Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Origin, Meaning, and Use of the “N word’


An essay on the origin, meaning, and prolific use of the term “nigger,”
euphemistically dubbed “n word” by members of the mass media

Preliminary notes: This is a special issue of my online journal Wolfe’s Lair in lieu of the usual numbered sequence. You can obtain a free subscription by hitting your reply button and typing “subscribe” in the “subject” field, or remove your name and email address safely from the mailing lists of the journal and Mind Opening Books by hitting your reply button and typing “remove” in the “subject” field. - BHW*

    On August 10, 2010, a radio talk show hostess, Laura Schlessinger, touched off a mass media frenzy by using the term “nigger” nearly a dozen times in a discussion with a dark-skinned woman misidentified as an “African-American” and the member of a “race.” (As I have explained dozens of times over the past few years, without rebuttal from anybody, there are only a very few persons on this earth who can be accurately and rationally described as “African-American,” and there is not now and never has been any factually and rationally correct identification of anyone by the term “race,” since there is not now and never has been any such thing as “race” no matter how many trillions of times that preposterous term is used.)
  “Nigger” is a word that has been used billions of times collectively in everyday speech, in literature such as Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, in motion picture films, and on radio and television. Its use is common among persons of dark skin color (inaccurately and ridiculously called “blacks”) and among persons of white, pink, and tan skin color. In Mitchell’s novel, unlike in the whitewashed Hollywood movie purportedly based on the novel, there is a pecking order in which the slaves are described as lowly “field niggers” and superior “house niggers.” In the 1989 movie Lean on Me, viewed by millions in theaters and television replays (except on stations that bleeped out the “n word”), the dark-skinned head of the school district declares angrily “I am the head nigger of this school district” in an argument with the dark-skinned school principal played by Morgan Freeman, who counters: “I am the head nigger of this school.”
  The frenzy over Schlessinger’s use of the term, in a way meant to deal with a caller’s complaint about discrimination against her for being married to a white man, raises three major questions. First, why was there such a mass media-created uproar over this one incident that displaced other more important stories in the news? Second, why do the editors, producers, writers, and commentators comprising the mass media persist in using the euphemism “n word” in lieu of “nigger”? Third, in combination, how did the word get into the English/American language in the first place and what does it really mean?
Why and how the mass media creates frenzies
  You understand, I hope, that there would not have been a hullabaloo over Schlessinger’s use of the term “nigger” on one of her radio talk shows, even if she used it a hundred times, but for the mass media’s having created the fuss. Certainly every intelligent, informed person must know by now that once the members of the mass media get hold of a situation they can sensationalize and promote to the exclusion or near exclusion of any other topic, they will play it day and night until another event they can ballyhoo comes along. You have seen them do it time after time, year after year. When there is a murder of children by their mother, an earthquake, an oil spill, a vast flood, an unusual kind of airplane crash, a celebrity’s death allegedly attributed to a drug overdose (Marilyn Monroe, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson), the mass media runs wild with the story.
  This is not to say that such stories are not newsworthy, this is not to say that the death of Michael Jackson is not newsworthy. But when you take a story such as the death of a celebrity such as Michael Jackson and make it the sole subject of your hour-long television broadcast all week long, then you have lost your excuse. It then becomes clear that you are blowing up a happening far beyond its importance relevant to everything else taking place on this troubled planet, that you are exploiting an event for the purpose of attracting the millions of morons who focus on the morbid to the exclusion of everything more important, and the ultimate purpose is to increase your readership or audience so that you will be ahead in the ratings and earn more money for yourself and the outlet for which you prostitute yourself.
  There you have the why and how. The true purpose is not to report news. It is not to educate. It is to exploit. It is to increase readership and audience because that, in turn, increases ratings, pay, and advertising revenue (the more readers, the more viewers, the more advertising).
  Use of the term “nigger,” no matter by whom or under what circumstances, is not an event that justifies publishing and broadcasting about it day after day, night after night, for weeks after the term was used. Nor is there anything educational about it unless the fact that it was used on a radio talk show is set forth in a few sentences that lead into a discussion of what the term means to those who use it and those who are offended by its use. How many persons truly are offended is a subject especially avoided by the mass media, because if it were raised, the revelation might be that not many persons, no matter what their skin color may be, are in fact offended by it. Undoubtedly the greater reaction would be: “Who cares?” Or the greater reaction might be: “Who, other than a pseudo-intellectual or leader of an organization in the business of stirring up discrimination and hatred issues, gives a damn what Laura Schlessinger says?”
