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Abuse, ownership and semantic change: considering the development of the word “nigger”

Abuse, ownership and semantic change: considering the development of the word “nigger”

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Sondos Ibrahim. Originally submitted for History of the English Language since Chaucer at University College London, with lecturer Dr. Marilyn Corrie in the category of Languages & Linguistics
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Sondos Ibrahim. Originally submitted for History of the English Language since Chaucer at University College London, with lecturer Dr. Marilyn Corrie in the category of Languages & Linguistics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
Abuse, ownership and semantic change: considering the development of the word “nigger”
The title is EXTREMELY RACIST!!! As a black American, I am outraged and insulted. The term[“Head Negro In Charge”] was used in the days of slavery when white foremen would designate ablack person to oversee other blacks. The title shows your ignorance and indifference to the blackcommunity. I vow NEVER to purchase or support your magazine in any way
1
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This letter, published in response to a wholly complimentary article about Henry Louis Gates Jr.,the esteemed African-American academic, highlights just some of the difficulties faced inconsidering the development and the ownership of the language of race.The offending title inquestion (“Head Negro In Charge”
2
) was judged to be 'extremely racist' not because the articlewhich followed expressed discriminatory ideas, but simply because it evoked strong feelings of the'days of slavery' and therefore seemingly expressed 'ignorance and indifference'. The incensedreader stresses that given the context of the term's original usage and the race of the readership,certain words should not be used and to do so would be to dismiss and discriminate againstmembers of a particular community. If this was the reaction to the use of the word “negro” then it isinteresting to speculate what may have happened had the journalist decided to act even moreprovocatively and use the word “nigger”. Perhaps the most contentious of racial slurs, the word“nigger” has been a battleground for ownership and power since its first recorded usage. Exploringthe historical and sociological development of this powerful six-letter word, I will consider both theconcept of word ownership and whether it is possible to reclaim a word so riddled with scandal,contempt and confusion. In short, this paper will consider two key questions: is “nigger” 'the most
1 1 Natalie Anderson's letter to the editor of Boston Magazine – May 1998. The letter was a reaction to the front coverofthe previous month's edition (April 1998). In this edition, the headline read 'Head Negro In Charge' [HNIC]. For a fulldiscussion of this letter in the context of the term 'HNIC' see Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of aTroublesome Word (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002) pp.98-100. The full text of the original article can be found athttp://www.bostonmagazine.com/articles/Henry_Louis_Gates_Jr/visited on 11
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November 20112 For a short discussion of the use of the term and its history see: Lawrence Otis Graham, “Head Nigger in Charge:Roles That Black Professionals Play in the Corporate World” Business and Society Review, June 22, 1995. Morecontemporary definitions of the term can be found on Urban Dictionaryhttp://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=HNICvisited on 12
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November 2011
 
noxious racial epithet'
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or simply 'the most beautiful and anti-racist word'
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? And when and howshould we allow it to be used?For a word with such a complex and problematic semantic history, the lexical origins of “nigger”are relatively neutral. The OED informs us that a “nigger” is simply a,
A dark-skinned person of sub-Saharan African origin or descent
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.
With this basic definition in mind, it is important to stress that the word did not begin its life as aderogatory term. Indeed, most etymologists
agree that it first came into general usage as aderivative of the Latin word “niger” which simply means black. It appears that the word “nigger”was first used almost by accident in the middle of the sixteenth century through a mispronunciationof the Spanish “negro” referring to the native people of certain African colonies, again this was in adescriptive rather than a pejorative sense. Aside from this etymological consideration, we can onlymake guesses as to how the word developed into such a problematic and insulting term. Somelinguists
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consider the key turning point to be the middle of the eighteenth century when users of theword became aware that the term was a mispronunciation and continued to use it as a mark ofcontempt and abuse, allowing the word to develop into a familiar and hurtful insult. Exemplifyingthis opinion of the word, Hosea Easton, the abolitionist and minister defined “nigger” as follows in1837:It
is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race....Theterm in itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class of society
3 The term was described as such by Judge Stephen Reinhardt in The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Source: RandallKennedy, “Who can Say “Nigger”? And Other Considerations” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education , No. 26,(Winter, 1999-2000), pp. 86-96 .www.jstor.orgvisited on 11
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November 20114 Kimberly W. Benston, assistant professor of English and African-American Studies, Yale University. Source:Stephen Grogan, “The "N-Word:" The Use and Development of the Term "Nigger" in African-American Culture”.http://www.studentpulse.comvisited on 10
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November 20115 nigger', Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).OED Online Oxford University Press. Accessed on 11
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November 20116 The etymology of the word is discussed in Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, pp.4-57 Most notable of these is the linguist Professor Robin Lakoff, Unversity of California, Berkley Source: TheLanguage War . University of California Press. Geoffrey Hughes offers a different model, arguing that the word hasevolved (and will continue to evolve) in 3 stages. The first is a descriptive, non-offensive term used roughly from1574-1840. The second stage is a highly offensive form, used from 1840-today, and the third form is a “reclaimed”use of the word. Source: Geoffrey Hughes, Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, FoulLanguage, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World (Sharpe, 1986).
 
from another; but it is not used with that intent...it flows from the fountain of purpose to injure
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Easton tells us that the word is 'opprobrious', complicit in the disgrace and shame imposed onAfrican-Americans during the days of the slave trade. This raises a pertinent question: do wordshave their own morality or are they simply a reflection of the morality of their user? The answer tothis question is complex but it would appear that Easton espouses the latter view, that it is the intentbehind the term “nigger” which 'flows from the fountain of purpose to injure' rather than an inherentcharacteristic of the 'perfectly harmless' word itself. Considering the historical context of Easton'swriting, it is hardly surprising that he adopted this viewpoint. Written in the mid-nineteenth century,Easton's treatise is a form of first hand testimony of the intense discrimination against enslavedblack Americans. For example, Easton tell us that at the time the word was used by white adults as aform of reprimand, with an insolent child chided by his parents for being “worse than” or “moreignorant than niggers”; equally, acts of wrongdoing would result in direction towards “the niggerseat”
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, a place of shame and disgrace. Therefore, the word not only became the ultimate mark ofnegativity and wrongdoing but importantly it was associated with superiority and the assumptionand acquisition of power. In short, just as black African slaves were considered their white owners'property, so too was the language which defined them
. The meaning of the word “nigger” wascompletely at their disposal and was ultimately coloured by the prejudices and contempt of slavery.So in the beginning, we may argue, it was white Americans who owned the word. We can considerthe nature of this ownership as a natural extension of the white monopoly on both physical andlinguistic elements of black identity. It has already been argued that during the middle of thenineteenth century, the word “nigger”, though inherently amoral, was a reflection of the immoralityof the oppressive white foremen. However, after the abolition of slavery took place in the mid
8 Hosea Easton, A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People ofthe United States: and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (I.Knapp, 1837) p.419 Easton pp. 39-4110 For a discussion of the problems of expression for black Africans during the days of slavery see Jan NederveenPieterse, White On Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, (London, Yale University, 1992)

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