The Grammarphobia Blog

Some words about the N-word

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you say the N-word is derived from Latin. I’ve read that it comes from the area of Africa called Niger. Slavers changed “Niger” to “nigger” as a form of humiliation.

A: “Nigger” dates back to the 16th century, when a group of words beginning with the letter “n” started showing up in English in reference to Africans or African Americans.

These words included “Negro,” “nigro,” “niegro,” “neger,” “neager,” “negar,” “niger,” and “nigger.” (Some of these terms were originally capitalized, but only “Negro” is today.)

All of these words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are ultimately derived from the classical Latin word for black, niger.

The OED says the N-word was spelled “niger” when it first showed up in the late 1500s, though “it seems likely that the form niger … is intended to represent the same pronunciation” as “nigger.”

The double-g spelling first appeared in the early 1600s, according to the dictionary, but “niger” was “the preferred form up to the end of the 18th cent.”

At first, Oxford says, the word “nigger” was used by whites “as a relatively neutral (or occas. positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent.”

It didn’t become a racial slur until sometime in the first third of the 19th century, according to Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, a 2001 book by the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.

The earliest example of “nigger” in the OED (spelled “niger”) is from Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of Spanish epistles by Antonio de Guevara: “the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnesse.”

The reference to “the Nigers of Aethiop” here is simply an English translation of the original Spanish, “los negros en Ethiopia.”

The OED’s first example of the word with a double-g spelling is from a 1608 letter in the factory records of the East India Company: “The King and People [of ‘Serro Leona’] Niggers, simple and harmless.”

The dictionary says the comments in the letter, while “expressing patronizing views, reflect underlying attitudes rather than a hostile use of the word itself.”

Clearly derogatory uses began showing up in the early 1800s. Kennedy cites a comment from the abolitionist Hosea Easton about the negative usage.

In A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (1837), Easton describes “nigger” as “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.”

Interestingly, the OED says the word “nigger” was initially “used by black people (esp. African Americans) as a neutral or favourable term.”

However, this statement is open to argument, since the dictionary’s early examples come from white writers describing the speech of African Americans, often in what would now be considered heavy-handed, if not racist, attempts at humor.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “nigger” (and the earlier “niger”) is “probably an alteration” of the even earlier “neger,” a term for a black person first recorded in writing in 1568.

This word “neger,” Oxford says, was adopted from nègre, a word first recorded in Middle French in 1516 as a noun meaning “black person.” The French nègre was adopted in turn from the Spanish noun negro. It was this Spanish noun, negro, that gave English the word “Negro.”

We can understand why you might think “nigger” comes from the geographic name “Niger,” but there doesn’t seem to be any documented evidence that would support this.

The area referred to as Niger is named for the River Niger in West Africa, but the origin of the river’s name is uncertain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used similar names in referring to the River Niger, according to A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, an 1841 reference by Charles Anthon.

Ptolemy, for example, called what appeared to be the River Niger “the Nigeir,” while Pliny the Elder called it “the Nigris.” Herodotus didn’t mention a specific name, but he described what seemed like the same river.

“From all, then, that has been stated,” Anthon writes, “it will satisfactorily appear, that the great river of the Libya of Herodotus, the Nigris of Pliny, the Nigeir of Ptolemy, and the Niger of modern geography, are one and the same river.”

However, it’s uncertain whether those classical names for the Niger, the third-largest river in Africa, were references to the color black or to an African name for the river.

One theory is that the early names referred to the color of the river’s water. But unlike the Rio Negro in Brazil, whose water is dramatically dark, the Niger isn’t black or blackish, according to online images. (The 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson wrote of “Niger’s yellow stream.”)

Another theory is that the river was named for the black soil on its banks. A third hypothesis is that the classical names refer to the “river of the blacks.”

And a fourth is that the names are derived from a Tuareg phrase for the river: egerew nigerewen or egerew n-igerewen (“river of rivers”).

But as we’ve said, there is no evidence to support any of these theories. No matter how the classical names originated, English writers have been referring to the river as the “Niger” since around 1600, according to the OED.

The dictionary doesn’t have a citation for the usage, but here’s an example from Sylva Sylvarum or a Natural History in Ten Centuries, a posthumously published 1627 collection of scientific writings by Francis Bacon:

“And the confines of the River Niger, where the Negroes also are, are well watered.” (Was Bacon suggesting a connection between “Niger” and “Negroes”? It’s hard to say.)

Getting back to the derogatory nature of “nigger,” we wrote in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, that the word “is now the most bitterly resented racial slur a white person can utter.”

However, we noted that “young rappers now treat it as an honorific of the ’hood—repackaged as ‘nigga,’ ‘niggahz,’ etc.—to the dismay of some of their elders who have painful associations with the original.”

In a 2009 item on our blog, we mentioned that “nigger” (or “nigga”) had been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African Americans. We explained that attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are examples of semantic bleaching.

We also directed readers to an interesting paper on the subject by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York. His paper, published in the book African-American English (1998), discusses sexism in gangsta rap.

You might be interested in another post we ran a few years ago about the mythology of  blackness, and how lightness and darkness came to be identified with goodness and badness.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

­