Why the media uses euphemisms in lieu of words
  In my childhood I lived in an exclusively white neighborhood consisting with one exception of row houses and duplexes. The one exception was a four-story apartment complex where there was a dark skinned man employed as janitor. To house him and his wife and two children, Dorothy and Kenneth, he was provided with a dungeon in the basement. To shorten this essay, I will just tell you that Kenneth became my best friend, and never mind why or how.
  I could not take Kenneth with me to the local playground or to the bowling alley where I liked to bowl and operate the pinball machines. Unless I went to the back of a bus or streetcar with him - and that was frowned upon - I could not sit next to him. This was segregated Washington, D.C. So, we had to ride to Rock Creek Park on bikes to catch crayfish in the ponds or invent neighborhood activities that were fun for the two of us alone, such as catching grasshoppers on the back lot - one of those grassy places now gone, bulldozed for more construction of homes or buildings. One day on the edge of the hill leading up to the lot, Kenneth playfully pushed me down. “You nigger,” I said to him. He rushed down to where I had landed and slapped me across the face. “Nobody call me that,” he said.
  I was lucky that he was merciful. He was a lot stronger than me, and had he hit me with his fist, I would have been in bad shape. Instead, I was only stung and ran home to report what had happened to my mother, without explaining why. “Kenneth would not hit you unless you did something to cause him to do it,” she demanded. “Tell me what it was or I don’t want to hear any more.” So, I confessed. “Uh huh,” she said. “Well, colored people [the name most in vogue then among polite white people] are insulted when you call them that. If you call Kenneth or anybody else that word [she would not say it], you better expect to be in a fight.”
  That was followed by Kenneth’s appearance at the back door, rolling his cap around in his hands nervously, and telling my mother, while I watched and listened behind her skirts: “Missus Wolfe, I’m sorry I hit Buddy [my childhood nickname]. I ‘pologize to you and to Buddy.” My mother’s response was: “That’s okay, Kenneth. Buddy told me what he said, and he knows now that he must not ever use that word.” Whereupon I popped out from behind the skirts and told Kenneth: “I’m sorry I called you that, Kenneth. I won’t ever do it again.” Kenneth smiled. “You wanna come out and play some more?” And off we went to to the lot as though nothing of importance had happened, and we were close friends for a long time thereafter.
  My calling Kenneth an offensive epithet, especially offensive because it came from his friend, was different from discussing that epithet in periodicals or on radio or tv broadcasts. Words in and of themselves do not physically wound or kill. They may be offensive, but I have always thought that it is counterproductive to avoid them when there are events involving them, because so long as they are avoided instead of using them openly to find out why they are offensive to some and not others, important issues prevalent in the doings of crazy humanity lie smoldering in lieu of understanding and resolution.
  That idea hit home to me during the Lenny Bruce saga, when there were front page articles in daily newspapers about his being “busted” for using “dirty words” in his nightclub acts. I and most other readers wanted to know what the words were, why they were called “dirty,” and even why words could in fact be “dirty.” But the newspaper writers and editors never told us.
  It so happened that during the Lenny Bruce saga I was publishing The Californian, a periodical that specialized in reporting and discussing issues that were assiduously avoided by the entire mass media and even the more enlightening periodicals not construed as part of the mass media. So, I made it a point to find out what the words were. One of them was “cocksucker,” a word used routinely in the precincts and stations of the officers arresting Bruce and hauling him off to those places. Among other ways that Bruce spoofed it was to offer to his nightclub audiences the word “henlicker” and ask whether or not that was dirty or offensive. Poor old Mr. McGreevy, who ran a section of the local post office dealing with periodicals and who loved The Californian, was deeply concerned. Fretting almost to the point of tears, he wailed to me: “Mister Wolfe, you can’t put those words in your periodical. They’ll take away your second-class mailing privileges.” He could not understand it when that did not happen.
  I did not receive a single complaint, subscription cancellation, or advertisement cancellation, over my publishing the “dirty words” used by Lenny Bruce. But the mass media went on dutifully hiding the words from the public because “this is a family newspaper” or the equivalent in broadcasting.
