ rendition of “niger,” “negro,” which they applied to Africans amid their “explorations.” “Nigger” seems more like Latin’s “niger” than Spanish’s “negro,” but that’s an accident; few English sailors and tradesmen were spending much time reading their Cicero. “Nigger” is how an Englishman less concerned than we often are today with making a stab at foreign words would say “negro.”
For Mandarin’s “feng shui,” we today say “fung shway,” as the Chinese do, but if the term had caught on in the 1500s or even the early 1900s, we would be saying something more like “funk shoe-y,” just as we call something “chop suey” that is actually pronounced in Cantonese “tsopp suh-ew.” In the same way, “negro” to “nigger” is as “fellow” is to “feller” or “Old Yellow” is to “Old Yeller”; “nigger” feels more natural in an Anglophone mouth than “negro.”
“Nigger” first appeared in English writings in the 1500s. As it happens, the first reference involved “aethiops,” as it had come to refer to Ethiopia, or at least that term as applied sloppily to Africa. We heard of “The Nigers of Aethiop” in 1577, and that spelling was but one of many from then on. With spelling as yet unconventionalized, there were “neger,” “nigur,” niger,” “nigor” and “nigre” — take your pick.
It was, as late as the 1700s, sometimes presented as a novelty item. Scottish poet Robert Burns dutifully taught, referring to “niger,” that it rhymes with “vigour, rigour, tiger.” Note, we might, that last word. If “tiger” rhymes with “vigor” and “rigor,” that means that “tiger” could once be pronounced “tigger,” which then sheds light on the rhyme:
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Catch a tigger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe.
“Tigger,” then, was a polite substitute for the original “nigger.” After all, do we really imagine a tiger hollering in protest? So, for one, we gain insight into why the Winnie-the-Pooh character is called “Tigger” and the books are so vague on why it’s pronounced that way. That was an available alternate pronunciation to A.A. Milne. But more to the point, the original version of the “Eeny, meeny” doggerel is a window into how brutally casual the usage of “nigger” once was, happily trilled even by children at play. For eons, it was ordinary white people’s equivalent of today’s “African-American.”
Someone wrote in passing in 1656 that woolly hair is “very short as Nigers have,” with the term meant as bland clinical reference. “Jethro, his Niger, was then taken,” someone breezily wrote in a diary 20 years later. And this sort of thing went on through the 1700s and 1800s. Just as “cunt” was a casual anatomical term in medieval textbooks, “nigger,” however spelled, was simply the way one said “Black person,” with the pitiless dismissiveness of the kind we moderns use in discussing hamsters, unquestioned by anyone. After a while, the current spelling settled in, which makes the contrast with today especially stark.
Its use straddling the 19th and 20th centuries is especially interesting: While America was becoming recognizable as its modern self, its denizens said “nigger” as casually as today we do “boomer” or “soccer mom.” Frank Norris’s anthropological realism is an example. In his “Vandover and the Brute,” set at the end of the 1800s, the white protagonist in San Francisco squires a gal about town who has been doing some teaching and tells him
about the funny little nigger girl, and about the games and songs and how they played birds and hopped around and cried, “Twit, twit,” and the game of the butterflies visiting the flowers.
Annals of popular dancing shortly after this era gaily chronicled dances such as the bunny hug, turkey trot and grizzly bear but discreetly left out that a girl like the one in “Vandover” were equally fond of one called the nigger wiggle, named as if Black people were just one more kind of amusing animal. (This dance entailed, for the record, a couple putting their hips together and holding each other’s rear ends.)
Of course, the word was also used in pure contempt. Not long after “Vandover,” William Jennings Bryan, the iconic populist orator, as secretary of state, remarked about Haitians, “Dear me, think of it, niggers speaking French.” Meanwhile, the Marine in charge of Haiti on the behalf of our great nation at the time, L.W.T. Waller, made sure all knew that whatever their linguistic aptitudes, the Haitians were “real nigs beneath the surface.”
There was a transitional period between the breeziness of “real nigs beneath the surface” and the word becoming unsayable. In the 20th century, with Black figures of authority insisting that Black Americans be treated with dignity, especially after serving in World War I, “nigger” began a move from neutral to impolite. Most Black thinkers favored “colored” or “Negro.” But “nigger” was not yet profane.
Film is, as always, illuminating. We have been told that early talkies were splendidly vulgar because, for instance, Barbara Stanwyck’s character openly sleeps her way to the top in “Baby Face.” But linguistically, these films are post-Victorian. That character never says “fuck,” “ass” or “shit” as the real-life version would, and in films of this genre, that reticence includes “nigger.” It is, despite the heartless racism of the era, almost absent from American cinema until the 1960s. Rather, we today can glean it in the shadows: There it reigned with an appalling vigor.
