SHORT HISTORY OF A TROUBLESOME WORD

In the wake of the President's use of "the N-word" in an interview with Marc Maron, I'd like to take this opportunity to encourage you to read Randall Kennedy's excellent 2008 book "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word." Its appearance in colloquial English was not only much earlier than I previously knew (I believe he traces it back to 1580-something) but originally it wasn't used in a derogatory way. Instead it was just a colloquialism or casual pronunciation of "negro", which is borrowed directly from the Spanish and Portuguese word for black. In most languages with some sort of familial ties to Latin words with "neg-" exist to refer to darkness or the color black. In any case, its journey from a stigma-free reference to skin color to the Word We Dare Not Name is an eventful and interesting one that Kennedy does a thorough job of taking the reader through.

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14 Responses to “SHORT HISTORY OF A TROUBLESOME WORD”

  1. el mago Says:

    Words carry weight (and not to be cute) freight. Forgoing street and race creds (i'm a white boy, after all), I once got personal enough while drunk at a rural backyard wedding up north with a black dude from rural Alabama to call him the n word and claim the right to do so through association and sensibility, which is beyond the scope of a blog comment. He had the grace to grant me privilege. We later formed a sustained buddyship. If this comment has any relation to this post, then I'll deem it fortunate.

  2. J. Dryden Says:

    The objections raised against Obama for his use of the word seem to be coming from those who, shall we say, are really angry because they would like very much to use the word themselves. Like, a lot. On air. In reference to people they're now grudgingly calling "thugs."

    I really don't have a problem with recognizing that while its origins are seemingly inoffensive, they arose in an era in which the people referred to by that originally inoffensive word were being rounded up and crammed into filthy ships for a short, miserable life of brutality in a far-off land. Sure, it didn't mean anything derogatory back then–it didn't HAVE to. If I walk up to you, pistol whip you to your knees and demand your wallet, I may call you "sir," but the context renders the expression of questionable respect.

    And, like the swastika, it's been forever tarnished. I love words, and language, and history, but fuck it, I'm OK with losing this one. English loses words all the time–when was the last time you heard someone call a coward a "poltroon"? This one is ruined for white folks. We've demonstrated that we just can't be trusted with it. Which is fine–what the hell is so bitter about "Black people can use it, white people can't"? Seriously, how is that hardship, fellow translucents? We benefit from EVERY OTHER DOUBLE STANDARD EVER, do we really need to sweep the board? "But when I use it, I don't mean anything hateful!" Fair enough; also no one gives a shit. Don't use it. "But–" Nope. Don't use it. Just don't. You lose NOTHING by not having it. NOTHING. And you gain a world in which you won't have everyone in the room, the elevator, the subway car stare at you with contempt.

    I'm not going to tell el mago or his friend what they can or cannot say to one another–whatever is between them, is between them as it should be. But…why would you want to use it? Ed's point is that, as a word in and of itself, it's trivial–as close to meaningless as it gets. So since it only exists now, so far as white people are concerned, with a long cultural history of viciousness, hatred, oppression, rape, murder, and mutilation…ummm…fuck it, pick another word. Or don't–just lose that one. This one's not worth arguing over–let it go. You won't miss it.

  3. Skipper Says:

    @J. Dryden

    I see "poltroon" used every once in a while and when I do, it lifts my spirits. The language isn't dead,

    The interesting thing is that in street lingo, "thug" doesn't mean gangster. It means someone whose life isn't going that well. Someone who's gotten the shit end of the stick. White people think it means gangster.

  4. HoosierPoli Says:

    From the faux-outrage I assumed he actually used the word. But actually, he only made reference to the word being used by others. He had the temerity, as a black man, to actually say the word, instead of 'the n-word'. Such an exercise of black priviledge…and I mean, is Obama black enough to use that word? On a scale from Tu-pac to Russell Wilson, how black is he? Let's ask four white people.

  5. Xynzee Says:

    When the whining of the outrage-o-meter went off the scale over the basketball player who used it, was nothing but "white priveledge" at its best.

    I could only think, out of a lexicon of 1000s of words, you're getting bent over the fact it's soooo "unfair" you can't use ~20?

  6. Katydid Says:

    President Obama used the word in context; he wasn't going around calling people niggers. This butthurt poutrage from the deranged right, is, I suspect, because they have called him that word and been rightly rebuked for it.

  7. c u n d gulag Says:

    I hate that word now!
    And I did as a kid.
    My parents were from Russia and Ukraine, but when they got here in the early 50's, they were pretty quick to grok this countries racial problems. I was told never to use that word.

    And I also always cringed, and still do, when I listen to LBJ speak about African-Americans – he used to say "Nigrah" in this thick Texas accent.

  8. Dookie Says:

    I find this interesting but I would never read that book and was uncomfortable reading this post to some extent. I don't want that word in my conscious or subconscious mind. I often have a hard time filtering my thoughts out of my speech and, as a middle-aged white guy, uttering that word in any context, with or totally devoid of malice, can have immediate and devastating consequences (employment termination, ass-whopping, etc.).

  9. H.M.S. Blankenship Says:

    Agree completely with J. Dryden. Also, as relates to good old words that you don't see much anymore, did anyone besides me notice the use of 'eloign' in the quoted portions of the CSA declaration of secession? Not only is it not used these days, I had never even seen it before. One of the listed grievances against the northern states was their practice of 'eloigning our property', that is, declaring that escaped slaves were now free men.

  10. Alan C Says:

    I found a chapter from the book "N—-" online and read a bit of it. It promises to be pretty fascinating. From the bit I read I gathered that the opprobrium attached to That Word may have arisen from comparing low-class whites to African Americans ("no better than a n—–"). I'd like to read more. I don't think I'll read it on the bus, though.

  11. Greg Says:

    Patti Smith had some thoughts on this subject.

  12. Robert Says:

    On the site Yo, Is This Racist?, there is a steady stream of aggrieved white people wanting to know why THEY can't use That Word.

    Except in October, when they want to know why they can't do blackface.

    I don't feel that I am ill-used for not being able to do either one.

  13. quixote Says:

    Language is obviously a) a matter of usage and b) that changes over time. If you go around saying "I' faith!" and "'Od's breath!" people will look at you funny.

    Everybody knows that, even notoriously culturally blinkered US-ers. Nor do they worry about it. They just change how they talk to match what they hear around them.

    Except for a very small subset of words, all of them used (currently, maybe not once upon a time) to express bigotry. Then changing is a huge hardship and cramping freedom of speech and the end of Mom and apple pie. Funny how that works.

  14. Ursula Says:

    J. Dryden has expressed my thoughts, and then some, perfectly. My only add is my own response to a white guy complaining to me about not being able to use that word, which was, "why would you want to?"