  For the same sort of reason, producers of programs and films on tv bleep out words, and newspaper writers either avoid certain words altogether or use a letter followed by an underline in lieu of the word.
  On the televised Comedy Hour, Jeff Dunham’s dummy Walter calls people “dumb ass.” That is allowed. Louis Black on the Comedy Hour is bleeped for use of “foul language.” Where is the rationale?
  A reporter asks a basketball player why he was ejected from a game by one of the referees. The player replies: “I told him mother-fucker, you gotta be blind to call that a foul on me when the man got his arms around me to hold me back and I’m just tryin’ to kick his ass to get free.” In his story for the paper, the reporter writes that the player was ejected for using “the magic word” and quotes the player: “I informed the referee that I was the victim of a hold, and he refused to see it that way.” A reporter asks a baseball player what he said to the umpire that caused his ejection from the game. The player replies: “I asked him what the fuck is the matter with you, can’t you tell a strike from a ball that hits the damn dirt before it gets to the plate?” Purportedly quoting the player, the reporter writes: “Jones questioned the umpire’s judgment by asking him ‘what the f____ is the matter with you,’ and added that the umpire’s accuracy in seeing how the ball crossed the plate was questionable.”
  Why do they write that way? Sayeth the publisher and editor of the paper: “This is a family newspaper.” But, all of the members of the family are using the word, and you do not succeed in hiding the word by publishing the first letter followed by an underline, since everybody knows what it is. “Well, maybe so, but we think it is inappropriate to spell it out, because this is a family newspaper.”
  Sometimes I think the only rational answer to the question I pose is that they are all nuts.
Origin and meaning of the “n word.”
    Now I turn to the third question, or combination of two questions; and I am sorry that there is no way to make the answer humorous or non-abrasive.
  All of us in what is commonly known as “the west” or “the western world” derive our language from the lingua franca and literary languages prevalent in the Roman Empire. There was no word in those languages which converted a color from an adjective or adverb into a noun. More specifically, there was no word for “black”  or “blacks” in Greek or Latin that could be used to refer to a person or a classification of persons. You could hear or read that a person is of black skin color or that there are people who are black. But you would not hear an individual referred to as “a black” or people referred to as “blacks.” That usage is relatively modern.
  There appear to have been several words for “black” in Greek and Latin, used in different contexts. One of them in Latin was negra; another was niger. I wish I could take you through the history of how any of the words in Latin for “black” got into Medieval English or Olde English as “blak” and then into modern English as “black”; but I will have to leave that to a philologist.
  I can do a bit better, but not in any way near a history, with the term “negro.” Somehow, negra or niger arrived in Spain and Portugal as negro, and then in America as either the same or as “niger.” In the earliest days of colonial America, there were influential persons referring to the black or dark brown slaves brought across the ocean from Africa as “nigers.” But there can be no absolute conclusion that the term was just a copy of the Latin “niger.” Most of the slaves brought to the U.S. had been inhabitants of Nigeria. So, there is the possibility that the colonials used “nigers” to refer to native Nigerians.
  In the southern part of the U.S., plantation owners referred to their slaves as “nigras,” which was their pronunciation if not the way they wrote the word; and of course that pronunciation was adopted eventually by millions of southerners. The slaves, however, pronounced the word as “niger” [soft I as in “it”], and for whatever the reason may be, it was converted into writing - by persons of white skin color - with two g’s.
  It must be understood that there was nothing inherently derogatory about this noun that emanated from a word which had been strictly an adjective or adverb at its origin. It simply referred to persons of black skin color, though in fact the majority of them were actually of dark brown skin color, and only their hair was black. Today, of course, the color of the vast majority of people called “blacks” is not black, but rather one shade or another of brown, and even tan. That is why, in my book Lucifer’s Dictionary of the American Language, I define “blacks” as follows: “People whose skin color is black, brown, or tan, or just dark enough to enable them to escape being white.”
  They do not constitute a “race.” Modern anthropologists and geneticists have done their best to bury the term “race,” an invention of crackpot 17th-18th Century German philosophers who amused themselves by classifying people as one race (raase) or another, on the basis of their physiognomic characteristics. If anthroplogists and geneticists were as impolite as I am, they would be telling the members of the mass media, and also their colleagues, that it is worse than ridiculous to keep using this bogus term that should have been thrown into humanity’s collective garbage can long ago; it is positively insane. You can distinguish one individual from another by their dna, but you cannot identify one group of persons from another group of persons by their dna. When it comes to groups, under the microscope you can only distinguish homo sapiens from other primates by looking at dna; and the dna of chimpanzees, the most likely ancestors of you and me, is less than two percent different from ours.