So in the film “Gone With the Wind” no one utters it, but in the book it was based on, which almost everyone had read, Scarlett O’Hara hauls off with, “You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you.” And she then thinks, “I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” As in, there was now a veil coming down, such that one was supposed to be polite — approximately in the book, conclusively in the movie. But still, it was always just under the same surface that our Marine saw “nig”-ness through.
Same period, 1937: a Looney Tunes cartoon (“Porky’s Railroad”) has Porky Pig as the engineer in a race between trains. Porky’s rival zooms past a pile of logs and blows them away to reveal a Black man sitting, perplexed. Today we wonder why this person was sitting under a pile of logs. The reason is that this was a joke referring to the expression “nigger in the woodpile,” an old equivalent of “the elephant in the room.” No Looney Tunes character ever utters “nigger,” but this joke reveals that their creators were quite familiar with the word being used with joy.
Even into the 1970s, the word’s usage in the media was different from today’s. “The Jeffersons,” a television sitcom portraying a Black family that moves from working-class Queens to affluence in a Manhattan apartment tower, was considered a brash, modern and even thoughtful statement at the time. Here was the era when television shows took a jump into a realism unknown before, except in flashes: The contrast between the goofy vaudeville of “Here’s Lucy” and the salty shout-fests on “The Jeffersons” is stark. So it was almost a defining element of a show like “The Jeffersons” that loudmouthed, streety George Jefferson would use “nigger” to refer to Black people with (and without) affection.
George freely hurled it while playing the Dozens in an early episode. (“Take this elite nigga, wolfin’ at my door / With your yellow behind, I’m gonna mop up the entire floor!”) On the show the character began in, “All in the Family,” while bigoted Archie Bunker does not use the word, as his real-life counterpart would, George uses it, such as when he rages about the possibility of having (white) Edith Bunker help out at his dry-cleaning location. (“The niggers will think she owns the store, and the honkies will think we bleached the help!”)
Nor are only Black people shown using it; the writers air the “real” “nigger” as well. White men use it a few times on an episode in which George meets modern Klansmen. But white people aren’t limited to it only in very special episode cases like this. George calls his white neighbor Tom Willis “honky,” and Tom petulantly fires back, “How would you like it if I called you ‘nigger’?” Then, that read as perfectly OK (I saw it and remember); he was just talking about it, not using it. But today, for Tom to even mention the word at all would be considered beyond the pale — so to speak.
The outright taboo status of “nigger” began only at the end of the 20th century; 2002 was about the last year that a mainstream publisher would allow a book to be titled “Nigger,” as Randall Kennedy’s was. As I write this, nearly 20 years later, the notion of a book like it with that title sounds like science fiction. In fact, only a year after that, when a medical school employee of the University of Virginia reportedly said, “I can’t believe in this day and age that there’s a sports team in our nation’s capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to Blacks,” the head of the N.A.A.C.P., Julian Bond, suggested this person get mandatory sensitivity training, saying that his gut instinct was that the person deserved to simply be fired. The idea, by then, was that the word was unutterable, regardless of context. Today’s equivalent of that employee would not use the word that way.
Rather, the modern American uses “the N-word.” This tradition settled in after the O.J. Simpson trial, in which it was famously revealed that Detective Mark Fuhrman had frequently used “nigger” in the past. Christopher Darden, a Black prosecutor, refused to utter the actual word, and with the high profile of the case and in his seeming to deliberately salute Mr. Read’s take, by designating “nigger” “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Mr. Darden in his way heralded a new era.
That was in 1995, and in the fall of that year I did a radio interview on the word, in which the guests and I were free to use it when referring to it, with nary a bleep. That had been normal until then but would not be for much longer, such that the interview is now a period piece.
It’s safe to say that the transition to “the N-word” wasn’t driven by the linguistic coarseness of a Los Angeles detective or something a prosecutor said one day during a monthslong trial. Rather, Mr. Darden’s reticence was a symptom of something already in the air by 1995: the larger shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity.
This occurred as Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980, came of age. These were the first Americans raised in post-civil-rights-era America. To Generation X, legalized segregation was a bygone barbarism in black-and-white photos and film clips. Also, Generation X grew up when overt racist attitudes came to be ridiculed and socially punished in general society. Racism continued to exist in endless manifestations. However, it became complicated — something to hide, to dissemble about and, among at least an enlightened cohort, something to check oneself for and call out in others, to a degree unknown in perhaps any society until then.
For Americans of this postcountercultural cohort, the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that “nigger” itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to. Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language” and, most recently, “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever,” from which this guest essay is adapted.
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