  To sum this up, “niggers” at its etymological root is a word that means persons of black skin color. At its root in America, the only individuals who used it in a derogatory sense were the southern plantation slaves. Not content with identifying themselves by one overall term which they pronounced as soft I “niggers,” they split themselves - or at least the uppity niggers living and working in their white masters’ houses, rather than living in huts and working in the fields, split themselves - into “house niggers” and “field niggers.” Those terms are splattered throughout Margaret Mitchell’s famous thousand-page novel, Gone With the Wind. So, why is there no fuss about that?
  Laura Schlessinger is one among many observers of the fact that people of dark skin color continue today to use the term “nigger” in both playful ways and in derogatory ways when referring to someone of dark skin color they despise. A dark-skinned guy living in an apartment on the same floor where I was living, during the slaughter of Iraqis in the fracas over Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait, referred to the light brown general in charge, Colin Powell, as “that no-good nigger.” But he did not consider himself or his dark-skinned friends as “niggers.” Since I have spent a large part of my life moving among dark-skinned people in the U.S., I have heard that kind of distinction dozens of times, maybe more than a hundred times. So, what is the big deal about Laura Schlessinger’s asking why it is so horrible for white people to use the term “nigger” merely for purposes of discussion, when colored people use the term in a far more insidious way, that being to denigrate colored persons they despise?
  Note my use of “colored people,” in lieu of “negroes” or “blacks,” in the previous sentence. Perhaps the individuals who founded the NAACP got it right: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The leaders of the NAACP today have forgotten the name used for the people to which their organization is dedicated. If they believe “colored people” is somehow derogatory and must be replaced by “blacks,” why do they not change the name of the organization?
  One of the most self-destructive activities of crazy humanity consists of dividing people by skin color and calling that a “racial” division. We are all people, with different skin colors. There are lots of white people struggling mightily to change their color to a shade of brown by lying in the sun for hours at a time.
  If it is absolutely necessary to refer to people in terms of skin color, it would be more accurate and far less intrusive to use “white people” vis a vis “colored people” than it is to provide the separation via use of the term “blacks.” The term “colored people” has no relation to negra, niger, negro, or nigger. So, maybe reverting back to the NAACP’s original term for identification would be a start at ridding humanity of the term “nigger.” It would be more useful yet if it would be a start at ridding humanity of false “racial” categories based on differences in skin color.
Comment from Dr. Steven R. Koganovsky on ‘dirty words’ and their derivations
  I enjoyed reading your article, and agree wholeheartedly with the premises behind it.  Furthermore, why does the media and for that matter the general public have such an obsession with only the “n word”?  What about the “k word” (kike) or the “s word” (spic) or the ““g word” (gook)?  Shouldn’t they be equally offensive? 
  Your point was well taken with regard to the derivations of our words that are so-called “dirty words.”  For example, the derivation of the word “fuck” is what it stands for: fornication upon consent of the king.  The term “shit” comes from the manner in which manure was shipped in the 18th century when it was commonly shipped in a dry form, and the bags would get wet from the ocean, methane gas was given off, and many ships exploded because of this.  The words “Ship High In Transit” were then stamped on the bags; henceforth, “shit” was born.
  We see that commonly used words or derivatives thererof, used in one period of time, undergo a metamorphosis and become socially unacceptable in another period of time. These words used then were words of the “dictionary” of that period in time.
    There isn’t a prejudiced bone in my body, and I grew up in a neighborhood where the words “dirty Jew” ran rampant. But our mantra was “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Enough is Enough. We are all one people, regardless of the color of our skin, and let’s just move on.
*Burton H. Wolfe, former director of the Homosapiens Educational & Legal Project in California and now a resident of Florida, is the author of hundreds of articles published in newspapers and magazines, and of such subject-definitive books as The Hippies (New American Library), Hitler and the Nazis (Putnam), Pileup on Death Row (Doubleday), and The Christianity Racket (World Audience Publishers). He produces two online journals, Wolfe’s Lair and Florida Intelligencer, and he is the publisher of Mind Opening Books - http://mindopeningbooks.com.